The Five Ways We Mess Up an Apology

September 24, 2017

3 min read


How to ask for forgiveness the right way.

I’m sorry if I hurt you. Do you forgive me for everything I may have done this year?

The week before Yom Kippur can become full of rushed, half-sincere apologies and obligatory, automatic requests for vague forgiveness. The essential, inner work that we’re supposed to be engaged in before Yom Kippur requires us to examine our actions in the past year and when we find specific instances in which we hurt someone, ask them for forgiveness with an apology that is both meaningful and sincere.

Dr. Harriet Lerner explains in her book, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, the five ways we typically mess up an apology and how to avoid them.

  1. Making vague apologies. Saying we’re sorry without specifying what we have done undercuts the sincerity of our request for forgiveness. This is why our prayers on Yom Kippur are so specific; we repeatedly confess detailed mistakes in every category of life that we made in the past year. Our apologies to others should also be individual and address a specific hurtful remark or action.
  2. Using an apology to reverse the blame. Apologizing to someone and then bringing up their own faults or mistakes is worse than not apologizing at all. Avoid saying, “I’m sorry but you also ignore me, hurt me, made me late” etc. The time that we are asking someone for forgiveness is not the time to bring up someone else’s crime sheet for the year. Even if we are only 20% to blame, and we think the other person should admit their 80 % of the blame, it’s better to focus only on our own actions. Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “A heartfelt apology means accepting responsibility for our mistakes without a hint of excuse making or evasion, even if the other person can’t do the same.”
  3. Avoiding a difficult conversation with a quick apology. When someone is trying to tell us how we hurt him, we often try to end the conversation with an instinctively short apology. But what others want from us in this situation is for us to listen to their pain. Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “More than anything, the hurt party wants us to listen carefully to their feelings, to validate their reality, to feel genuine regret and remorse, to carry some of the pain we’ve caused and to make reparations as needed. They want us to really ‘get it’ and make sure there will be no repeat performance.”
  4. Being defensive while apologizing. Often we aren’t really listening when we apologize for hurting others because we are still listening for a way to excuse what we have done. “Defensiveness is automatic and universal, but it’s also the arch enemy of listening and the arch enemy of apology,” Dr. Harriet Lerner writes. “When we listen defensively, we automatically listen for what we don’t agree with. A real apology demands that we listen differently – that we make an effort to listen for the essence of what the person is trying to tell us, to listen for what we can agree with and apologize for that piece first.”
  5. Seeking first to be understood instead of to understand. We all want someone to recognize and respect the essence of who we are. We want to be asked for forgiveness before we forgive. But true courage requires that we step up to the plate first. “Our desire to be understood is far stronger than our desire to understand the other person,” Dr. Harriet Lerner explains. “The courage to apologize and the wisdom to do it wisely and well is at the heart of friendship, leadership, marriage, parenting and being grounded in maturity, integrity and self-worth.”

As Rav Nachman of Breslov once said: “If you believe breaking is possible, then believe fixing is possible.” If we have the power to hurt, we also have the power to heal. Apologizing sincerely, to others and to God, is the first step to healing the brokenness within ourselves and in the world around us.

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