There’s an old song by The Sounds of Sunshine called “Love means (you never have to say you’re sorry).” You might know that line better from the 1970 movie Love Story, which was the inspiration for the song.
I don’t know the song very well, and I saw the movie on TV awhile back and barely remember what it was about. But that line stuck with me because, no matter how I look at it, it doesn’t make sense.
When you love someone, it doesn’t mean you won’t slip up and do something foolish (or worse) and need to apologize.
And no matter how much two people love each other, that doesn’t mean an apology isn’t ever needed. Quite the contrary. We’re all so imperfect and different from one another—no matter how similar or how well-matched as lovers or friends—and we all make mistakes once in awhile. And if we don’t apologize sincerely when we’ve hurt someone, no matter how slightly, what does that mean?
For me, when I realize I’ve let someone down or stuck my foot in my mouth and hurt someone, even inadvertently, I feel it.
Something like compassion or empathy rises up in me when I become aware of the damage I may have done. I want to undo it, clean up my mess, fix things. The best way I know to undo something (that can’t really be undone) is to apologize—sincerely.
Sometimes it’s a small matter. Maybe I’ve jostled someone while getting on a train or I don’t have time to join a friend for lunch. In these cases, just a quick “I’m sorry” is all that’s needed to let people know they matter and that I have goodwill for them despite my blundering imperfections or things beyond my control.
“I’m sorry” is sometimes just a sign of respect and an acknowledgment that someone else exists and is just as important as I am.
Apologizing makes the world a nicer place. What does it feel like when someone bumps into you (or commits some other minor offense) and just keeps on going, literally or figuratively? What if that happened ten or twenty times a day?
To me, most of the time what was done is no big deal. How it’s handled—the attitude—is what’s important.
What about the big things?
You forgot someone’s birthday. You broke a promise. You didn’t do what you said you would do. You didn’t do what someone else, fairly enough, expected from you. You said or did something mean, whether carelessly, in anger, or for some other reason. You let someone down. Someone’s hurting, and it’s because of something you’ve done. What can you do?
Here is what I’ve learned about three little words—I am sorry—that can mean so much.
1. Apologize when you realize you’ve done something insensitive or unkind, whether or not someone complains. Plenty of people won’t tell you when they’re hurt. A quick but sincere “I’m sorry” can push darkening clouds away to let the sun shine again.
2. Apologize for what you’ve done, not for the other person’s reaction. For example, say “I’m sorry for mentioning that at the party. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?” Don’t say, “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt” or “I’m sorry you were embarrassed.” That’s not taking responsibility for your actions. In fact, with a certain tone, it can mean quite the opposite. It won’t hurt to mention that you feel badly about hurting or embarrassing someone, but don’t make it the focus of the apology.
3. Never placate. To placate simply means to pacify or smooth things over or do something just to appease someone’s anger. Don’t say you’re sorry unless you truly regret your actions and you’re sincere. Placating is self-serving, nobody really likes it, and there’s little value in it over the long run.
4. Focus on the other person, not yourself. Beating yourself up is not the same as an apology, and wailing about how stupid you are (or whatever) only makes things worse because it forces the other person to pay attention to you and your problems instead of getting over what you did or said. Do what you can for the other person’s comfort or needs. If an explanation is appropriate, offer it, but do so with the intention of comforting the hurt person—to gain his or her understanding to lessen the blow—not to get his or her pity.
5. Avoid over-apologizing. Don’t make “I’m sorry” your middle name because of constant worry about offending someone. Be confident and learn where the boundaries are in most situations. Develop your knowledge of your own moral compass, and be familiar with other people’s rules and boundaries. That way, you’ll know when you’ve stepped over the line and when an apology is appropriate.
6. Accept an apology gracefully, no matter how minor the situation is. Don’t laugh it off or make a joke of it. When someone apologizes sincerely, he or she is vulnerable. He’s opening himself up and saying “Hey, I’m imperfect, and I did something wrong. I care about you, and I hope you’ll accept me anyway, warts and all.” A simple, “That’s OK, I understand—thanks” will do when it’s something minor, and a discussion might be in order for something major. And remember the saying “to err is human, to forgive divine.”
7. Give the other person time to process the hurtful deed and your apology, especially if it’s something big, and remember that how “big” something is depends on the person involved. Don’t expect immediate forgiveness or that everything will be just fine right away. Be patient with someone’s feelings, especially anger, and don’t lash back. Ask if there’s anything you can do to make things better. Answer questions and explain, and demonstrate your sincerity by not repeating the action, whatever it was.
In many cases, a simple but sincere apology is all that’s needed to make things right again when they’ve gone wrong.
You might have some explaining to do, though, and your best bet is to just be honest. Why get defensive and counterattack or make excuses or do anything other than say “I’m sorry” when you’ve done something that hurt, confused, or made life difficult for someone? Just get real, say you’re sorry, explain and reassure as needed, and be done with it. Don’t get into an argument over it, and don’t do it again.
What about you? What are your tips for handling difficult situations when you’ve done someone hurtful or something difficult was done to you? How do you handle a false accusation or something really, really big? Comments are always welcome.