"Sorry if …” and Other Sorry Apologies
I’m not an advocate of perfection in human relationships, so the purpose of this writing is not to generate more perfect apologies. As a life coach, I often encounter people’s guilt, real or imagined, and I’ve come to have a deeper respect for the importance of forgiving ourselves: we hold ourselves back by holding onto guilt and, thus, holding onto stained, sorry perceptions of ourselves.
Forgiveness is ultimately something to work out with ourselves. When we want someone else’s forgiveness, we really ultimately need our own, and must forgive ourselves whether others do or not. They may or may not forgive us; their forgiveness may or may not come quickly. We’re free when we forgive ourselves; we're free when we don't require their forgiveness to access our own.
That said, in the name of keeping things clear with other human beings, it's a good thing to ask for their forgiveness on the way to self-forgiveness. It does help to know what constitutes a good apology in order to apply it as needed. Quite simply, a good apology is specific, direct, and brief, followed by a margin (perhaps a generous margin) of silence. This allows the recipient to take it in, release the sting of whatever went down, and grapple with their own inner tugging between forgiveness and unforgiveness. A sampling of unappealing, ineffective apologies follows.
Ay. Really? What for? Do you even know why the other feels so stung if that’s all you’ve got? Do you just want the tension to be over? This level of apology often garners a flimsy or false forgiveness. A good apology states clearly what you’re sorry for.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, I’m sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm still sorry.
A good apology doesn’t grovel. This means it doesn’t need to keep repeating itself, as if you were more worthy of forgiveness if you’re sorry several times over or for a very long time. It also means you don’t need to call yourself names, overstate or inflate your crime, or make yourself small in any way. A good apology is clean and clear, and then it’s over. (That doesn't mean further listening to someone is out of the question! They may want to tell you more about your impact on them, and letting that in as you keep yourself grounded and stabilized by conscious breath can be a huge gift to another.)
Sorry if …
Sorry if I hurt your feelings, for example. Did you or didn’t you? Perhaps their feelings were hurt and you don’t feel responsible for that. Fair enough. In that case, express what you're truly sorry for. You might truthfully say something like, I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by what I said. I didn’t mean to say that in a hurtful way. If you find you want to tell more, ask permission: I’d like to clarify what I meant—May I?
Sorry but …
As soon as but comes in, you’re justifying or defending, and also diluting the force of the apology. Are you sorry? Just be sorry, with that brief, clear statement of what for. If you have more to say about why you did what you did, express that you’d like to explain something. Perhaps something feels fuzzy or unclear or messy or complicated that makes a simple apology feel false to you. It may well be worth a conversation but … the moment of apologizing may not be the time for that.
Another thought is that the defending and explaining could happen with someone else—like a friend who won’t treat you like a victim, or a therapist. I’ve certainly helped clients work out their defensiveness so they don’t feel compelled to share it elsewhere, or can distill it down to a clear message to take to the other party involved. I pay close attention to my own defensiveness and seek neutral help if I need it. As soon as I hear a defense mounting in my mind, I'm motivated to clear it out, because I find defensiveness to be painful and demeaning. It’s nothing to judge: we’re all capable of defensiveness. It’s also not a good idea to let it dictate what you need to tell someone. Work it out between you and you and see if there’s anything left to tell.
Sorry and …
Just because you’re sorry doesn’t mean the other party needs to process with you all this brings up for you about your family of origin and that time you were falsely accused by the fourth-grade teacher who smelled like pepper spray. Gauge how much is said beyond a simple apology by the intention you have for this relationship and its level of intimacy. When you feel the need to apologize to someone not so close, like the customer-service worker you just chewed out because of the maddening robotic loops you got trapped in before she showed up to help, there’s not a lot more needed: she doesn’t need to get you or somehow come to an agreement with you about how understandable the whole episode was. You don’t need to land on the proverbial same page with everyone you apologize to. If the apology is directed to someone you’re close to and intend further closeness with, much more could be appropriate.
Again, look for the right timing—this could involve simply asking--so that you don’t dilute your apology with an onslaught of related issues that the other may not be ready for until they’ve assimilated the apology and landed in forgiveness. You may need to get comfortable with your discomfort about how they perceive you, even as time passes while they’ve got gaps in the story of you.
I'm sorry for my part.
Whether you mean to convey such a thing or not, this reads like shorthand for, Yeah, I had a part, but so did you, and I'm saying sorry for mine, so now you’d better say sorry for yours. (Which I secretly believe to be worse than mine.) When 12-step programs and other excellent sources suggest that you apologize or make amends for your part, this means, step into what's yours and deal with just that. The idea is that you want to take full personal responsibility for what you do that feels off to you or violates your own ethics; and leave others alone to do that for themselves if they will. Apologizing for your part does not mean to do a global reckoning that breaks down all the parts and doles them out on balance scales so that you don’t land alone in the wrong. Apologizing for your part is meant to constitute a whole event, not a part. It’s not the Marco to their Polo.
