When is “Sorry” Not Enough?

by Paul Kelly, MA, LMHC, CSAT

Have you ever dealt with someone who either can’t or won’t say they’re sorry?   It can be infuriating. Even worse, it can be utterly corrosive to a relationship.

And what about the ones who do say “I’m sorry” but continue the same behavior? Perhaps this is even more infuriating. This may be because you’ve received an apology but not an amends.

Is there a difference? You bet. And when it comes to healing an injured relationship, the difference between an apology and an amends can make all the difference.

So, what is an apology and what is an amends?

An apology, by the common understanding, is an expression of regret, remorse, or sorrow. “I’m sorry” is simply a statement that one feels sorrow about something. It does not necessarily acknowledge or accept of any responsibility. If I hear a friend say he lost $100, I can say “I’m sorry” without accepting any responsibility for its loss. I’m simply expressing sorrow, or empathy with the other person’s sadness. If I had nothing to do with the loss of the $100 this might be ok, but if I did have something to do with its loss – like I stole it – then, in most cases, “I’m sorry” just ain’t gonna cut it. At its most manipulative, “I’m sorry” can actually be used to get an already injured person to have pity on the very person who injured them, because they now feel badly that they behaved poorly. It’s like an emotional Jedi mind trick but it doesn’t do much to actually promote relationship healing.

Another aspect of an apology is explanation. Apology comes from the same root word as apologist, and basically means “a speech in one’s own defense”. When we look at it this way it’s easy to see why the “explanation apology” often falls short. The subconscious (or sometimes conscious) intention of explanation apologies is to get the injured party to understand or even agree with their choices made by the offender.   “I’m sorry I stole that $100 from you but my rent was due and I was gonna get thrown out of my apartment so I just had to…”. There is a limited amount of taking responsibility but it is diluted by justifications.

Expressions of regret and explanations – even when sincere – are typically insufficient for real healing, especially when significant trust has been broken. What is needed is acknowledgement of what was done, an expression of genuine understanding of the damage that was caused, restitution, and a believable commitment to avoid the behavior in the future, and, in some cases, a clear strategy as to how one will avoid doing the behavior in the future. These are the components of an amends as opposed to simply an apology.

If any component of an amend is missing, healing will be impaired. In our example above, imagine if the $100 was stolen and then returned but without any acknowledgment of the theft, or if the theft was acknowledged, but the money wasn’t returned (restitution). Neither of these scenarios would likely promote healing, especially considering that the primary injury is likely the breach of trust.

When trust is the primary loss, safety must be restored, because attempting to engender trust when there is no safety is foolish, at best, and downright nefarious, at worst. So, what restores safety? A clear, honest, and attainable commitment to change; and the attainability is essential. Promising perfection and falling short will only further the injuries. It’s better to shoot for a solid 50% improvement and achieving it, than to shoot for perfection and fail. Small promises kept are far more valuable than big promises broken.

Some people find this idea of making amends extremely challenging. They’re not even sure how to begin, or they get lost in the process half way through. So here some simple steps to follow:

  1. Acknowledge what you’ve done – and ask the other person if you have left anything out.
  2. Express your understanding of how your action impacted the other person. Again, ask if you have missed anything.
  3. Propose what you would like to offer to correct the injury.
  4. Ask if this will be sufficient and acceptable to the other person. (If it is not, ask them for their suggestion(s), and if their suggestion(s) seem reasonable and attainable, agree to them. If they don’t, then negotiate to find something you can both agree on, or let them know that you are still willing to make amends but you need more time to consider how to do it in a mutually agreeable way.)
  5. Commit to not injuring this person in the same way in the future.
  6. If need be, lay out your strategy as to how you will avoid this situation in the future.
  7. If trust has been broken (and it usually has), acknowledge this and repeat steps 1 – 6 specifically regarding the breach of trust.

Everyone makes mistakes, and even the healthiest relationships occasionally have rough spots. Knowing how to navigate these situations and correct them with an honest and genuine amends is one of the best ways to get back on track. Learning to make an amends without hesitation or defensiveness, is one of the most useful relationship skills a person can develop – but it is a skill and it takes practice to learn.

If you are having difficulty taking responsibility for you mistakes, or if you find yourself settling for “I’m sorry” instead of a genuine amends, the therapists at the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute can help you build this skill and help you build stronger, happier, healthy relationships. Feel free to contact us anytime.

Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute
50 Fulton St 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10038

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