When Should I Apologize?

Jay Sheen

Bill and his wife were high school sweethearts when he went off to college. They kept in touch by telephone but one day had a disagreement. Abruptly he announced, over the phone, that they were through. However, the breakup left him feeling so badly that a short time later he hitchhiked 300 miles back home and went directly to her house. Her mother said she wasn’t home; she was out on a date. 

“I stayed there and made her mother very nervous,” he remembers. When his former girlfriend finally came home, she was shocked to see him. Bill apologized for his behavior and his words. “I told her what a fool I was. She was the person I loved, the person I wanted to be with. We’ve been married now for 40 years!”

That true incident demonstrates the power inherent in an apology. Offering a few words of apology begins the process of healing and restoring a relationship that has been ruptured. 

On the one hand, saying “I am sorry” should be one of the simplest tasks in the world. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to apologize because of embarrassment, pride, or fear the apology will be flatly rejected. Without an apology, the offended person often carries resentment—sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. Yet a few words of regret, sincerely offered, can prevent the emotional distance from becoming so large that the breach is insurmountable. That’s why the advice to apologize has been around for thousands of years, such as in this letter recorded in the Bible: “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16, NLT).  

Whether you have wronged someone in a minor or major way, here are some tips for practicing the fine art of apology:

 Realize an apology benefits everyone. 

Expressing an apology delivers enormous benefits for both the receiver and the giver. In her book The Power of An Apology, Beverly Engle notes the numerous ways both parties benefit:

For the person receiving the apology, it helps them: 

• experience a sense of emotional healing

• feel as if the wrongdoer is no longer a personal threat

• move past anger so they don’t get stuck in the past 

• have an opportunity to respond with forgiveness

For the person asking for forgiveness, it helps them: 

• release guilt and self-reproach

• overcome pride and arrogance 

• reconnect with the person they hurt 

• remember not to repeat the act

 Accept responsibility for your actions. 

It may be hard to hear this, but if you’re incapable of making an apology when you are clearly wrong, it’s a sign of a character flaw. Rather than dither, dather, and delay, accept responsibility for your words or deeds. Wise King Solomon said it this way: “Go—to the point of exhaustion—and give your neighbor no rest! Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids” (Proverbs 6:3, 4). 

Model and actress Brooke Shields tells the story of receiving a heartfelt apology from fellow actor Tom Cruise. After he publically criticized Shields for taking antidepressants while suffering post-partum depression, Cruise accepted responsibility for his harsh comments. Recognizing he caused her pain, he personally went to Shield’s home to apologize in person. 

“He came over to my house, and he gave me a heartfelt apology,” Shields said. “And he apologized for bringing me into the whole thing and for everything that happened. And through it all, I was so impressed with how heartfelt it was. And I didn’t feel at any time that I had to defend myself, nor did I feel that he was trying to convince me of anything other than the fact that he was deeply sorry. And I accepted [his apology],” she added.

 Repair the damage the same way you made it. 

If you offended someone publicly, then make your apology publicly. It doesn’t work to embarrass someone before a group of people but later offer an apology in private. In the mid-1900s, newspaper publisher William Aitken, the first Baron Beaverbrook, printed an insulting editorial about Edward Heath, Britian’s future prime minister. Just a few days later, in the restroom of his London club, Baron Beaverbrook met Heath, then a young member of Parliament. 

“My dear chap,” said Baron Beaverbrook, embarrassed by the encounter, “I’ve been thinking it over, and I was wrong. Here and now, I wish to apologize.” Reluctantly, Heath responded, “Very well, but next time, I wish you’d insult me in the washroom and apologize in your newspaper.” The lesson is simple: As much as possible, repair the damage the same way you made it. 

 Allow the other person to be upset. 

Keep in mind when you apologize that the other person may indeed be upset. Allow the person to express their disappointment and frustration. Doing so will validate the person’s feelings. Listen respectfully, and say very little, allowing the person to vent their hurt. Never minimize their feelings by blurting out: “You’re overreacting!” or “You’re making a big deal out of nothing!” It is much better to listen and acknowledge the offended person’s feelings by saying something like, “I am sorry I upset you. You have a right to feel this way. I will make sure this never happens again.”

 Give it time. 

After apologizing, be patient. Once an apology is extended, things don’t immediately fall back into place. The person who was hurt does not heal right after hearing “I’m sorry.” It may take a little time for the offended person to release their hard feelings and experience healing. Remember this wisdom from Shakespeare: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” 

 Don’t just tell them you’re sorry—show them. 

When you’ve offended someone, reconciliation can be greatly enhanced by demonstrating your regret through your actions. In 1963, George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, literally stood in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent Vivian Jones, a black woman, from enrolling as a student. Little by little, the staunch segregationist saw the error of his ways. Thirty-three years later, he publicly apologized to Jones and, as proof of his words, he awarded her the first Lurleen B. Wallace Award for Courage. The award, named in honor of Wallace’s wife, recognizes women who have made outstanding contributions to the state of Alabama. At the ceremony, Wallace said, “Vivian Malone Jones was at the center of the fight over states’ rights and conducted herself with grace, strength, and, above all, courage.”

If you find yourself reluctant to apologize because you’re embarrassed, remind yourself that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Most likely, the person you’ve offended will receive your apology graciously. And your apology can open the way to dissolve anger and heal wounds. 

Based in the Midwest, Jay Sheen is a writer who focuses on spiritual and mental health.

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