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“Your apology is not accepted.”
Those are the words most of us really want to say when we hear an apology.
That’s because the words “I’m sorry” don’t change the behavior that made the apology necessary in the first place. Plus…most people don’t actually care if we’re sorry.
How do I know this? Personal experience. Loads of it.
When I realized I had a problem with alcohol about 13 years ago, first, I stopped drinking. Then I took an honest look at my life. I knew that if I wanted to hold my head high and move forward with my life, I’d need to take responsibility for the harm I had done—even if it was unintentional. So, I set out to make a list of all the people I had harmed.
The list was longer than I care to admit. You could say I had quite a bit of apologizing to do.
Next, I embarked on what I thought was going to be a mission of apologizing. But it turns out, it wasn’t an apologizing mission after all. Instead, what took place was a transformational journey during which I learned to take responsibility for my actions and mend the harm I had done. Although scary, difficult, and humbling, this journey strengthened my relationships with others and with myself.
Here’s why I recommend we all stop apologizing:
1. It rarely accomplishes much. A mere display of remorse with the words “I’m sorry” doesn’t change anything. The harm still exists, and we have not taken any actions to fix the offending behavior.
2. Nobody really cares if we’re sorry. Let’s say a kid accidentally throws a ball through your window. Imagine the kid knocks on your door and says, “I broke your window. I’m so sorry. You can’t even imagine how sorry I am!” Do you care that the kid feels sorry? Of course not. What you want is to have your window repaired. What people want is for us to make things right, not for us to say that we’re sorry.
3. It can be disingenuous. When we apologize over and over for the same thing, we wear on the patience of our friends, family, and colleagues. It can feel like we’re using the words “I’m sorry” as some sort of “get out of jail free card” to continue the offending behavior. After a while of repeated “offenses,” apologies can sound like empty words and become tiresome.
4. It’s disempowering for the person apologizing, who may genuinely feel remorse for what they have done. Saying “I’m sorry” and then praying for forgiveness puts all the power in the hands of the person being apologized to. Apologizing requires forgiveness in order for the apologizer to be “redeemed,” and doesn’t do anything to empower the apologizer to create meaningful change.
I’m not suggesting that we barrel through life doing whatever we please without a care in the world. Not at all. What I’m suggesting is that we start making amends instead of apologizing.
When we make amends, we take responsibility for what we did wrong. We can certainly express regret that we acted in a harmful manner. But then, we repair the damage.
When I make amends, I like to verbalize the things I’m now doing differently in order to make things right. Then I ask the person I have harmed what else I can do. Now the hardest part—I stop talking and listen! Finally, I do my best to honor any requests made.
Making amends empowers us to hold our heads high (even in the face of having inflicted harm), take responsibility, mend relationships, and grow as a person along the way.
We’re all human, and mistakes will happen. But shame has no place in an empowered, purposeful life. Instead of apologizing, let’s own our behavior, stop the harmful behavior, do what we can to make things right, and get on with living our best life.