Updated: Apr 8
As a Canadian the words “I’m Sorry” are basically written into my dialect. I catch myself using the words interchangeably for ‘excuse me’ & am often teased by my international friends. It’s endearing in it’s way, but only if these words keep their value when it’s important.
When we make a mistake the words “I’m Sorry” can be a potent form of engagement. Our ability to acknowledge when we are wrong & seek resolution demonstrates maturity. Inevitably we all make mistakes ~ it’s in owning these mistakes that we build trust, self respect, & engage in growth.
The notion of an apology seems simple enough. We make a mistake, feel remorse, & take ownership for our behaviour with the sincere intention to do better next time. But, the reality isn’t always that easy. There are a number of blind spots, biases, or deep personal beliefs that can throw our ability to take responsibility out the window. Sincerity is essential to an apology, if we can’t or won’t acknowledge how our actions caused harm or feel overly responsible & apologize for everything the power of these words is lost. Instead of generating growth these apologies fall flat sometimes even diminishing our own self respect & agency.
When to Apologize
When You Make a Mistake that Effects Someone Else
A healthy apology is growth. It’s the recognition of our behaviour, it’s impact, & ultimately a move towards repairing the consequences of that mistake within ourselves & with the other person.
The way we apologize influences how it's received & whether or not it demonstrates a genuine willingness to grow. A real apology isn’t about being right or justifying your behaviour. If we ‘apologize’ in a deflecting way (i.e. "I'm sorry you feel that way") or with excuses ("I'm sorry I did that BUT...") it's not actually an apology & it could actually create more turbulence.
To apologize effectively you need to let go of your desire to be right, show genuine remorse, & be willing to make amends. If you choose to add context around the situation do so as a addition of information not as an excuse.
How to say "I’m Sorry”
Be Specific: What is the behaviour or actions for which you want to apologize? (i.e. “I'm sorry I kept dismissing you last night”)
Demonstrate Remorse: Why do want to apologize? (i.e. “I feel bad that I wasn't able to hear you or really give you my attention”)
Connection: Speak to the importance of your relationship (i.e. “You mean a lot to me & that's not how I want to be. I want to get better at listening”)
Repair: Offer a suggestion for repair &/or ask how you might mend the situation (i.e. “I’d like to take to make it up to & take you for dinner, your pick”, “Is there something I can do to make it up to you?”)
Forgiveness: Give the other person space to & time to process & forgive. At the same time know that you are allowed to forgive yourself when you are ready. (i.e. “I understand if you're upset & I'm here to talk about it when you're ready”)
An apology is most tangible, & thus most effective when it speaks to a specific behaviour or situation. In some circumstances you may find you are genuinely remorseful for one behaviour while also feeling that another action, that is under scrutiny, was okay. Sincerely apologize for the mistakes you can own. This generates goodwill & will increase the likelihood for dialogue & understanding as you work out the rest.
When Your Make Mistake Effects You
When our actions create personal pain we often get hit twice; first with the pain of our consequences & second with the pain we inflict on our self in critical inner dialogue. It may seem superfluous to go through the process of apology internally ~ but it can be really helpful in clarifying & resolving our mistakes while also releasing our impulse to self punish.
How to say I’m Sorry (to Yourself)
When you apologize to yourself it's helpful to journal it through or at the very least think through it slowly to allow each step to land in your body.
Be Specific: What is the specific thing you did that feels like you let yourself down? (i.e. I’m angry that I didn’t prepare for that meeting)
Allow Remorse: Allow yourself some time to feel the grief of not behaving differently. (i.e. Notice the sensations of embarrassment & disappointment in your body)
Connection: Remind yourself of your inherent value & importance (i.e. “I know, even if I can’t feel it right now that I’m still valuable, I still have friend & family I love & who love me”)
Repair: Ask yourself how you might mend or support yourself ? (i.e. If you get so nervous before presentations that you find it hard to prepare you might seek out help from a mentor or coach)
Forgiveness: If you are unable to sincerely forgive yourself ~ see if you can open to the possibility of forgiveness & releasing self punishment.
The relationship we have with ourself is a great & sometimes frustrating teacher. When we screw up it's common to become fixated on how we failed or even feel helpless & desperate to 'fix' ourself (which isn't really broken). By going through the steps of an apology you will hopefully clarify the specifics around your upset & gain some clarity on how to address the situation in a more clear, kind, & gentle way.
When to Try a Different Approach
Saying "No" & Setting Boundaries Without Apologizing
There is no need to apologize when you decline a request or set a boundary. We are often raised to be attentive to others needs, & sometimes we do this at the expense of our own. If you find yourself apologizing anytime you say "No", set a boundary, or make a choice for yourself, you are not alone.
