Are you really sorry or just mouthing the words?

Why is apologizing more difficult than root canal for some people?

As a psychotherapist, I’ve found that saying, “I was wrong," "I made a mistake," or "I’m sorry” is directly related to the shame we carry. Burdened with a deeply ingrained sense of being flawed or defective, we mobilize to avoid being flooded by debilitating shame.

When we’ve said or done something offensive or hurtful, we may notice an uncomfortable feeling inside. We may realize we’ve broken trust; we've done some damage. Our response to violating someone’s sensibilities may go in three possible directions:

John Amodeo Ph.D., MFTJohn Amodeo Ph.D., MFT is author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships, which won the Spirituality and Practice Award as one of the best spiritual books of 2013. It also won the 2014 Silver Independent Publisher Book Award in the relationship category. The book bridges the gap between the quiet depths of spiritual practice with our longing for intimate relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He co-authored with Dr. Sue Johnson a chapter on EFT and Buddhism in The Emotionally Focused Casebook. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for thirty-five years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured at universities and led workshops internationally.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

1. We Don’t Care

When our personality structure is rigid and hardened, we don’t register others’ pain. Having cut ourselves off from our own uncomfortable feelings, we have a blind spot to other humans' suffering.

It can be maddening to be involved with someone who is so driven by shame that they distance themselves from you. They don't see you because their survival depends on avoiding shame. If they were to allow any hint of shame to enter their awareness, they’d be so paralyzed that they could no longer function—at least, that’s what they fear. They don't know how to take responsibility without it becoming fused with self-blame and shame.

Sociopaths do not allow themselves to experience empathy for others. They are so shame-bound, perhaps due to early trauma, that they've become numb to it. They can't afford to notice how they affect others. They’re so busy protecting themselves that they don't really care about anyone else’s feelings.

2. We Only Care About Our Image

Evoking a person’s tears or tirades tells us that we’ve stepped on their toes. If this is someone we care about, or a constituency we don't want to alienate, we might realize the need to muster up some kind of apology to repair the damage and get the unpleasantness behind us.

It is maddening to get no apology from a person who has hurt us. But it can be even more upsetting—or confusing—to receive an apology that isn’t really an apology, something like:

  • "I’m sorry if I offended you."
  • "I'm sorry you feel that way."
  • "I’m sorry, but you provoked me." (It's really your fault).
  • "I’m sorry, but aren’t you being too sensitive?"
  • "I’m sorry, but you also did something similar."

A "but-tainted" apology doesn't have the smell of a genuine apology. It is a weak attempt to ward off blame and criticism. We try to “make nice,” but our heart isn’t into it. We haven’t allowed the other person’s hurt to register in our heart and realize the pain we’ve caused.

These pseudo apologies are strategies that keep us well-insulated from the healthy shame of realizing that we hurt someone, which we all do from time to time: It’s simply part of being human.

Hard-driving politicians are notorious for offering insincere apologies. They’re invested in looking good, not being real. Protecting their carefully-honed image is their prime directive.

For people attached to their self-image, it’s a quandary when they mess up. If they admit their mistakes, they might look bad. They may make the calculation that it’s better to cover it up and push onward. However, if they don’t acknowledge their mistake, they might also look bad; they may be viewed as arrogant and self-centered, which might damage the false image they've been promoting.

So here’s the curious dilemma for an ego- or image-driven person: How to respond when caught making a mistake? One seemingly elegant solution is to offer what seems like an apology, but really isn’t: “I apologize if I offended you.” This "iffy" apology comes from the head; we didn't put our vulnerable heart on the line.

The person receiving such an “apology” might respond: "You did offend and hurt me—and your antiseptic apology doesn't reach me. I don't get any sense that you’ve been affected by how I feel.”

An expedient “apology” is insincere; it shows that we don't want to get our hands dirty. We casually flip a comment that seems like it will satisfy the injured party, but it won’t. And we’re likely to repeat the mistake because we refuse to reflect deeply on the matter and make a real change in our behavior.

3. Offering a Sincere Apology

A genuine apology is more than mouthing the words. It's registering the damage we’ve done. When our words, our body language, and our tone of voice derive from a genuine recognition of the pain we’ve caused, true healing and forgiveness can begin. Summoning a courageous vulnerability, we say something like, “I’m really sorry I did that” or “I can see how much pain I caused you and I feel bad about that.”

“Sorry” is related to the word “sorrow," and a sincere apology includes feeling sorrow or remorse for our actions.

Apologizing doesn't mean berating ourselves or becoming paralyzed by shame. But allowing ourselves to experience a light and fleeting shame can focus our attention. It’s natural to feel at least a little bad when we’ve hurt someone—and perhaps very bad (at least for a time) if we’ve hurt them a lot. If we can let go of protecting our image, we might discover that it can actually feel good to offer a heartfelt apology. True empathy and humility connect us with the person we’ve hurt. And we may be surprised to discover that our image actually improves if we display a sincerity that derives not from calculation or manipulation, but the depths of our human heart.

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