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The life-changing benefits of a good apology

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It only takes a few short sentences to make a graceful apology — there’s no need to over-think it.

I’ll never forget when my boss yelled at me for making a mistake. I valued my job so I quickly apologized and vowed to correct the issue, but inside I was seething. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. In my mind, he was in the wrong and my apology was simply the quickest way to escape from his office. That night, though, I couldn’t sleep, and I began to reflect on how valuable a sincere apology can be.

Often, the cost of an apology seems too high. There’s a reluctance to back down, because it feels like you lose a piece of yourself by admitting to a mistake. Once I realize I’ve wronged someone, the process I go through is kind of ridiculous: I try to convince myself that I’m actually a good person no matter what my conscience is telling me, then I justify my actions and minimize how badly I’ve behaved. Finally, I triumphantly fool myself into believing that I’m the one who’s been wronged and everyone else is out to get me.

Of course, this elaborate ruse doesn’t last long. I never lose the nagging feeling that I need to make things right, and there’s a sense that life is unsettled until I do. When it’s really bad, I lie awake at night ruminating, or I have a stress reaction that causes my blood pressure to go up. I might work hard to avoid an apology — or give an insincere one — but in the end it isn’t worth it.

Physical and mental benefits of apologizing

When we hold grudges and refuse to give or receive an apology, it affects our physical health. “It never sits quite right — you toss, you turn in bed, you have that sinking feeling in your chest, you eat, you drink too much, you get headaches,” says Charline Laino, author of an article about the health benefits of apologizing at WebMD.

A good apology affects the health of those on the receiving end, too. Laino also mentions a 2002 study by researchers from Hope College and Virginia Commonwealth University that showed that heart rate, blood pressure, sweat levels, and facial tension decreased in victims of wrongs even when they simply imagined receiving an apology.

Apologizing only helps when a person really means it. Insincere apologies are often a way to avoid guilt — and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that in the media with public figures and celebrities who just want to move on after a controversy. For instance, actor Jason Biggs once wrote some insensitive tweets after an airplane crash. He took some heat for it and eventually came up with this, “People were offended, and that was not my intent. Sorry to those of you that were … my comments might have come off as insensitive and ill-timed. For that, I apologize.”

I do understand his attempt to avoid responsibility with a lame, half-apology that really doesn’t address the wrong. But if that were me, I’d continue to feel sick about it.

Apologizing affects us not just physically, but mentally, too. It can lower incidents of depression, anxiety, and help renew past relationships. In a powerful piece in Psychology Today, writer Beverly Engel described how a simple “I’m sorry” from her mother, after being estranged from each other for three years, healed her emotionally.

Old grudges create baggage and continue to affect new relationships. Sometimes I’ve been tempted not to apologize because I think I’ll never see the person again and the problem will fade away. But it never really does. Lingering hurts eventually catch up with us.

I saw this up close and personal as a pastor when I occasionally attended an Alcoholics Anonymous group at our church to offer support. At those meetings, I heard some of the most fearless, honest self-examination of past wrongs that I’ve ever encountered. The 12 steps of AA focus on making a moral inventory and righting past wrongs, and the 9th step is about making amends. Even seemingly unrelated past mistakes can keep us from making progress — and this is true for us all.

Apologizing helps the soul

In the book Everybody Needs to Forgive Somebodyauthor Allen Hunt writes about a woman named Amy with whom he’d argued for many years at church meetings. It got so bad that eventually she quit and went to another church and with that, he thought his problem had ended.

Years later, Allen bumped into Amy at a tennis match. His heart sank as she recognized him and walked over — but she took the first step and apologized to him. “She stepped out and offered me the key to prepare a new path, a path free of the bitterness and poison that had been welling up deep within me,” Hunt writes. The apology was the antidote to a spiritual ill he didn’t even know he needed.

I’m not sure I could have been as brave as Amy. When I’m dreading an apology, it’s often because I’ve allowed past mistakes to define me. I begin to think that my flaws are not fixable and that admitting mistakes out loud identifies me with them. That’s not true, though — none of us are defined by our mistakes. Apologies allow us to rise above the past and take steps toward the kind of people we want to become.

Three steps of an apology

It’s clear that apologies are worth the time and effort, but what does a good apology look like?

A great example is Reese Witherspoon’s apology on Good Morning America after she was caught on film being rude to a police officer who suspected her and her husband of drunk driving. On national television, she said, “We went out to dinner in Atlanta, and we had one too many glasses of wine, and we thought we were fine to drive and we absolutely were not. It’s completely unacceptable, and we are so sorry and embarrassed. We know better, and we shouldn’t have done that.”

Witherspoon’s apology follows three simple steps: First, she’s honest with herself that a mistake was made. She takes full responsibility and doesn’t try to justify it or explain it away. She doesn’t identify too closely with the mistake, admitting that she should have known better, but she fully owns her actions. This frees her up to say she will avoid a similar mistake in the future. Second, she drops any pretense that the officer did anything wrong; she doesn’t blame him for what happened. Third, Witherspoon doesn’t let the situation linger. She asks for forgiveness quickly, without worrying too much about how embarrassing it might be.

It only takes a few short sentences to make a graceful apology — there’s no need to over-think it. It may be difficult, but it can set you free.

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