The Perfect Apology

A lot of people find it hard to apologize. Perfectionists can find it especially tortuous. Admitting you are slightly less than perfect is a gut punch, a hit at a fundamental (and false) belief that you have to be perfect in order to be accepted, loved, successful. Owning up to a mistake can make you feel inadequate and fear rejection from others.

The thought of hurting someone else’s feelings—even accidentally—can make you want to hide under the covers and never speak to that person again. Of course, none of us want to hurt people we care about, and it’s wonderful to strive for kindness toward everyone. But it’s basically impossible to have a close relationship with others and never cause them pain, even accidentally. Any two people who care about each other will hurt each other’s feelings at some point in their relationship. The important question is: what do you do after?

Psychology researchers have found that relationships that have solid repairs—sincere apologies and meaningful changes to address problems—are healthier and stronger than relationships where it seems like nothing goes wrong in the first place. Making mistakes and then repairing them actually strengthens relationships and builds trust.

So how do you make a repair that strengthens your relationship? You start with a healthy apology, which means three things: regret, responsibility, and remedy.

  • Regret means a sincere “Sorry” or “I apologize.”
  • Responsibility means naming what you did wrong, and how it impacted the other person—“I forgot your birthday, and I let you down.”
  • Remedy means offering a way to right the wrong—fixing what you broke, promising to do better in the future, or asking how you can make it up to your friend.

Not all apologies are healthy, however, and if you’re missing the elements above, you may end up saying “I’m sorry” in a way that keeps the wound open instead of healing it. These are some common aspects of unhealthy apologies:

  • “But”s and “if”s: Apologies lose their power when you follow them with “but” and an angry defense of your actions. Similarly, saying “I’m sorry if you were hurt” or “I’m sorry, but I was really tired that night” also weakens your message.
  • Taking too much responsibility: Overapologizing (“OMG, I’m the worst friend ever, I’m so sorry! I suck.”) can sound insincere or can make the other person feel like now she has to make you feel better.
  • Avoiding: It’s natural to feel upset, embarrassed, guilty, or any number of emotions after you hurt someone or make a mistake. It’s tempting to avoid the subject or dodge the person so you don’t have to deal with it. This can keep the wound open and painful, instead of resolving and healing the hurt.

Of course, all this said, resist the temptation to be perfect at apologizing.
Adapted from The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens by Ann Marie Dobosz, MFT