Being able to apologize is an essential tool for maintaining meaningful, long-term relationships. Yet pervasive myths in our culture often get in the way of apologizing well and often keep us from apologizing in the first place. Here are the four most destructive myths about apologies.
It’s quite the opposite. Making a genuine apology takes confidence in knowing we had good intentions for whatever we did that hurt someone. If we feel ashamed or defensive, we can’t make a genuine apology. When we make an apology, we are doing something right. We are demonstrating, through action, our strength and compassion to care for whoever was hurt by our actions. Making an apology is an investment in our relationship with that person. It is a beautiful gift to savor together.
It is impossible to make a genuine apology without the cooperation of the person who felt wronged. This person must be open and willing to receive your apology. If they refuse to engage openly, but instead are critical, blaming, or defensive, you can’t make amends at this time. Ask them if they’re willing to talk later when they’re in a space to be more open to you.
This myth creates a great of harm. We naturally adjust our behavior to care for others. We automatically respond with caring sensitivity when we see someone in pain, especially toward friends and loved ones. When we don’t, it is for a good reason. We are struggling personally with an issue that blocks our capacity to be there for others. Focusing on behaviors rather than feelings deprives us of the opportunity to develop understanding and compassion for each other. It causes us to feel more alone and less connected. As a result, it is harder to respond naturally with caring. Close relationships are the most dangerous place to focus on behaviors rather than the feelings that drive them.
While we can’t go back in time to change our behavior, an apology allows us to redo how the event is stored in our minds and bodies. Revisiting a hurtful place with a genuine apology can change both the emotional charge and the meaning. For example, before my husband apologized, recalling being at the hospital alone was painful and meant “I’m not important to you.” Now the memory feels calm, includes his sadness at not being there, and contains the feeling that “I matter.”
Spouses often accuse their partner: “You’ll keep bringing this up, again and again, for the rest of our lives, no matter how many times I apologize!” When this happens, it means partners don’t know how to accomplish an effective apology together.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for accomplishing an ideal apology!
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