I once sat with a client who was at odds with herself in seeking to understand her part in a family feud. It was like looking through a blurry lens to get clarity. As she elaborated on her preoccupation with her part, it became clear to me that she was unconsciously operating out of some unexamined, almost cliche idea that it takes two to tango, so everyone has a part, and somehow the parts must be inherently equal. This all amounted to her seeking to beat herself into submission to own up to her part—and as long as that part didn’t look as big and ugly as theirs, she must not be done with the reckoning (or the self-flagellation). Sometimes it’s good to notice the model you’re in, notice it’s just a model, and step outside of it to look again from another angle. Instead of ferreting out her part, it turned out to be far more useful for her to determine what she was and wasn't okay with in what had gone down, and whether she wanted to change her boundaries with her family. Whatever she did or failed to do, what was ultimately needed had nothing to do with locating the right measures of blame or even delivering an apology.
What if you’re tripped up on their part? Things in life just won’t neatly fall into black-and-white, sometimes, will they? You may on occasion find yourself knowing you need to apologize but feeling stuck with your own sting about what the other did in the same scenario. Perhaps as a non-realized human being, however conscious and well-meaning (I’m sure we’re in good company belonging to this club), you can simply be honest and say that you’re aware of where you need to apologize but can’t get past where you need their apology as badly as (or worse than) you need to give yours. This could mean one of those way-past-bedtime conversations, but sometimes it’s really true that (sing it with Elton) sorry seems to be the hardest word. Better to grope toward what needs to be said, murky as it may be, rather than speak a half-meant sorry while swallowing resentment down the wrong pipe.
A slightly different scenario is when it’s hard to apologize to someone because they’ve done this exact thing to you or other not-so-similar things that weigh on you as you helplessly seek to form the apology that won’t take: this is a sure sign that you’re not current. Maybe you’ve been letting things slide that aren’t really okay with you, you’ve been avoiding hard conversations, you’ve been devaluing yourself or holding low expectations of how you get to be treated by others. See if you can locate what allowed this build-up for you and deal with it separately. Could be a long-term project, and well worth your time beyond this moment.
Sorry because they made me.
Did you have in your childhood the kind of caregivers or teachers who stood over you and demanded in their clueless-giant way, “Say you’re sorry!”? If you were trained to mumble an apology on demand that has nothing to do with your inner reality, it’s high time to retrain yourself into something else. There’s nothing gained from the apology that means nothing.
I once heard Byron Katie talk about moving into each new moment with no trace left of what went before. This was during a program on making amends, so she was directly addressing the tendency to get stuck in guilt about past wrongs. What if we really lived that way? What if we gave our apologies appropriately when appropriate, made amends where possible (Katie uses the simple question, How can I make it right?), then truly let go of what we’d done so we could do the next thing, and perhaps do it better?
When we’re small and marred by guilt, we really can’t step into our best selves or interface with others from that perspective. Outdated and unnecessary guilt puts a ceiling on how big we get to be. It limits the possibilities we see for ourselves. It causes weight and density in our minds, in random interactions, in entire relationships. It keeps us from realizing our potential or just plain being as light, free, and happy as it's possible to be.
So how much do you believe in forgiveness? Do you live in a punitive Universe, or one that’s forgiving? Do you need to keep atoning if you don’t like something you’ve done? For how long? Could you be done with it before they are? Are you done yet?
I love the model of moving from one moment into the next without a trace. I invite you to play with it. It could make things feel lighter and more current, which means you get to be present in the moment, showing up as your best self. What’s done is done. Now what’s possible?
I want to close with the Forgiveness prayer (which I created based on some ideas from Marianne Williamson, elucidator of A Course in Miracles). This is recorded in the Notes on my Facebook page if you ever want to find it again. The obvious beauty of this prayer is that it doesn't require you to be ready to forgive—only ready to let the Universe bring in its endless supply of forgiveness, freely given to anyone under any circumstances. There's no issue of merit in the Universe's capacity to forgive. You deserve it, as anyone else does, just because you're here. This prayer can help you get to forgiveness when you're not there yet, and helps make it more tangible and complete when you are. (I offer it below toward the self, but you can equally use it for others.)
I forgive myself. And where I can’t or don’t know how, Universe, you forgive me for me, and hold that while I catch up to it. I acknowledge that it is done. Somewhere beyond time and space, the forgiveness is complete.
Love and blessings, Jaya