“Oh, I’m sorry,” is something we often say in a casual way, in casual circumstances – late for a meeting, forgot to send a timely email answer, pick a hundred things that we do to trigger this response. That’s usually a gesture of good manners, notwithstanding people who apologize to the point of being emotional doormats, but that’s not the focus of this post.
Let me say upfront that I don’t have a degree in counseling or psychology. I’ve lived long enough though to learn that most people struggle with giving an apology for a genuinely substantive matter. I’ve spoken words in anger and haste that were just flat wrong and hurtful. I bear unresolved anger from an incident or two in my life that I would like to have someone apologize for. I have no idea how many books and articles have been written about this subject, and I have a Facebook friend who finds all sort of posters with meaningful sayings about forgiveness and letting go of anger. That comes later in this post, but as a building block to that, one of the first difficulties is recognizing that you have done damage to someone. Perhaps it was on a very personal level, perhaps it was on a professional level, perhaps it was a social setting. At times it is easy to recognize – a hurt look, a project you let someone down on, a slight that embarrased someone. Now comes the other difficulty – acknowledging to yourself what you did. I don’t mean rationalizing it, I mean looking at it from the other point of view and seeing it for what it was. This is one where you may need help in talking to friends or other people to get another perspective. If the hurt party (parties) has expressed their anger and requested (more likely demanded) an apology, that usually sets the defensiveness and rationalization into play again. How often do we snap out/stammer out apologies while inwardly saying, “Fine, but it wasn’t really my fault”? There is no question that people can take offense where none was intended and that is another aspect of being human. Valuing a relationship, whether personal or professional, may lead you to one of those apologies that are in fact done solely for the sake of keeping peace.
The deep personal wounds though, the grievious errors on the professional side, the apology that forces you to openly acknowledge that you were at fault comes with the risk of exposure of your flaws. If you adhere to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (glossed over too quickly by many people), Belonging is an important one; a vital one to we humans. If you have committed an act that requires an apology of the magnitude that I am talking about here, then on some level you realize that you risk “not belonging”, or in the popular venacular, “being voted off the island”. This is at the core of why making those apologies is difficult – what if our action causes us to no longer belong to that person, that group? Make no mistake about it, that could be a consequence. If that does occur, how you handle it is most assuredly a different subject.
With that said, there are two other components to the type of apology that I am discussing. If you muster the courage to make the apology, that has to be accompanied by at least the genuine intent not to commit the same offense again. I say genuine intent because personal relationships and professional situations are different. Let us say that you made a business error that caused a project to fail. You understand what went wrong, you learn from it, and have the ability not to make that same mistake. You ask for a second chance and it is granted. On a personal level though, you may have a flaw that you can work on without necessarily overcoming it. Promising, “I’ll never do that again,” sounds good, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
The second component is whether or not the other person accepts your apology and forgives the action. As in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Ay, there’s the rub.” You’ve done your part, and the other party is not willing to let go. How dare he or she!, can be the reaction, either articulated or not. When that occurs, the barriers almost always go up again and can set yet another cycle of emotional responses into motion. Deep hurts cannot always be resolved and you may indeed, “no longer belong” with the individual or group, and as painful as that is, it too is a part of this human life.
This type of experience, personal and observed in others, is one of the reasons that I chose Living Forward, Looking Back as the basis for this blog. As I mentioned in a previous post, holidays can be times of reflection as well as celebration. If you owe someone an apology, or if you think someone owes you one, perhaps you should reach out.
I touch on this theme in my story, The First Step, if you want a fictional presentation of struggling with asking for understanding, if not out-and-out forgiveness.