On Apologies


I wish there was a formal class we could have all been required to take in high school about apologizing. It's a topic that is integral to the human experience, and yet I have found that most of us (self included!) are actually not very good at it. Here's what I see as the most common misstep in the process of saying sorry. 

Often what happens in the midst of an apology is that we somehow move from saying sorry about the thing we did, and instead apologize for who we are as a person. For example, say you had a plan to meet up with a friend for lunch. The day got away from you and you spaced and missed lunch. As soon as you realize what you did, you call your friend and say something like this, "I'm so, so sorry I totally forgot about lunch! I'm such a bad friend! I should have remembered, I'm such a terrible person!" See what happened there? The apology started with identifying what you did wrong, but then it quickly escalated into statements about your value as a friend and as a human. Why is this problematic?

The answer is twofold. First, this type of apology often leads to avoidance of responsibility for the thing that we did wrong. What typically happens after we make statements about how we're a terrible friend or a terrible person, is that our friend who was wronged by us often ends up taking care of us. They say things like "Of course you're not a terrible friend!" or "It really wasn't that big of a deal- don't worry about it! You're not a bad person!" The conversation shifts from us owning and accepting responsibility for the thing that we did and instead becomes about making us feel better. In that space we don't really have to sit with the uncomfortability of having hurt a friend- in fact- they're making us feel better right now! And more importantly, our friend isn't given room to talk about how it actually was really hurtful that you missed the lunch date. They don't get to be upset or express their pain because we've essentially said "My sadness over hurting you is more important than the hurt you originally felt from my wrongdoing." And perhaps our sadness is truly deep and upsetting to us, but in the moment of apologizing it's not about us. It's about the person we've hurt. 

The second aspect is more personal and involves identity. When we mess up and move from recognizing what we did wrong to drawing conclusions about our worth as a person, we've made a mistake into an identity statement. We've said that our behavior is the only indication of who we are as people, and that's simply untrue. If you ask you friends for feedback after the initial hurt has passed, they will likely tell you that you really aren't a terrible friend. You just made a mistake. One that hurt them and wasn't okay, but it did not cause them to experience a total reconstruction of who you are as a person in their minds. For the Christian these identity statements are especially inaccurate, knowing that our worth, identity, and value are found in Christ and are therefore stable and unchanging despite our behaviors. When we've made a mistake- even a very grievous one- it's our responsibility to own what we did AND not make it into something it's not.

How then, can we apologize in a healthy way? We can own what we did- which is often quite literally restating the wrong. "I missed our lunch date." We can apologize for that mistake. "I'm sorry that I did that." And we can ask for forgiveness. "Can you forgive me for missing our lunch date?" And then (and probably most importantly), we listen. We listen to our friends talk about the hurt or pain we've caused (and depending on what we did- this may not be limited to one conversation). We ask questions, we empathize, we talk about what we're going to do differently next time, and, when the storm has passed, we move on. Hopefully with a better understanding of ourselves and our friends, and with greater empathy for those who will wrong us in the future.