I Learned to Really Apologize

I sat in the parking lot of the grocery store with my cell phone in my hand. People were bustling all around, running their errands and loading their cars with brimming bags, but I couldn’t get that last conversation out of my mind. No matter how I tried to push the feelings aside, they kept creeping up on me.  I had been blunt and careless. I saw it in her eyes when she turned away and left the room. I hurt her.

Now sitting alone in my car, I couldn’t get that scene out of my head. Why had I criticized her so harshly? I had been honest, but I didn’t have to do it like that. We had both been feeling fragile and I made it so much worse. And then I let her leave … I scrolled through my contacts, found her number, and took a deep breath.

“About before … I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been so judgemental. I should have been more sensitive to how you were feeling.”

The forgiveness was almost instant, not because I hadn’t hurt her that much. I definitely had. But she forgave me because we both chose to put the relationship first. I chose to put my pride aside and admit to the mistake, and she, thankfully, chose to accept that from me. It wasn’t the most elegant exchange I’ve ever had. Apologizing feels awkward and vulnerable and hard. There are long pauses and loaded silences. There are raw feelings coating every word. There’s shame and guilt, but in the end, intimacy and love.

It was a valuable lesson I learned that day: own up and reach out.

I come from a family that is not very practiced in the art of sharing feelings and expressing understanding. We’re more in the line of avoiders, bottlers, even sometimes grudge-holders. We’re experts at letting others know when we’ve been hurt, but rarely do we make amends when we’ve done the hurting.

It’s not uncommon for members of our family to express an opinion (not always very gracefully) only to be met by days or weeks of silence. When we’re hurt or offended, we usually explode, avoid, or ignore the issue. Sometimes it seems like everything is taken personally. And on the rare occasion that someone sees that the other is hurt, the best you get is a “sorry” said briskly and cheaply, meant to move us on, not to reconcile a misstep.

Empathizing and then recognizing when an apology is necessary are skills we need to hone. Actually expressing that apology … well, isn’t it just easier to hope the offense gets forgotten? Time heals all things, right? We are great at pretending nothing happened, on both sides of the hurt.

But that leaves scars. Not addressing the ways we’ve been hurt — and the ways we’ve done the hurting — leaves wounds that never properly heal, sometimes chafing beneath the surface until those feelings come up again the next time you hit a rough patch with that friend or sister. And going from that way of conflict unresolution to learning to actually apologize and make amends has taken me a long time. I’m still working on it with my family because they don’t expect it and don’t understand why I would bother putting us all through these difficult conversations when we could just pretend everything is fine.

But we have to try anyway, because the truth is, we’re going to hit rough patches with our friends and family. As one of my favorite bloggers likes to say, we’re all “made of human”  and so we are going to mess up and say things wrong and make things worse and hurt each other. It’s our nature. But our other nature is divine. We have the capacity to heal and apologize and reconcile and forgive and take each other by the hand again. We’re human and divine and we can make amends. 

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s taken me a long time really to learn that actually saying “I’m sorry for …” is important. That saying those words to someone when you’ve hurt them matters to your relationship. And that really saying you’re sorry is a conversation, not a passing comment.

These conversations build trust. They tell the one you’ve hurt, “I didn’t mean to disregard your feelings. You’re important to me and I want to make this right.” Forgiveness is not guaranteed, especially not immediately, but when you are genuine and the other person can see you trying to mend the rift, it will matter. It matters when we own up and reach out.

Jamie Watkins

Jamie Watkins

I am a wife, sister, daughter, and friend. I work at a non-profit by day and go to school at night, and try my best to find times to write in between. My biggest passions are travel-- and France in particular-- film, and good conversation. I live in New Jersey, where my husband and I open our house to others with good food and wine. I blog at Seek.Follow.Love about wrestling with faith and church, looking for meaning in the every day, and feeling my way through life.
Jamie Watkins

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  • Chad

    Apologizing is something I struggle to understand. I grew up always being forced to apologize when I hurt another, as many children are. I think, however, I didn’t always understand what I was truly apologizing for. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t truly apologize until you understand what you’re apologizing for and why the other person was truly hurt, and it’s not always what you think it is. That’s what I think makes an authentic apology, though, when you begin to understand where the other person is coming from.