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How Do I Apologize?


Apologizing is a part of recovery. It’s a formal part of any 12-Step program, but realizing how we’ve hurt people and how badly we’ve screwed up is a natural part of the process. Sometimes it’s what drives us toward sobriety.

Apologizing may be part of recovery, but it’s also a skill that takes work.

A good apology has three parts:

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I was wrong.”
  • “Please forgive me.”

4 Apology Mistakes That’ll Trip You Up

Have you ever tried to apologize and found that everything blew up in your face or that you ended up hurting the person more rather than healing the rift?

An earnest apology is painful for you too, but don’t let that weaken the apology by sidestepping it with a fake one. Here are four apology mistakes that cause more harm than help:

”If you only understood my thinking, you’d be okay with it.”

Are you apologizing or explaining? In the end, if you messed up, it doesn’t matter what you were thinking.

You might have meant well, but meaning well rarely matters. It’s not about you. It’s about the person you’ve wronged, so talking about what you were thinking doesn’t help and can make things worse.

Trying to Explain Doesn’t Work Because

Most non-addicted people see the thought/behavior cycle as linear: “you have a choice, you make it.” The average person doesn’t understand how an addiction changes your brain.

You are motivated by meeting your addiction needs and what seems like a choice to others isn’t so clear to you. Throw in depression, anxiety, or another co-occurring disorder, and that complicates it even more.

Part of recovery is restoring brain function and returning you back to who you really are. That takes time. Restoring your relationships does, too.

Explaining “why” won’t help things make more sense, so stay away from “why.” Just say you’re sorry.

”I said I’m sorry, so things must get better now”

You apologized, so how come your partner doesn’t feel better? Why are they still mad?

An apology doesn’t take away all of the pain, though it’s a relief to feel that the person with the addiction realizes some of the damage they’ve done and is sorry.

Healing takes time and so does rebuilding trust.

It took months or even years for you to get to treatment and recovery. Those who’ve suffered through it with you are going to need time, too.

I’m in recovery, why isn’t my spouse happy?

The strange thing is that now that you are in recovery, your marriage might be more at risk for a while. A person isn’t in their addiction alone–it changes the whole family.

You might have come to a conclusion that it’s time to enter treatment, but they’ll take longer to adapt to the change.

Also, this might be the first time that they’ve felt safe enough to express the deep anger that’s been sitting there for years, suppressed while they were in “survival mode.” They need time to process their pain and grief. It’s not a linear process. Some days will be better than others.

Be patient with each other.

”I’m sorry you feel that way” and other ways of throwing it back on the other person.

Sometimes we tell ourselves we’re apologizing, but we’re still throwing the real blame on someone else.

  • “If you had only…” You’re still saying what you did was a “logical” response to something they did.
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way.” You’re saying the problem isn’t really what you did, but that they were bothered by it.
  • “It’s done now.” You might want it to be, but they need time to process everything, too.

Own Your Apology

This is one of the reasons why the outline of…

  • “I’m sorry”
  • “I was wrong”
  • “Please forgive me”

…doesn’t include “if,” “but,” or “why”. These words instantly take the blame off of you.

“But they did stuff, too.” The family of an addicted person develops unhealthy ways of relating to each other and to the world in order to survive: so yes, they did stuff too. That’s not the point.

Apologies aren’t if/then statements. You don’t apologize because the other person earned it or because you expect them to apologize, too. You apologize because you hurt the other person and it’s the right thing to do, whether they return an apology or not.

How to Apologize

We start with the outline from before:

  1. “I’m sorry.”
  2. “I was wrong.”
  3. “Please forgive me.”

You can flesh out the “I’m sorry” so that your loved one knows what you are apologizing for…

  • “I’m sorry that I said you didn’t love me when I was drunk.”
  • “I’m sorry that I cheated on you.”
  • “I’m sorry that I…”

After that, keep the rest simple. That way, you don’t undermine your apology or explain it away.

“I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

What about “I’ll never do it again?”

There are two reasons why this promise isn’t a good idea.

  • You’re healing, and you can’t promise you won’t do it again. Relapse happens and is even a normal part of recovery.
  • You’ve hurt your loved one before. Chances are, they’ve heard “It’ll never happen again.” Don’t connect the apology with bad memories. Let it stand on its own.

Once You Apologize, It’s Not Up to You

After you’ve said your piece, the decision belongs to the other person. They have four options:

  • They can refuse to forgive.
  • They can forgive, but decide you don’t have a place in their lives.
  • They can forgive, but you will have to re-earn their trust.
  • They can forgive and let the relationship be fully restored.

The other person gets to decide which path they’ll take. That decision may not be made at the moment you apologize, and just because they choose to forgive doesn’t mean the pain is gone and the trust is back.

Healing takes time and it’s a lot of work. It starts with an apology. At Spring Gardens, we’ll help you get through this process with your loved ones. You’re not alone. Give us a call at (866) 244-9556 or go to our contact page and we’ll get back to you about how to begin the process of entering treatment with us.

Lora Horn is a writer in Escondido, CA. She covers psychology and recovery issues because humanity is fascinating. When she’s not writing, she’s usually enjoying a nice cup of tea with her cat cuddled by her side.

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