Each of us had undoubtedly had a time when we said or did something that we wish we could take back. Perhaps it was an unkind word, a harmful act, or simply the neglect of an opportunity to do more or give more than what we did. After what’s done is done, what are we to do to repair our relationships and restore our sense of ourselves as kind, caring individuals?
A good apology can go a long way in repairing the harm we may have caused to others and ourselves.
But what makes a good apology?
First, a good apology is based on awareness. Are you aware of what you said or did that was harmful? Are you aware of who was hurt and how they were hurt? Are you aware of your own intentions to do better?
Once you’ve reflected on these areas and built a functional level of awareness, you need to begin the process of taking accountability for your words and behavior.
Taking accountability has two important parts:
The words and the actions that you use to show that you regret your past choices
The words and actions you use to show that you have learned from this regret and will not make the same choices again.
An apology is incomplete without these two steps.
What words should be used for an apology? I recommend using the most direct and concise words you have at your disposal. Words like, “I’m sorry I hurt you” are more direct and impactful that phrasing such as, “I’m sorry if you felt like I was hurtful to you” or “I’m sorry if you think what I did was hurtful to you.” Your words should reflect your full accountability for your own behavior.
Next, I encourage you to follow up an apology with phrases like, “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or “that wasn’t my intention,” or (honestly): “I did mean to be hurtful, but I regret that now.” Honesty is the best policy when you’re taking accountability for the consequences of your behavior.
Finally, end with some words or reflections on the consequences of your actions. For example, “I know this made you feel uncomfortable,” or “I know this hurt the trust you had in me,” or “this hurt our relationship and that really makes me sad.”
After sharing your words of apology that reflect your awareness and accountability, you will be faced with a few different scenarios:
That person may accept your apology and your relationship will be repaired.
That person may tentatively accept your apology, but you may have to win back their trust.
Finally, that person may not accept your apology, and your relationship will be changed or cease based on their lack of acceptance. I encourage you to understand that this is an individual’s right to decide if a relationship is unsustainable due to a lack of trust. This can be difficult to accept, but understand that violating someone’s boundaries by breaking someone’s trust is a valid reason to end a relationship.
Whether or not your apology is accepted, your final task in completing a good apology is to show, with your words and your behavior, that you have made sufficient changes so that you will not engage in those hurtful actions in the future.
Please don’t badger another person to accept your apology. Give them time and space to process your apology and to see that your behavior has changed. In this way, you will be putting in your good faith efforts to cultivate and maintain healthy, positive, lasting relationships by being a trustworthy person who takes accountability over their own behavior.
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]