Why saying sorry is important

Saying sorry can be complicated. Most of you learned to say it as small children but somehow along the way into adulthood this simple word has become difficult to express. That’s a pity because saying sorry has the power to bring about big changes.


Hard to say

There are many reasons why you do not say sorry. Maybe you are waiting for someone else to apologise to you first and so are unwilling to say it until you know that the other person understands how hurt you feel.

“You end up in this sort of deadlock where on both sides you withhold the apologies because you’re both feeling so misunderstood,” says Anne Hollonds, CEO of Relationships Australia.

“Sometimes it’s because you’re angry, or frustrated, or seeking to punish the other person. But all of those things come from a place of hurt feelings and misunderstanding.”

Getting past this deadlock requires you make a decision about what is most important to you. “Sometimes you feel you are completely justified and should stand your ground,” says Hollonds. “Other times you may decide that the relationship is most important and you’re the first one to break the ice.”

Some people, however, decide that what’s done is done and there is no point in looking back. “Let’s just move on” is their motto. Lindsay tells of a relationship she had with a man who had forgotten to phone her on her birthday. They had been together for four years and he was away on a business trip.

“When he finally called two days later and I told him he had forgotten my birthday, he simply said, ‘Well, I’m calling now!’” It wasn’t the first time he had been insensitive to her hurt feelings and the relationship soon ended.

Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, in their book The Five Languages of Apology, say an insensitive conscience is associated with low self-esteem. “What these people do not know is this: apologising enhances one’s self-esteem. People respect the man and the woman who are willing to take responsibility for their own failures.”


When sorry is not sorry

It is this acceptance of responsibility that is the mark of a mature adult. Unfortunately, there are those who feel saying sorry is a sign of weakness and prefer to put the blame on the other party for the way they have behaved: “I’m sorry for what I did, but if you (had, hadn’t, did, didn’t …)”

This is the sorry that is said in order to shift the blame onto the other person. You often hear children say this sort of sorry. They blame others for their actions and refuse to admit they are wrong.

“You tend to more naturally point the finger and blame — you know, ‘You are the cause of my unhappiness,’” says Hollonds. “The opposite of that is actually to be able to take responsibility for your bit in the interaction. And that requires a high level of emotional maturity.”

Blaming others is not only refusing to accept responsibility, it can also further whatever damage has been done. “Any time you verbally shift the blame to the other person, you have moved from an apology to an attack,” say Chapman and Thomas. “Attacks never lead to forgiveness and reconciliation.”


Saying sorry too much

On the other hand, people who are eager to reconcile quickly may find themselves saying sorry too often and this can also indicate a low self-esteem. Patrick, who runs a successful electrical business, is always quick to say that he’s sorry at home: “I never seem to do anything right; I always feel like it’s my fault.” When he tries to explain why this is, he admits he probably doesn’t feel all that good about himself.

Another reason some people are quick to apologise has nothing to do with how they feel about themselves but comes from an unwillingness to confront issues and solve relationship problems. Chapman and Thomas say these people are “willing to accept responsibility and apologise even if they do not sense they’re at fault simply to get the issue settled. They don’t like the emotional discomfort that comes from long discussions about the issue.”

Hollonds agrees there are people who are quick to say they are sorry when they do not really mean it. However, she believes the opposite is more often the case: “Maybe you don’t fully mean it at the time, but you mean it a little bit and that can be the icebreaker. It can be the thing that actually changes everything.

“There’s a term we sometimes use for that, and it’s called repair work in relationships — and it’s important you take turns in doing the repair work and not that it’s always one person that’s always saying sorry.”


Delayed sorry

Julie, now married with two young children, understands how much an apology can repair relationships. Before she met her husband, she had been in a volatile live-in relationship with another man. During that time, she had suffered abuse both on a physical and emotional level. It left her feeling vulnerable and unsure of who she was.

“It took a long time to build myself back up,” she says. “I went to uni and studied social sciences and that helped me to understand myself more.” Yet the residues of sadness and anger remained with her into her next relationship.

“Then one day out of the blue, Simon, my former partner, called me. I was surprised because my last name had changed and I didn’t think he would be able to find me.”

It was through mutual acquaintances that Simon had tracked Julie down and when she heard his unmistakeable voice on the other end of the phone her heart jumped: “He has an American accent and I knew who it was immediately. He said, ‘I’ve been trying to find you, I wanted to tell you how sorry I was for the way I treated you. You didn’t deserve that, you’re a wonderful person and I should have treated you better. I’m truly sorry.”