When we apologize for saying “No” it’s usually because we are focused on the belief that we are letting someone else down. This in turn causes us to feel & guilty & thus we apologize.Yet, every time we say “No” we are saying “Yes” to something else. For example, when I said “No” to drinks on Sunday night I was actually saying “Yes!” to a good sleep & a clear head Monday morning. When we shift the focus from guilt (“I’m letting the down”) to gratitude (“I’m so grateful to get a good rest”) it’s easier to appreciate our boundary, others willingness to support our boundary, & it feels way better then guilt. For example, instead of saying, “Oh I’m so sorry I can’t go out tonight” (& then feeling guilty for letting your friend down) You might say “I’m not available tomorrow as I need a good night’s rest. I appreciate the invite, I’d love to connect another time.”
What to Say Instead.
Depending on the situation your response or“No” could be more or less involved. For example, you may choose to add context & an alternative when declining a family dinner invitation whereas a simple “I’m not interested,” is all that’s needed for a phone solicitation.
Appreciate the Offer (i.e. “Thank you for asking me out”)
State Your “No” or Boundary Clearly (“I’m unavailable tonight”, “I’m not taking on any new responsibilities right now”)
Add Context if Needed: (i.e. “ I need a good night’s rest”, “I am focusing in a different direction”)
Gratitude over Guilt: Appreciate their understanding. (i.e. “Thanks for understanding”)
Appreciate the Offer (i.e. “Thank you for asking me out”)
When it’s Not Your Responsibility it's Not Yours to Apologize For
Some people struggle with an over-active sense of responsibility - one that makes them apologize or feel guilty for things that are beyond their control including another’s behaviour. This is particularly common if they were raised in a situation where they were often unfairly blamed, criticized, or made to be responsible for the actions of others (i.e. a child who constantly cares for an alcoholic parent). Unfortunately, people who have this tendency often end up in situations where it’s exploited. They may find that they are guilted into doing more then their fair share, or be in relationship with someone who constantly blames or controls them. In these situation apologies create stagnation not growth - usually arriving with a sense of personal inadequacy, self criticism, anxiety, & low self esteem.
What to Say instead.
I wish there was an easy answer but the reality is that these patterns can be complex. Through engagement you can likely begin to to resolve this challenge on your own. However, if it’s chronic, overwhelming, or you just feel stuck (which is common) I suggest reaching out to a wise friend, skilled coach, or therapist.
Ultimately, an over active sense of responsibility occurs when the compass for our behaviour is outside of ourself - the reaction of another person, a religious or social ideal - instead of our own personal needs & desire. If this rings true for you you may find it incredibly difficult to even know your needs let alone express them!
Begin here. Seek to clarify what is happening through your own perspective beyond what anyone else thinks or says.
What emotions are you experiencing?
What thoughts/ beliefs are coming up in your inner narrative?
What are you afraid of?
What needs/ desires are you trying to meet?
The more you can clarify your inner landscape the more steady you will be in confusing situations. Please remember this is an ongoing practice ~ think progress, not perfection. An over-active responsibility if often developed as a necessary behaviour to cope with a situation. It is cultivated over over years & it will take time to shift.
#3 When You Haven't Done Anything Wrong
If you don’t know what you did or don’t agree that you've done something wrong, it’s not a good time to apologize. Apologizing here would be insincere & will likely gloss over the bigger problem (whatever that may be) only to have it emerge later. This is however an excellent time for deeper inquiry both internally &/or with the people involved.
What to Say/Try instead?
Sincerely Apologize for What You Can: If there is an aspect of the situation where you see you are at fault, apologize for that specific aspect. As mentioned above, this sincere apology can offer goodwill & demonstrate a willingness to engage. This nurtures a more open & interactive dialogue.
As Yourself “Do I need to be right?”: If you feel self righteous, think you ‘know’ it already or are unwilling to be proven wrong, there is no room for growth. Shift your perspective to one of learning & see what new details or understanding you can uncover.
Ask for Clarification & Listen to Understand. Once we’re open to learning then we can listen. It can take time to excavate a problem. Many arguments happen because of miscommunication. Thus taking the time to really excavate & clarify the problem is incredibly helpful. (i.e. your partner is upset that you went out with your friends (which you think is totally fine), but when you dig deeper you might learn they’re really upset because you forgot your plans with them)
About the Author
Amy Thiessen is a coach, writer, & musician who focuses on helping women connect to their confidence, purpose, & self esteem through voice & communication. Offering a holistic approach Amy helps individuals uncover & overcome their unique blocks around voice & communication, connect to their self esteem & purpose, & ultimately express themselves in a way that is empowered & impactful.
If anything in this blog sparks your curiosity & you're interested in developing these skills please reach out! It often takes the support of another to fully acknowledge & understand our blind spots. The goal of In Resonance Coaching is to help you see & understand yourself through somatic awareness, gentle inquiry, nervous system regulation, & a trust that you hold the truth for yourself (though you may need help finding it). If you would like to feel more clear, confident & empowered in your relationship I would love to help you get there! You can book a 20 min session with me with absolutely zero strings. Here you can learn more about In Resonance Coaching & we can check to see if we are compatible. And I PROMISE that if I don't think I am a real fit or I believe there is a better therapist for you I will pass along their info.