We've all messed up at one time or another.
Maybe we blurted something hurtful to a friend, lied to get out of an activity we didn't want to do, forgot an important date or failed to perform a vital task at work and covered it up. Or, perhaps we did something way more serious like cheated on our partner, lied to get our way or betrayed someone we cared about.
The moment you realize you really could be caught or are about to be confronted, a cold panic hits you, your heart pounds, your stomach sinks and at that moment, reality hits you between the eyes.
"The secret is out!"
Owning it: Why We Don't
When we make mistakes, it's normal to want to protect ourselves and retreat from the very uncomfortable and embarrassing feelings that come up, especially with those we love, care about or depend on. We imagine how angry and disappointed they will be and we don't want to open ourselves up to their criticism, blame and backlash.
We all possess an ego self-defense system that seeks to guard us from seeing ourselves in a bad light. Add to that the natural desire to escape punishment, avoid a messy confrontation and/or be seen as wrong or as a failure, and you have a cocktail that almost guarantees you'll want to be avoiding, justifying, minimizing or denying -- to yourself, and to anyone else -- whatever it is you've done wrong.
As a marriage and family therapist and author of the book Chatting or Cheating, I see this happen all the time. Many people don't "own up" to what they've done, even when confronted by evidence. Rather than looking at their mistake squarely, admitting they are wrong or have wronged another and apologizing for it, they'll say or do whatever they can to avoid having to take responsibility for the pain they've caused.
The 7 BIGGEST MISTAKES most people often make when caught, confronted or confessing a wrongdoing:
- Denying - basically lying.
- Defending - looking for loopholes and making excuses.
- Distracting - talking about anything and everything but the issue.
- Saying, I'm Sorry BUT - giving an apology and then taking it away by trying to justify your actions.
- Playing the Blame Game - attacking back by pointing fingers and assigning percentages, "While I may be to blame here, it's at least 30% your fault."
- Hiding Out - hoping whatever happened will blow over and eventually pass.
- Apologizing Insincerely - rushing to an apology, before you mean it, to escape punishment or disfavor.
These behaviors are all reactive, self-protective tactics of fear that add insult to injury, create emotional separation, distrust, communication breakdown and deeper damage to your relationship with yourself and the 'injured' party.
STOP Letting Your Fear Run the Show
If you've screwed up in some way -- with your partner, your friend, at work or with anyone you care about -- and you want to save your integrity and your relationship with them, there is a way to apologize that will calm the anger, rebuild the connection and reduce the likelihood of rigorous punishment or retribution later.
The 4 R's of a Kick-Ass Apology
While I'll frame my examples for a relationship mistake, this technique can be used for almost any situation where you want to repair and restore communication:
1. Take Responsibility for your actions.
For an apology to be effective, it must be clear that you accept full responsibility for your actions or inactions. After all, whatever you did, you didn't mess up because your partner (boss, family member, friend) made you do it, you did it through your own poor choices. So it all starts with ownership. "This is my fault. "I made a huge mistake. I really screwed up. I've hurt you. I've hurt us. I am so sorry."
2. Recognize and sincerely acknowledge the mistake you made.
Don't be a drama queen or king by blaming yourself in an exaggerated way. Instead, recognize the harm you have done to your partner's feelings and the stability of the relationship between you. Be constructive, not blaming. "I didn't want to acknowledge the problems we were having in our relationship, and instead, I behaved badly, hurt you deeply, and have now created even bigger problems between us."
3. Express Regret and Remorse about what you've done and the pain it caused.
This is the time to be sincere, sensitive and sympathetic of your partner's pain.
"I know that you've trusted me and loved me. I recognize that my actions hurt and betrayed you and have undermined the sanctity of our relationship."
4. Be prepared to provide Remedy and Restitution to give your partner what they need to feel safe and rebuild trust.
"I love you and will do anything to make it right again." If your partner asks you to remedy the situation, don't debate it or ask for compromises that will make things easier on you. Be sure to follow through with whatever you agree to.
Saying, "I'm sorry" with total sincerity using the 4 R's can lead you down the path to forgiveness, repair of trust and more honest and intimate communication between you.
An Effective, Genuine Apology Holds a Deeper Lesson Within It
Whenever you are faced with a hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment, big or small, here is a good question to ask yourself before responding: "What would my BEST self do? The correct answer will always be... Grow up. Show up. Take responsibility for your actions and do the RIGHT thing.
Learning how to give an honest, sincere apology teaches you how to face the storms head-on, maintain your integrity, take power over your fear and renew the trust in your relationship and within yourself.
That's a lesson with a BIG reward!
Sheri Meyers, Psy.D is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles, CA, and author of Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship. For a free chapter of Chatting or Cheating, please go to:chattingorcheating.com
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