It was an emotional conversation that opened up old wounds for Julie but also helped put an end to some of her negative feelings about relationships: “I told him I appreciated him calling and that I no longer harboured any ill feelings towards him.” That was 10 years ago and Julie never heard from Simon again. She thinks about him at times but always in the light of the last time they spoke.

Julie’s story demonstrates the power of a genuine apology that’s given long after the events that had prompted it. Her story also shows how it can sometimes take a long time for emotions to cool down or maturity to set in.

“The tragedy is that many people hang on to the old hurts and the old resentments and their construction of the events,” says Hollonds. “That’s the thing — in any situation there are usually two stories; there’s the experience of at least two people and often they’re very different. But you tend to cling to your view of it as being the facts. And you’re unable to recognise that if you stood in someone else’s shoes, it might look very different.”


How to say sorry

If you stood in another person’s shoes and watched yourself saying sorry, would you be convinced? You are well experienced at reading body language and the body language that goes with saying sorry is no exception. You can tell if the person is sincere by observing their eye contact, hand movements and whether their stature is open or closed. Crossed arms, for instance, look defensive, whereas if you open your arms out you show you’re prepared open yourself up.

That opening up may make you feel vulnerable but it is necessary if you want people to believe you are sincere. An insincere apology is often easy to identify, especially with children; you only have to think of the naughty child who has been sent to the principal’s office. He is told to say sorry for his misbehaviour. As he does so, he lowers his head, not to show shame, but in an attempt to hide the fact that he is trying not to laugh!

Sometimes just saying sorry with the appropriate body language is all that’s needed. However, in personal relationships, there is usually more to it. “It may take a long time for the other person to hear your apology,” says Hollonds. “It’s one thing to offer an apology; it’s another thing to actually have it heard.

“And I think if it’s been a major thing like a betrayal of trust then you have to be prepared to keep saying you’re sorry and to demonstrate it through your actions.”

Karen is still waiting to be heard: “I began an affair with someone at the office. We had been spending a lot of time together working on a project and the relationship graduated to becoming more familiar and then to intimacy. It seemed like a natural progression; I hardly knew what was happening.

“Paul, my husband, found out and it wasn’t until then that I realised how important my marriage and my relationship with Paul was. I felt like such a fool. I hurt Paul and I also hurt the man I was having an affair with. I had to say sorry to both of them. I respect them both, but it’s Paul I want to spend the rest of my life with and I feel desperately afraid that I might lose him.”

It’s been a year since Karen ended her affair and things between her and Paul are still not back to where they were. Karen is prepared to keep trying to regain Paul’s trust and show him how much she values their relationship.

Says Hollonds, “It takes a lot of hard work and commitment and I think a lot of courage to keep saying sorry, if you like, metaphorically — but not just in words, in your actions. And to give the other person time to be able to hear it.”


Forgiveness and reconciliation

Hearing an apology is a step to forgiveness. Forgiveness is often harder than saying sorry. You feel hurt, angry, betrayed and humiliated. Your first instinct could well be to put up defensive walls so as not to feel the pain, but without forgiveness there can be no reconciliation.

“If you’re the offended party, forgiveness means that you will not seek revenge, that you will not demand justice, that you will not let the offence stand between the two of you,” say Chapman and Thomas. “Forgiveness results in reconciliation. Reconciliation means that the two of you have put the issue behind you and are now facing the future together.”

In Karen and Paul’s case, Paul has forgiven Karen for her waywardness but it may take a lot more time before he will trust her again. “Because forgiveness is a decision, it can be extended immediately when one perceives he has heard a sincere apology,” say Chapman and Thomas. “However, trust is not a decision — it is rather an emotion. Trust is that gut-level confidence that you will do what you say you will do.”

Strong emotions such as anger and resentment can have a negative impact on your mental, physical and emotional health. “I think in hanging on to your anger in any situation, you’re not really achieving anything other than damage to your own mental health,” says Hollonds. “And that can be a small amount of damage and it can be a great deal of damage, depending on how disruptive it is and how much it gets in the way of being able to go forward and build positive and healthy relationships for the future.”

If you value your relationships, an honest apology can go a long way. When you say sorry to someone, you reach out a hand. If that person forgives you and takes your hand, you have a bond and that bond will strengthen your relationship.

Penny Robertshawe is a freelance writer based in Sydney. For counselling and relationship advice, call Relationships Australia 1300 364 277.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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