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The Key to Apologizing Like You Really Mean it

How forgiveness can impact your own life.

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image of hands together as a fire match, forgiveness
Isabella Bersellini
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“I’m sorry. I was wrong,” I emailed my old friend Isabelle. “I’d love to see your new project. Will you bring pages to my private class this week?”        

Months before, she’d asked me to read her 400-page memoir about surviving cancer and her healing journey. I’d replied I was too busy. Offended, she’d ghosted me.

As the author of The Forgiveness Tour, I’d learned the importance of apologizing and forgiving.

I was a freelancer and writing professor who’d had little luck publishing books until age 43, when I’d gone into therapy to unravel problems in my career. My therapist, Dr. W, a substance abuse specialist, insisted addictions were the culprit. He helped me stop smoking, toking, drinking — and people pleasing. 

I learned to protect my time and say no to requests to read and edit work I wasn’t paid for.        

Telling Isabelle I didn’t have time to help her wasn’t actually “wrong.” Juggling two stressful jobs, it was my right to not commit to free editing. Yet, I later realized, she’d just been through hell and wanted to share her trauma. From her view, the dismissive way I’d reacted must have seemed cold and uncaring. I tried to rectify that with a full-fledged apology.        

After a decade with Dr. W, who became my sponsor, mentor, and confidante, he betrayed me. I’d warned him during one session that Haley — a young protégé I’d cared about­ — was seeking out all my editors, doctors and gurus. After she had appointments with my previous female therapist and my Jungian astrologer, I’d jokingly nicknamed her the Shrink Stalker. But I felt an All About Eve aura when she’d asked for Dr. W’s number. I didn’t want to bump into her in his waiting room or hear of her interactions with my paternal figure. When I brought it up with him, he promised that if Haley called, he’d just refer her to another therapist.        

Imagine my shock in catching her walking out of his office one September evening. He’d been seeing her for five months, and her appointment was scheduled right before mine!

Let’s analyze that.   

“Why did you lie to me?” I’d screamed like a jilted lover.

“I’m sorry for the imaginary crime you envision I committed,” he replied. 

That anti-apology left me enraged. I stopped seeing him but couldn’t get over feeling double-crossed.

My resentment motivated my forgiveness tour, where I interviewed 13 people I knew who’d been unfairly wronged without ever getting an apology. The Rev. Elizabeth Maxwell, who I worked with at a church soup kitchen, explained that when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” it ended cycles of hate and violence.

A Buddhist colleague quoted the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Forget injuries; never forget kindness.”

Luminaries from different religions shared other ways on how to forgive someone who has hurt you. When I asked why Dr. W, who’d been kind for 15 years, had suddenly turn insensitive, the Hindi-born Connecticut psychiatrist Vatsal Thakkar offered a Hinduistic metaphor: “A driver was enraged when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the backseat, almost causing an accident. He didn’t know the woman’s infant was choking. Similarly, there’s something you don’t know about your mentor’s life that will shed light on what happened.”

Six months later Dr. W emailed: “I’m sorry, Sue. I never meant to hurt you. Obviously, I screwed up. I’d welcome the chance to meet and apologize in person.”

Over coffee, he admitted he hadn’t been thinking clearly and had erred. He should have prioritized his long-time patient and kept his word to refer Haley to another therapist, which he did belatedly. He’d been distraught after learning his wife had nerve damage from a recent surgery, he revealed.

“I’m so sorry to hear,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Hard to talk about,” he mumbled. “Can you forgive me?” I could — because of the honest, vulnerable way he’d apologized.        

I never went back to seeing him regularly as my therapist. Instead, we worked on an addiction book together that became a bestseller, underscoring how important — and fruitful — forgiveness can be. The experience taught me four elements of a good apology. 

1) A sincere, clear statement saying, “I am sorry I did this to you.” 

2) An explanation of why it happened.

3) An expression of remorse showing why it will never happen again.

4) Reparation to fix what was broken. After my friend Isabelle responded to my email asking if she’d come to my workshop with, “Thanks Susie, I’d love to,” using my childhood nickname, I was relieved. Realizing how rarely people received the apologies they deserved, I went on a forgiveness binge, vowing from now on to fully apologize and ask forgiveness to anyone I’d hurt.        

Sincere ways to say you’re sorry:

  • For an effective apology, fall on your sword without bringing up anything the other person did wrong or defending your actions.  
  • Consider traveling to their turf or using their preferred communication. Getting together in person is preferable, but a video chat, phone talk or handwritten letter may suffice.
  • Don’t expect instant reconciliation. Give the person you offended time to consider or ask again. A Hasidic friend revealed that Jewish law mandates you to sincerely ask forgiveness three times. A mother in Michigan I interviewed apologized to her son for eight years until they reconciled. Sometimes love means always having to say you’re sorry.

Do you have a hard time saying you're sorry to friends and family? Let us know in the comments below.

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