• Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

A Recipe for Apologies

Updated: Aug 24

There are probably thousands of different recipes for cheesecake- and almost all of them would taste good to the average person with a sweet tooth.

Making an apology, like preparing a cheesecake, can be done effectively in many different ways. Below is one recipe for apologizing that you might like to consider.

Ingredients: The first ingredient is caring about the other person, whomever it maybe. If you merely say "I'm sorry," without any depth of feeling, the recipe won't work.

You sometimes see parents teaching their children to apologize without the ingredient of “caring.” I'm referring to those incidents when a child does something wrong and the parent launches a barrage of criticism and forces the youngster to say, "I'm sorry.” These are the right words, but they are repeated in a mechanical and unconvincing way because it’s a concession to adult pressure rather than an acknowledgment of harm.

The second ingredient in the recipe is recognizing the “accident” or “mistake” for which an apology is being made. Did you hurt someone's feelings? Step on a toe? Put someone down? Arrive late at an appointment? The task is to identify the problem.

The third ingredient starts with knowing the difference between saying "I did something wrong” (the premise for an apology) and saying, “I’m a bad person” (a self put-down). If you put yourself down every time you make a mistake, it'll be very difficult to actually apologize. If you know you made a mistake or did something wrong, then you can say what it is and express your apology about it.

It helps to look at things this way: Everybody makes mistakes . . . sometimes serious ones. The best anyone can do is take responsibility for the mistakes and learn from them.

The fourth ingredient, often overlooked, is “good-faith.” If you find yourself apologizing again and again about the same thing, it's time to treat the problematic behavior more seriously. Make a commitment to yourself and the other person that you will take the necessary steps to understand yourself better and make some changes.

Mix the ingredients: When you mix the ingredients in this recipe you get statements that indicate: 1) You care; 2) You know what you've done; 3) You're sorry about it; and 4) You will strive to improve.

Here are some examples:

• I realize I was grumpy this morning. I’m sorry. I don’t want to take out my frustrations on you.

• Oops, I just bumped into you. I'm sorry about that. I hope I didn't hurt you.

• I'm very sorry about the sarcastic remarks I made at the party. I realize that I've apologized about the same things several times before. It's got to stop. I'm going to get some help from friends, and professionals if necessary, to get to the bottom of this problem. I'm truly sorry for what I did.

Act quickly: Timing is important in this recipe. Apologies are an opportunity to fix up mistakes and accidents. The sooner that concern is shown, generally, the greater likelihood that things can be worked out.

Caution: Beware of that “you first” attitude. For example:

“Your mistake was more serious than mine. You should apologize first. If I say I’m sorry for my part of the problem, I won’t have any guarantees that you will do likewise.”

When two children each refuse to apologize, we all know how most parents respond:

“Will one of you please start acting like an adult and take some responsibility?”

When it is two adults who refuse to apologize, we may find ourselves at a loss for words!

Repeat as needed: Some recipes call for only one apology. They tell you to say it once and be done with it.

In this proposed recipe, you apologize as much as needed. The idea is straightforward. If you’ve done something which adversely affects someone you care about, you want to express your concern. You want to make sure that you’re heard, even if it involves repeating yourself. What matters is that the other person knows you care. That’s what apologies are all about: They help keep us together so we can enjoy the cheesecake.


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These articles are written to share ideas about how to create and sustain loving and cooperative relationships based on equality and mutual respect.

Copyright © 2020 Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.

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