Do You Know How to Properly Say Sorry?

My daughter was in a pretty nasty car accident this morning. Thankfully, she’s fine. She was returning to our home on the Maine Turnpike when a tractor trailer truck likely didn’t realize she was trying to pass it (it’s a two-lane road) and nudged her to the left. She probably would have recovered had the weather not been freezing rain, coating the untreated road with a thin layer of ice.

Instead, she spun around and smacked into the center guardrail quite hard. My wife and I got the call about 5:20 a.m. and what would usually take 25 minutes to reach her took almost 90 because of other accidents diverting traffic on and off the turnpike. It was not a morning to be driving.

The Maine State Police officer who stayed with her that entire time was wonderful. Despite the fact they were the agency that arrested me back in early 2014, I have no ill will against any law enforcement personnel. We can certainly poke holes in the system, but the foot soldiers didn’t create it. Adapting another old saying is true: It’s better to have a cop and not need him than need a cop and not have him.

On the ride home, she was still slightly in shock and the adrenaline was still coursing through her veins. As she started to come down, she started apologizing. We tried to assure her that we knew it wasn’t her fault, we have insurance and we were just grateful that she wasn’t injured.

It got me thinking about apologies. She was apologizing for creating a difficult situation. Yes, it will be a pain in the ass dealing with adjusters, making decisions based on amount of damage and having to split two cars among three people. But, it wasn’t her fault. She was merely at the center of a storm she could not control. I think her reaction to apologize is a knee-jerk one that many of us have, even in situations that we were simply victims.

One of the things that was actually difficult to learn when I entered recovery was how to give a proper apology. I was taught the skills at one rehab, but don’t think it clicked until a year later when I was part of a monthly support group.

Most people confuse real apologies with an opportunity to explain how they are only “mostly” at fault, or how extenuating circumstances dictated their behavior:

“I hadn’t eaten in two days and I knew the sandwich in the fridge was yours, but I was starving.”

“I know most people call into work when they are sick, but I was sicker than I’ve ever been.”

“I was late picking you up because I got in a conversation with Tina, and you know how she can talk.”

These are three very minor examples because I just don’t want to get too heavy with this and lose the meaning. The reality is, most apologies are just excuses tinged with a tiny bit of responsibility attached. That’s not what apologies are supposed to be.

Here are a few things to think about when you’re ready to make a proper apology:

  • When you’re giving an apology, you are not to expect to be let off the hook for your behavior. In fact, you shouldn’t expect any reaction. They don’t owe you an “I forgive you” or “That’s OK.”
  • Apologies are not about making you feel better or releasing the guilt or shame you may have. Get this…they’re not about you at all other than admitting wrongdoing.
  • Ask yourself why you are apologizing. If the reason is anything other than to acknowledge that you recognize you did something to hurt the other person, you’re overdoing it.
  • A simple statement of regret is not inappropriate, but that should be the most you interject your thoughts into the situation. How you feel is not important, and frankly, it’s not what the other person is looking for or needs.
  • An apology should never make a request, especially to accept the apology. It also shouldn’t ask things like: “But you have to see my side of things…” or “I hope you can understand…” This is you trying exonerate yourself of 100% culpability.
  • Do not accompany the apology with a gift or something cutesy, like a card with a teddy bear holding a balloon. If you want to make reparations, do it at some point after the apology is given. Saying sorry and making things even are two different things for two different moments.
  • Consider writing your apology before giving it. If you have patterns of giving incorrect apologies, you may find it best to be able to review what you’re going to say. It may even make sense to send it to them in writing so you don’t go off script.

Let’s take that first example I gave above of an incorrect apology:

“I hadn’t eaten in two days and I knew the sandwich in the fridge was yours, but I was starving.”

There are three justifications for the wrong choice here. If you ever feel like you’re explaining your actions, you’re giving an improper apology.

Here are more wrong examples:

“Sorry. Despite being very hungry and knowing I shouldn’t, I took the food that was yours.”

Your hunger situation has nothing to do with a proper apology.

“Sorry. My mind was just thinking food and I was going to ask but I didn’t see you anywhere and thought I could make up for it later.”

Rationalizing a solution to make your behavior OK is not an apology, whether you bought a new sandwich or not.

“Sorry. The next time I have anything in the fridge, you can eat it. You don’t even have to ask.”

Encouraging the same behavior toward yourself does not cancel out your poor choice.

 

Here’s are a few examples of a proper apology:

“I took your sandwich without asking which is stealing. I’m sorry.”

