We are taught as children to say “I’m sorry” when we do something wrong. By speaking those magical words, the hurt we have caused another will simply go away. The bad behavior that got us scolded in the first place will not be repeated. My siblings and I seemed unable to learn the lesson that an apology was supposed to teach because as soon as our mother’s back was turned, we would go right back to hitting each other. Saying “I’m sorry” was just a way to appease our parent, kind of like chores—you said it because you had to. This did not change our behavior permanently, nor did it help us realize the impact of our words or actions.
As adults we often use the words “I’m sorry” just as freely and meaninglessly. Looking back at the many apologies I have received, I realize that although I was given the words I was seeking, I rarely felt appeased. Why were those bad feelings and emotions still there? Why was I still angry? Weren’t those words supposed to wipe that all away?
I came to realize that what I was often seeking was not the words “I am sorry” alone. Those words made the person saying them feel better for what they did. They did not take away the hurt feelings, pain and resentment caused by their words or actions—nor did they force the person to own up to their bad behavior and internalize its results. Just saying “I am sorry” is simply an easy way out, an attempt to quickly sweep it all under the carpet. A problem can never fully be resolved this way—like dirt, it will eventually find its way back out to the open floor.
When we seek an apology, what we really want is acknowledgement of both the words and actions that hurt us and how it made us feel. A true apology should fill in the blanks: “I am sorry for _____. I know that it made you feel _____.” Anything less is simply child-like appeasement. A true apology will bring pain or shame or discomfort to the person who is delivering it. I know first hand how chest-tightening, throat-aching and tear-producing giving an apology can be. It is also how I know that I am feeling the pain that my words or deeds have caused in another and thereby truly understanding the damage I have wrought.
True apologies are not easy to give and they require courage. Courage to face the fact that we are not perfect creatures; we are sometimes selfish, thoughtless and cruel. A real “I’m sorry” will bring about the forgiveness, healing and change that the easy “I’m sorry” cannot. Next time you say the words “I am sorry,” ask yourself if you know what you are sorry for and why. Be aware of how you feel when giving the apology. Was it difficult or painful or embarrassing? These realizations will help you be true to yourself and to others when asking for forgiveness.