“There’s the way that light shows in darkness, and it is extremely beautiful. And I think it essentializes the experience of being human, to see light in darkness.” ~Emil Ferris
I was leading a yoga training in a small village in Greece near the Aegean Sea. One of the trainees was practicing a mindfulness workshop she designed. She led us through a guided meditation based on a beautiful Hawaiian practice for reconciliation and forgiveness called Ho’oponopono. As we sat in the yoga space, she repeated over and over:
I love you.
Please forgive me.
There was something about how she slowly said, “I’m so, so sorry” that at one point I felt my heart break open, and tears flowed from its depths.
I have a wellspring of personal and societal hurts tucked in the back of my heartspace that I am so, so sorry about.
I’m sorry that children and animals are abused for no reason except the amusement or the sickness of adults.
I’m sorry that women and children are molested and raped by men whose brains can’t process compassion, and that their need for power is so destructive that they can justify their actions.
I’m sorry that people aren’t given equal access to food, education, and healthcare because of the color of their skin or biases.
I’m sorry for the learned bias that keep us from treating everyone equally.
I’m sorry that children don’t tell adults they have been bullied and base their self-worth on their shame about how their peers treated them.
I’m sorry for daughters whose mothers try to keep them small.
I’m sorry for the boys who’ve been told that they can’t cry.
I’m sorry that saying sorry is sometimes too vulnerable.
I’m sorry for any time I have ever said or done something that was hurtful because I was trying to make myself look good.
I’m so, so sorry
The Vulnerability of Being Sorry
Saying I’m sorry is a vulnerable place. We have to admit that we were not perfect. We have to disclose that we made mistakes.
Sometimes I’ve raced around my brain desperately looking for some way to justify my actions so that I didn’t have to apologize because it felt too vulnerable. But sometimes, even in a relationship where I wanted to be vulnerable and close to someone, I have defaulted to not apologizing—sometimes out of habit.
During the pandemic, I came down with COVID-19 and had to call the people I’d been around and tell them. It was hard. One of my friends was very upset with me. It was during the holidays, and after spending a lot of time alone, she had plans for New Year’s Eve.
I didn’t blame her for being mad. The isolation was driving us all crazy. I was sorry. Apologizing and listening to her anger was uncomfortable. Her friendship was more valuable than the temporary discomfort of her processing her disappointment. I was grateful that I had the courage to be present.
If we want a relationship to grow, we—the one who erred—need to own the mistake and the apology, no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Without the apology, it’s one more brick in the barrier to growing closer in a relationship.
We all know people that never say I’m sorry—it just feels too exposed. Alternatively, more worrisome, is that they feel beyond reproach.
Cindy Frantz, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, said that when we do something wrong and skirt responsibility by not admitting our wrongdoing, the interaction feels incomplete.
I know from experience that waiting for an apology can cause a relationship to feel like it is hanging in midair, waiting to get grounded.
She also warned, “Don’t apologize as a way to shut down the conversation and wipe the slate clean. That’s a shortcut that won’t work.”
When It Isn’t Safe to Say I’m Sorry
Some people will use our apology against us—so we keep ourselves safe by not apologizing. Self-preservation might be the best choice when dealing with someone with mental health and abusive issues. It can take a toll on how we feel about ourselves though.
In the eighties, I was in a twelve-step program for my eating disorder. I wasn’t able to fully complete the fifth step by making amends to my parents for all the extra food I ate to fuel my bulimia. It just didn’t feel safe. Now that I’m in my sixties I could do it, but my parents are deceased.
I found some comfort in apologizing “in spirit.” I’m still in the process of fully letting go of the conversation that I wish I could have had.
I was in a coffee house, writing this article, when I overheard a conversation. A man asked a woman if he could reach across her to get a chess board from a shelf that was next to her. She said yes and then said, “I’m sorry.” His friend said to her, “Why are you apologizing? He’s the one inconveniencing you.”
Like this woman, I can be very free with my apologies.
Saying things like “I’m sorry to bother you” instead of “Do you have a minute to talk?” can be a sign of our sense of self-worth or the habits we developed when we weren’t confident.
Findings show that women report offering more apologies than men, even though there is no evidence that women create more offenses than men.
For women, over-apologizing can be just a matter of learned language. But when we hear ourselves apologize for taking up space when someone else bumps into us, or apologize for being late rather than thanking people for waiting for us, or apologize just for saying no when someone crosses our boundaries, this can be a sign of self-worth challenges.
If we listen to ourselves apologize repeatedly, we literally talk ourselves into low self-worth.
What a Sincere Apology Feels Like
I can offer a sincere apology when I know the mistakes I make are just a part of being human. I truly don’t want to hurt others. I don’t want them to be suffering from my words or actions.
I can offer a sincere apology when I forgive myself for not being perfect. I seek to learn from my mistakes and apply insights to my future responses and actions. I refrain from using my mistakes to bring up all my past mistakes and emotionally beat myself up.
Psychotherapist Sara Kubric says that a genuine apology is more than a statement. It has to be sincere, vulnerable, and intentional. She offers an apology recipe that could look something like:
- Taking responsibility for making a mistake
- Acknowledging that we have hurt someone
- Validating their feelings
- Expressing remorse
- Being explicit about our desire to make amends
Apology as a Test of Confidence
When I sincerely apologize, I know that I am confident. No one is beyond making mistakes. I know that my spiritual growth depends on my ability to be vulnerable.
I continue to learn new ways of communicating that don’t involve over-apologizing for taking up space or being a normal human being. I know that there are pain, challenges, and injustices in the world that I can’t control, and I can be sorry, sad, and discouraged when they happen. This is the way I can live consciously and compassionately in this, my community.