“You were probably hungry because I stole your sandwich. I’m sorry.”

“I apologize for stealing your sandwich. It was the wrong thing to do.”

Usually, the proper apology is the shortest one. It doesn’t preface with situational exceptions nor ask if everything is OK at the conclusion. It is an act of contrition, an admittance of guilt and understanding of wrongdoing. And that’s all it should be.

Recovery began by dropping resentments

“I could never forgive/am still upset with X for doing Y.” I’m sure you have plenty of X’s and Y’s. I try not to anymore. One of the biggest pieces of my recovery has been learning to drop grudges and squash resentments before they start. Letting things go feels like releasing oxygen; refusing to feels like suffocation.

I remember it was only a few days into my first in-patient rehab when we were tasked to write a letter to someone we held a resentment against. At the end of the exercise, we put them through the shredder, so it wasn’t like it was going to ever be seen by them. It was more just about a cathartic release.

On the surface, I thought it was one of the stupidest things I’d heard. In the past, my way of dealing with resentment was to either stifle and move forward or angrily confront the person, usually just making things worse in the process. This exercise sounded like hippie, touchy-feely crap. Then I did it.

The first person I could think of was one of the people I co-owned a couple of companies with prior to being arrested. They, like most of my business partners, were once someone I considered a close friend, but had distanced themselves from me a few months earlier and I was still framing it like an abandonment.

Once I started writing, I focused on the small things this person did that irked me over the years. You know, the kind of stuff that gets under your skin in the moment and you look back and think “That wasn’t cool.”

It was little things, like saying they’d help with something I thought was major, but backing out at the last minute. In retrospect, it wasn’t major, they had a decent reason, and my Plan B was just fine. Or needing them to step out of their comfort zone to deal with somebody, but them not being able to overcome their anxiety. I have anxiety too, so I get it. I just wish they could have faced it.

It surprised me how good it felt to understand their side of things. When I stopped being the center of the universe, it’s easier to understand other people’s issues.

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Then I moved onto the bigger things. This person had spoken ill of me to quite a few people. I don’t know why they didn’t think it wouldn’t get back to me. I realized just how much this person and I did that to others when we were on the same page. Should it be any great surprise they would do that me? Maybe it’s my journalism roots – or why I got into journalism in the first place – but I used to really enjoy gossiping and this person and I had earned PhDs in the science.

I was collapsing in on myself like a black hole, but they weren’t. Their behavior was boorish, just like mine was when I did the same thing, but they were still behaving naturally.

When it came to them “abandoning” me as I flamed out and crashed like a satellite entering the earth’s atmosphere (What’s with all the space references today?) that wound was still very fresh when I wrote the letter, but I was able to take a breath and recognize it was not abandonment. It was pulling away from a bad situation by someone who was looking out for themselves. People shut themselves off to others as a form of self-preservation. This is what they were doing. Through an objective lens, it honestly made sense.

I read the letter out loud to the group and put it through the shredder. Writing down that I forgave the person and then saying it out loud was powerful. That night, as I went to sleep, I noticed I felt a lot better. I thought about some of my other business partners and other people who had made it onto my list of resentments. Once I got that first person out of the way, it was so much easier to just let things go with everybody else.

Asking myself why I was holding onto things actually made me feel kind of dumb in a way. What did I think would change or come out of negative thoughts or energy? Nothing could change what happened in the past and I wasn’t looking for anything to really change in the future. Did I expect them to grovel at my feet begging forgiveness? Even if they did, I’d have been angry for them causing a scene to make me look like the bad guy. Those kinds of lasting bad feelings weren’t going to be mended, because they couldn’t, so why carry it with me?

Letting go isn’t saying they were right or wrong. It’s not saying I was right or wrong. It’s saying that the energy in taking a side isn’t worth the outcome, especially when the outcome is negative emotions. I don’t have to admit defeat because there is no winning side in resentment.

I talked with my wife every night while I was at that rehab on the telephone. She and I were in very similar places of resentment against many of the same people when I left. When she’d voice anger toward someone, I realized mine was either gone or had dissipated greatly. Somehow, I was learning to let things go.

Now, nearly four years after that happened, I look back at the angry person I was and feel bad for that guy. Sure, he may have been more successful on the surface, but he carried too much spite inside. I think my wife has released a lot of it, but I know there are still people who carry resentments for me and carry resentments against me that they’ll probably never let go of. I feel sad for both groups. It’s just not worth it.

Let your resentments go. You have nothing to gain by maintaining them.