International Forgiveness Day is the first Sunday of every August—but every day is a good one to practice forgiveness, Think it’s too tough? Check out this incredible story of forgiveness. Science has taught us plenty about the act, including the fact that forgiveness can be good for heart health. What happens if you’re the transgressor, seeking forgiveness? You could have forgotten a birthday, skipped an anniversary, or really crossed the line by cheating on a spouse. How do you craft the kind of apology that conveys how terrible you feel, that is sincere, and that will earn forgiveness?
Apologize correctly, and you’ll go a long way towards healing both the wrong-doer and the wronged, according to Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical counselor. But how to apologize is an art, and too often, apologies miss their mark for some basic reasons, says Rabbi Slatkin. First, you have to actually feel remorseful.
The right attitude
“An apology is more than a rote recitation of words; it’s a signal that you’re empathizing with the other person, and accepting responsibility for causing them distress,” says Dana Royce Baerger, JD, PhD, assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. According to Stacy Kaiser, MA, licensed psychotherapist and Editor-At-Large of Live Happy, effective apologies include not only a clear and official I’m sorry-type statement, but also an expression of remorse for what was done and a commitment that it won’t happen again.
But these expressions are worth nothing if they are not backed up by sincerity, warns Rabbi Slatkin. “If you care more about being forgiven than the pain you caused, your apology isn’t sincere and won’t help mend your relationship.” He advises putting aside any anxiety you may have about discharging your obligation and actually get in touch with your sense of remorse.
The right words
An effective apology contains six crucial elements—or as many as possible, according to a 2016 study conducted at Ohio State University, starting with these three:
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Acknowledgment of responsibility.
Together, these serve as acknowledgment that your actions specifically made life worse for the other person. For this acknowledgment to be effective, you can’t be defensive, says relationship and etiquette expert, April Masini. “When you come out of the gate explaining how it’s not your fault, your apology doesn’t feel genuine.”
“Don’t make excuses or justifications for what you’ve done,” says Kaiser, “and don’t tell the person you’re only apologizing because they asked you to do so.” And whatever you do, don’t imply that the person you wronged is wrong for feeling wronged—”I’m sorry if what I did hurt you,” for example. An effective apology does not invalidate the other person’s feelings. “Validation doesn’t mean you have to agree,” says Rabbi Slatkin, but rather that you are accepting the other person’s reaction to your actions as valid.
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer of repair
- Request for forgiveness
Together, these three add up to “contrition,” according to Rabbi Slatkin, which holds within it a promise for future change. It’s not enough to just say you’re sorry and move on. “If you wrap up your apology with a commitment to do a specific thing differently, your apology will go from baseline to superlative,” advises Masini.
The right behavior
“Talk is cheap,” says Rabbi Satkin. “If you keep making the same mistake there is only so far that words will go. A change in your behavior sends a message that you are serious about turning a new page.”
As Kaiser says, “Follow-through is critical.”
This inspiring story should leave you with no doubt about the power of an effective apology.