How to Overcome Apology-Phobia: Or Why Love Means Never Waiting for Someone Else to Say They're Sorry First

Given our propensity for hurting each other -- usually inadvertently through our clumsiness or our being inconsiderate -- getting good at apologizing should be standard-issue emotional equipment for membership in the human race. And it is. Any one can do it.
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Are you an apology-phobic? Telltale sign: You shrank your wife's favorite cashmere sweater in the wash (though, yes -- for the record, you were trying to help with the laundry) and didn't notice her new haircut (because to you, your wife always looks gorgeous), but when she brings these facts to your attention and it's time to utter those two little words that would fix everything, you suffer from lock-jaw. No key in sight. Except when she gets upset at you for not apologizing and then you mysteriously and conveniently find the missing key and run your mouth making the situation worse by saying things like, "Why does it matter so much to you? Why is everything always my fault?" Or the last ditch: "Well, look at the bright side, now the sweater fits the dog." So intractable is apology-phobia that sufferers are known to say anything in their entire vocabulary except for the right thing. This disorder does not just strike men. Women can be afflicted too, but I'll leave it to my husband to write his, I mean, that side of the story.

Let's admit it: There's nothing quite like those heartfelt apologies. But let's admit something else: We're just not very good at giving them.

Interpreting the Love Story dictum a little too literally we translate "love means never having to say you're sorry" into an excuse to refuse to 'fess up to our transgressions, or even just our blunders. All the while knowing deep down that love is exactly the place to apologize -- early, often and even first.

What are we afraid of? Too much love, appreciation, and the enviable consequence of getting closer to those we care about the most?

What we are afraid of is not the apology itself. Once we get to the point where we are saying the words, we're already reaping the benefits -- basking in the reflective glow of the other person's appreciation. No, what we are afraid of is the anticipation. Walking that plank, naked, without the protection of our ego or pride. Our anxiety says in that special way that claims self-preservation while simultaneously biting us in the seat: Don't do it! You are stepping out into the abyss! You'll be eaten alive! You shouldn't apologize -- it's not your fault! Apologize for this and there'll be no end to the blame that's pegged on you! Meanwhile the truth plays out a bit, or actually entirely, differently: Without that very pride or ego getting in the way, we leap over the uncertainty, utter the right words, and are welcomed, rewarded, relieved, and embraced. All good.

Given our propensity for hurting each other -- usually inadvertently through our clumsiness or our being inconsiderate -- getting good at apologizing should be standard-issue emotional equipment for membership in the human race. And it is. Any one can do it.

Instead, we defend ourselves when we hurt someone's feelings -- It's not my fault! I had nothing to do with it! But we've all witnessed those un-glorious scenes with children: the little kid whose littler kid brother is crying. Right alongside the howls of the littler kid, one hears the protests of the bigger kid insisting: "It wasn't me! He was the one who pushed me!" What we tell the child, we need to remind ourselves: Apologize first, and then sort out the details of who did what to whom later. We can do this best when we distinguish the idea of apologizing from admitting that you are a terrible person. They feel like they are the same thing, but truly they are not.

Let's get better at apologies, together. Here are six ways to put out the welcome mat -- in our own minds -- for those magic words.

Shift the Mindset: Don't Think What's Most Fair; Think What's Most Freeing

What's going to help you feel better sooner -- waiting? Being on hold? Or taking action? Take the first step yourself. That's a gift that you give to yourself -- you're giving yourself the opportunity to resolve, move on, let go. Oh, and of course, this will help the other person feel better sooner too. Rather than being in anticipation mode, you can shift into resolution mode. See these conflicts and their resolution as opportunities to improve and even strengthen a relationship. You don't want to be locked in and neither does the other person -- you are doing both of you a favor, and in general favors are returned.

Have Compassion, Not Daggers: Is the Other Person a Bad Guy or a Good Person Who Made a Bad Choice?

It is hard to apologize for our part of things when we are thinking that the other person played into this "on purpose." Step into the other person's shoes. Stretch your mind and find at least one good reason why a person would act that way. Are they stressed, intimidated, forgetful? Whatever the reason, note how very rarely the things people do wrong are "on purpose" things, and how often they're accidental or, even more often ,something the other person regrets. The more we have compassion for each other and see each other's humanity and vulnerability, it's easy to do the right thing. And that compassion may come in handy when we're the ones who mess up next time.

Keep What You Are Apologizing Small: You Are Apologizing for Your Actions, Not Your Entire Existence

What are you apologizing for? If you understand that you are not apologizing for being a terrible human being (something that any of us would find hard to do), but rather, you're apologizing for the misunderstanding, for not being thoughtful, for hurting a person in that situation, you will be more willing to step forward with generosity and say, "I don't want things to be like this between us. I want to work things out. I'm sorry, can we work this through together?"

Apologize Big: You Can Afford It

Even though what we are apologizing for is something small -- we didn't mean to forget to pick up the dry cleaning -- that doesn't mean that how we apologize needs to be small and pulled like a tooth. We measure out our apologies as if following an unwritten instruction to use sparingly. Imagine that you have a plethora of apologies, and apply liberally.

Be Gracious When You Get An Apology

Don't have a double standard. If you want folks to accept your apologies, don't do a red-pen edit of theirs. As long as their apology was sincere, don't create a roadblock by critiquing how they did it. Instead, let it in, thank them, and see how, even if it's not how you'd do it, they're trying to make things better.

If It's Too Hard to Apologize: Say That

If you can't quite say you're sorry, but you know it's what would help, don't keep that a secret: Ease your way in. If apologizing is hard to do -- start there. These aren't fighting words, they are the pathway to resolution or at least communication. This can turn what feels impossible into an action plan. Say: "I'm mad, and I know apologizing will help, but I'm not ready." The other person will appreciate your honesty and may come and meet you halfway.

Let's overcome our fear of apologizing, together. With everyone working on this, you may find that the next time those two little words -- "I'm sorry" -- get stuck in your throat, someone else will apologize to you first. And you'll be grateful for it. It's the great community clean-up effort. Clearing the air together, we'll all breathe better.

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