Why is it just so darn difficult for some of us to apologize? Two small words, “I’m sorry,” can feel stuck like glue on the tips of our tongues. We may know the words need to be said, but we just can’t spit them out.
To our partners, when an apology is clearly owed yet not delivered, the message is:
- I’m right, you are wrong (I’m always right if I never apologize)
- It’s your problem
- I don’t care about your feelings
- Your point of view doesn’t matter
For the non-apologizer however, that is far from what is really
happening internally. We don’t feel self-righteous, rather a deep
sense of shame about the infraction. And owning up to it, especially
with a significant other, feels too vulnerable and scary.
Somewhere in our development we experienced shame and humiliation when
making a mistake. But failing to take responsibility only intensifies
that shame and keeps us stuck in an early developmental stage.
I remember my experience as if it were yesterday. We were at the pool
as we often were during the summer. My parents were not around and I
was about 5 years old. I tossed a dime-sized stone up into the air and
jumped into the pool. It wasn’t until a mother and teen daughter
approached me that I learned the stone had actually hit someone.
The two strangers looking down at me, informed me of what I had done
and asked me to apologize. I felt small, bad and embarrassed; as if
something was wrong with me, not that I had done something
wrong. Without the reassurance or protection of a parent I also felt
This experience in isolation was probably not enough to cause this
reaction in me; it could also be that I never heard either of my
parents apologize to each other or to us kids. I never learned to
apologize with ease and grace.
When we suppress, ignore or brush off the trespass, we act as though
it didn’t happen. Unfortunately for our partners, it becomes stuck and
unresolved and even a source of great pain.
My husband once explained to me that when I’ve hurt or offended him
and I don’t apologize, his negative thinking about me may continue for
as much as a few days. A simple apology halts all the negative
thinking— it actually ends the issue right then and there. My
apology validates his experience by acknowledging his point of view
and soothing his wounded feelings.
What we often don’t remember in the moment, is that being accountable
for our behaviors actually ends the cycle of shame and allows for
healing, growth and maturity to develop.
As a relationship expert, I know how important it is for partners to
apologize to each other and clients who are skilled in this area often
As a recovering non-apologizer myself, I’ve come to personally
experience the payoff of owning up to my shit and saying “I’m sorry.”
It is truly powerful!
A truly effective apology will not only take responsibility but will
also show remorse, provide an explanation (not an excuse) and restore
balance and connection.
Here are examples of simple language that has a big impact on everyday
- I’m sorry I overreacted/got defensive/yelled/was nasty
- I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings/be disrespectful/scare you
- I was feeling attacked/misunderstood/triggered
- How can I make it up to you?/What can I do to help you feel better?
It may be painfully difficult to choke the words out at first. I
recommend improving your apology skills in stages. You may need to
think about what you’d like to say, prepare your words and then return
to your partner at a later time. As you become more comfortable with
this new-found skill, you will eventually be able to apologize right
in the moment.
Keep these few points in mind as you practice:
- Apologizing for something you’ve done allows you the freedom to
be, and acceptance of being imperfect. WHEW! What a relief.
- Apologizing doesn’t make you unlovable- its just the opposite
- Apologizing feels so much better than you think it will
- Your partner is going to appreciate the apology so much more than
you think he/she will
- Apologizing expedites the recovery time of an argument
- Apologizing creates greater intimacy, trust and depth in a relationship
- Apologizing also means- I’m going to try to NOT do that again