A Sack Full of Sorrys: What it Means to Truly Apologize

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  • September 2, 2014

Have you ever heard the saying, “You can stuff your sorrys in a sack”? It generally means that the person who makes the comment is tired of hearing the apologies of the other person. This is a very common feeling when relationships are at the point of breaking down. The words, “I’m sorry” have become meaningless and instead of inspiring reconciliation, these words have become a source of anger and mistrust. A true apology means more than just saying that you are sorry.

Everyone needs to know how to apologize. Personal and business relationships are complicated and you can inadvertently offend or hurt another person. There are times when you are wrong, when you break a promise, or when you say or do something that causes emotional and sometimes even physical pain to another person. Whether your behavior was intentional or unintentional, you must apologize if you want to maintain the relationship. Even if you don’t want to keep the relationship, a person of character will apologize for their bad behavior just because it is the right thing to do.

You would think that saying you are sorry would be enough to repair the relationship and restore the good feelings. While your “sorrys” may get the job done for very minor infractions, most of the time just being sorry is not enough. A full apology involves more than a few simple words. If the issue keeps coming up over and over again, if the hurt and anger linger beyond the apology, or if the trust is never fully restored in your important relationships, then you need to do more than simply say you are sorry. For your apology to be powerful enough to release the issue and to heal the relationship, the other person must truly believe that you mean it.

Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas have written a book titled, “The Five Languages of Apology” (2006). The authors point out that a complete apology is no simple matter. They describe five fundamental aspects to an apology: expressing regret, accepting responsibility, making restitution, genuinely repenting, and requesting forgiveness. Chapman and Thomas indicate that while each of these points is important, a particular person may value one or two of these aspects more than the others. To repair the breach in a relationship, the offender must fully apologize to the satisfaction of the other person, and the offended must be willing to forgive the offender.

Here are the components of a full and effective apology.

The first step in an apology is to express regret. This is where you say, “I am sorry”. You are acknowledging that your behavior has had a negative impact on another person. When you say you are sorry, you must say it with both your words and your behavior. Make eye contact, give the other person your full attention, speak with emotion in your voice, and then be specific about how you have hurt the other person. Let the other person known that you understand how your words and/or behavior have hurt them.

Secondly, you must accept responsibility for your behavior by saying, “I was wrong”. It is important to own up to your mistakes without blaming the other person or making excuses for your behavior. Frequently a person will admit they are wrong and then offer an excuse for the behavior, using the words, “I was wrong, but….”. When you do this, the apology is given and then taken away. If you truly want to apologize for your behavior, you must own it without trying to make excuses or blame someone else for what you have done. Again, your words and behavior must demonstrate that you fully understand what you did was wrong.

The next step in your apology is to make restitution if possible. You must offer to make things right. Sometimes it is really easy to see what you can do to make amends – you can offer the gifts of time, love, service, or even tokens of caring. Perhaps you can even undo what you have done. There are other times it is not clear what you can do to make it up to the other person. What is critically important is that your act of restitution has meaning; so don’t make assumptions about how to make it right. Ask the other person what you can do to make up for what you have done and listen carefully for the answer. Then follow through with their request. If the other person doesn’t know what to suggest, offer some ideas and see if you can come up with something that will make a difference.

The fourth language of apology, according to Chapman and Thomas, is to genuinely repent for hurting the other person. You must not only say that you are sorry, you must demonstrate your regret by being willing to change your behavior. If you are sincerely sorry for your behavior, you will make every effort to not do it again. If the act you are apologizing for is part of a habitual behavior pattern that occurs over and over again, you must develop a clear plan for changing your behavior. You can put your commitment in writing, you can enter into counselling or other types of treatment, you can change your routines, you can develop a system of jogging your memory, or you can enlist the help of the people close to you. You may not be immediately successful but what is important here is that you are sincerely trying to change your behavior and you are putting your full effort into doing the work that is necessary to bring about a change in behavior. There are times where one more lapse in behavior spells the end of the relationship. In these cases, merely trying is not good enough; and saying you are sorry is not good enough. You must ensure the behavior doesn’t happen again or be willing to suffer the consequences.

The final aspect of a full apology is requesting forgiveness. When you ask the other person for forgiveness, you are acknowledging that you have done something wrong, you want the relationship to be restored, and you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable by giving the power of the relationship to the other person. Forgiveness does not come easily and it is not something you can receive on demand. When you ask for forgiveness, you must be willing to wait for the other person to be ready to forgive. There may be conditions placed on the forgiveness such a waiting until restitution has been made. It may take time for the hurt feelings to subside or for the person to believe that you are really sincere. When you give this power to the other person, you must give it completely and wait until the other person is ready and willing to return to the relationship and to begin to trust again.

Making a full apology is not easy but it is essential to healing relationships. If you just smooth things over or take short cuts, or if you think that if you ignore the problem it will go away, you are doubly wrong. The hurts in a relationship have a way of piling up over time. The wrongdoings can appear to be forgotten but then suddenly, some small transgression may be the final straw and the relationship ends. When this happens, it is usually too late to say that you are sorry; no matter how fully you apologize.

It is relatively easy to say you are sorry but you must remember that these are just words. Your words have no meaning or power if you do not take responsibility for your behavior, make restitution if possible, genuinely repent for what you have done, and then ask for forgiveness from the offended person. When you put your feelings and your behavior behind your words and you offer a full apology, true reconciliation and healing are possible in your most important relationships.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D.
Registered Psychologist