The word “sorry” is tossed around a lot in modern conversation, but is often devoid of any real meaning. When we make someone “say they’re sorry” as a knee-jerk reaction, or offer apologies as a force of habit (which women especially are prone to do, as part of being socialized to take up less space), we are diminishing the power of a true apology.
I believe true apologies should be meaningful, purposeful, and demonstrate an understanding of the situation. Because of that, an empty apology without truly understanding what you’re apologizing for is even worse than not apologizing at all, because it means you have neither listened nor learned anything.
Giving an authentic apology requires you to have two things: ownership of your actions and the role they played in a situation, and empathy for the experience and feelings of the other person.
This is a fairly easy process to go through when you believe that your actions were wrong, or that you are at least partially to blame for the outcome. Perhaps you made a mistake, or lashed out in a hurtful way, or miscommunicated in a way that became clear later. In this case, you are admitting fault, which is something we are used to doing in an apologetic setting.
But what if your actions caused someone else pain, even though you had no malicious or hurtful intent? What if the pain was an accident or an unintended consequence of something you did? How do you apologize when you don’t believe that you actively did anything wrong?
I have struggled with giving authentic apologies because my initial reaction is to not want to take the blame for someone else’s feelings, especially if I believe my actions were justified (or, at least, the best actions I could take at the time). This is especially true if there was not an intent to hurt – if the hurt was accidental, due to a miscommunication, or due to the other person taking something in an entirely different way.
However, taking ownership of your actions is not the same thing as admitting that the entire situation was your fault, nor is it saying that you are responsible for the other person’s feelings. It just means that you are validating the causality of action and result. The biggest lesson I learned was that Causality is not the same thing as Blame.
A Thought Exercise
Imagine two people are throwing a ball back and forth, and in doing so, one person hits the other person in the face with that ball, causing them pain. There are a number of reasons for this scenario.
The first person may have made an error in their actions. They may not have informed the second person they were intending to play catch in the first place. They may have changed the way they were throwing the ball, throwing in a different cadence, speed, height, style, or other unexpected way. They may have thrown while the other person was distracted. They may have intentionally caused a distraction. They may have continued throwing the ball after the second person told them to stop. They may not have understood or heard the second person telling them to stop, wait, or change how they were throwing.
The second person might have done something to change the game. They may have stopped paying attention, or focused their attention elsewhere (whether intentionally, or by a distraction. They may have the sun in their eyes, or the wind might have changed. They may have decided they didn’t want to play catch anymore, and either communicated this fact or not. They may not have had the right equipment to catch the ball.
Or, it may have been a perfect game of catch, where each person clearly communicated what was happening, was making perfect eye contact, and was ready to throw and catch the ball, and yet someone still ended up getting hit in the face through a random fluke.
The point is, no matter what the circumstances were or why we got there, regardless of fault or blame or intention, the first person’s action was “throwing the ball” and the outcome for the second person was “pain.” It is this causality that we must learn to apologize for:
I am sorry that my actions have caused you pain.
This is not “I’m sorry you feel that way” or adding any kind of conditional “But you should have done something differently.” This is very simple. I am sorry that the outcome of something I did was an experience of pain for you.
By apologizing for the way my actions have hurt someone else, I am not taking responsibility or ownership of their feelings. I am simply taking responsibility for my own actions, and then empathizing with their feelings as a result of my actions. In many cases where hurt is felt on both sides, the other person must also go through the same exercise: take responsibility for their actions and empathize with my feelings.
An apology is not about a battle over who is more hurt, or whether anyone deserves to be hurt, it’s just about empathy and validation. Working through blame and problem solving any actions that could have been changed is a separate (though highly necessary) conversation. There may be other things for which one or both sides need to be held accountable. But by acknowledging and validating the experience of pain, we can move past that to more productive healing.