When You Hurt Someone

I’m a big movie fan in addition to being a mental health counselor and wellness advocate. I was watching an old Alfred Hitchcock film called “Rich and Strange” one day when I was struck by what one of the characters said about love and relationships:

This quote, I believe, encapsulates so much about our struggles in relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or familial. When we have a strong emotional connection with another person, the stakes are inevitably raised. That is why it is so difficult when someone close to us hurts us…or we hurt them.

It is a myth that you can craft the perfect apology. There is no such thing as a flawless apologies. What rings true for the listener in one apology may be a minefield for another. After all, we bring our distinct selves and histories to each and every interaction. However, there are some fundamental relationship “truths,” as I call them, that will go a long way toward ensuring that your apology is felt.

First Apologize by Acknowledging the Hurt

First and foremost, we all want to be recognized and understood as individuals. In situations where you must make amends for someone who has been harmed as a result of your actions, practicing sympathy is critical. Recognizing the hurt is a big part of having a successful apology. If you see someone who is angry, frustrated, crying, or sad as a result of something you did, it’s important to acknowledge those feelings by saying something like, “I can tell you’re upset right now, and I’m sorry that you feel that way.” Acknowledging someone else’s pain can be extremely healing for them in the moment and serve as a helpful foundation as you move forward with your apology.

Apologize by Taking Responsibility

Being able to accept responsibility for your actions is an important part of being in a relationship (of any kind). When attempting to apologize to someone for hurting them, accepting responsibility for your specific behavior is critical. “I’m sorry that I hurt you” isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it could be better for many people. It is critical to be specific about what behavior you engaged in that had a negative impact on someone else, as well as to refrain from providing a laundry list of reasons for your actions. To accept responsibility for your actions, you can leave out the reasons why unless pressed further. People may even understand your why in most cases, but that doesn’t take away the pain. It is not necessary to explain why you are apologizing; rather, it is necessary to communicate compassion. For example, to make the preceding phrase (in an example) even more powerful, you could say something like, “I apologize for not returning your call in a timely manner, which left you feeling ignored.” I should not have done that, and I apologize for hurting you.”

Apologize & Keep Your “I” On the Prize

One of the ways we inadvertently botch our apologies is by directing our attention back to the person to whom we are apologizing. This can make them defensive and undermine any good faith effort you’ve put into your apology. That is why it is critical to use “I” statements as much as possible. In addition to accepting responsibility for your actions, communicating from a point of self-reference will be extremely beneficial in assisting your conversation partner in understanding and accepting your apology.

As previously stated, there is no fool-proof plan to guarantee a perfect apology, but if you take a little time to consider some of these themes, I have a feeling you will be well on your way to healing an unintentional wound.

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