Recovery from any mistake depends on being honest with ourselves and others. It means taking responsibility for what we say and do, and what's happened in the past.
These are tall challenges, and none of us are perfectly honest all the time. So, the question is, what do we do when we fall short? This is particularly relevant to those recovering from addiction. Learning and following the guidelines of a true apology will help make your apologies sincere, appropriate and healing - for both you, and the people you've hurt.
In a personal interview with Dr. Meredith Sagan, a professional with the Prominence Treatment Center, the four basic parts of an apology were discussed:
Clearly state the action for which you are apologizing. For example: If you called someone cheap and selfish in front of their friends, specifically reference to the words you used. "Doing this is a way of 'owning' or taking responsibility for your actions," Dr. Sagan says.
Express regret or remorse for the offending behavior. It is necessary to say the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" to communicate the desire for true reconciliation.
Commit to change before going forward. If you know you have a lot to learn about holding your tongue when you don't get your way, talk about how you are willing and working to improve in this area.
Ask how you can repair the relationship. Sagan suggests asking something like: "Is there anything I can do right now to make things better between us?"
These four core components of a strong apology will help repair any relationships that have been damaged, but you can do more to make your apology even more meaningful:
What should you leave out?
Dr. Sagan says there are also things that do notbelong in an apology - there are no 'ifs' in an apology. "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings" makes it conditional and signals that you're unwilling to take full responsibility. Apologies also don't include a request for forgiveness. "I am sorry for being selfish. Will you forgive me?" just dilutes the apology's power.
When is the best time?
The sooner the better. "There may be occasions when a cooling off period is needed," Dr. Sagan points out, "but the more time goes by between the offending behavior and the apology, the more opportunity there is for hurt feelings to grow and fester." She likens the process to treating an open wound. The sooner it's treated, the sooner it mends.
Many of us are hesitant to apologize when the other person also behaved badly, which isn't the right approach. "Two wrongs never make a right," Dr. Sagan counsels. "The purpose of an apology is about taking responsibility for your behavior, not sitting in judgment of others. Long-term sobriety requires living in integrity by being honest and accountable. In the end, the behavior of others is out of our control."
Start by asking permission by saying, "Is this a good time to talk?" If the answer is yes, find a private place where you'll be free from interruption. If it's not a good time, ask when is more convenient.
It is also helpful to practice what you are going to say aloud or to run it by a friend. This is especially important when you still have unresolved feelings about what happened. Powerful emotions can suddenly spring to the surface in the moment, which can be disorienting and confusing. If you are not prepared, you could end up with a long narrative that justifies your bad behavior, instead of actually apologizing. "It is best to know what you are going to say before you say it," Dr. Sagan says. "Apologies don't have to be long and involved. An effective apology can be brief."
Which type of apology works best?
Simple, sincere apologies are the most effective. Hollow or grudge-filled apologies tend to fall flat and don't promote much healing or reconciliation. If you can't make a sincere apology, talk to someone and process your feelings first. "An insincere apology can often be counter-productive and turn a small issue into a bigger one," Dr. Sagan cautions.
Also, a face-to-face apology is normally the best approach. If that's not possible, still apologize, whether that's in writing or over the phone. Don't let hurt feelings and resentment take root and grow because you haven't apologized yet.
Saying you are sorry is easy. The art of making an apology is more involved, but a lot more effective. "Let's face it, we all make mistakes," Dr. Sagan concludes. "The real question is: how, when and where we try to make things right when we do."
Howard Goodman, MA, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and addiction specialist. Howard has treated hundreds of individuals and conducted thousands of hours of groups teaching those who are ready how to stay sober. In recovery himself, Howard brings a unique professional and personal sense of empathy, urgency, and purpose to his work. A frequent blog contributor and public speaker, Howard advocates for increased public awareness, education, and community-based participation in the fight against the disease of addiction.