“How many times do I have to say I’m sorry for them to believe me?!” I hear that phrase a lot in my practice, and I know it’s a frustrating place to be. You did something hurtful, you’re truly sorry, you said you were sorry and you wholeheartedly meant it. You cried. You bought gifts. You hand-wrote a letter. You did a whole list of other stuff that didn't seem to make one iota of a difference. So, now what? You just want the issue to evaporate and to be given another chance to prove that you’re not, in fact, a terrible human being and that you have, in fact, learned your lesson. While you can’t magically make that scenario unfold, you can offer an apology layered with true understanding, compassion and potential for forgiveness. The first step?
First and foremost, don't apologize for something you're not sorry for.
This seems obvious, but people do it all the time and it creates significant, recurrent issues in relationships. There's a difference between apologizing for how your behavior made someone feel, and apologizing for the whole shebang. Ask yourself, do you regret what you did? Or do you just regret how your behavior made the other person feel?
If you're not sorry for what you did, don't apologize for it. Instead, apologize for the hurt it caused. Avoid the trap of defending your behavior if you're not sorry for it.
Defending behavior you're not sorry for transforms an apology into an argument about which person's values are "more right." If you get into a back and forth about your behavior, visualize a giant 'DEADEND' sign, because that's where you're headed. The easiest way to tell if you're steering the apology towards more useless drama is monitoring your use of the word 'but.' For example, "I'm sorry I didn't show up, but part of why I work late is...." If you find yourself using the word but frequently, take that as a major cue that you're digging a deep, deep hole. Stop digging.
Turn around and refocus the apology by emphasizing your understanding of how the behavior made the other person feel. It may seem easier to apologize for the whole situation, even if you're only sorry for how your choice made another feel, but apologizing when you're not sorry is really not a good call. If you're okay with your choices and would make those choices again, apologizing for said choices just makes you insincere and sets you up to continually disappoint whomever you hurt in the first place.
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. The same is true for apologizing. Part 2 of this post explains how to help someone step into your shoes and Part 5 details the one thing you should never, EVER do while apologizing. But before you move forward in the process, you have to know for yourself: when I really think about everything that happened, what am I truly sorry about?