Saying sorry (cont.)

It’s very hard, maybe impossible, to say sorry and mean it from the place of pride/shame, because to say sorry requires us to be humble and vulnerable. We have to admit that we did something wrong and stand there naked while the person we’ve wronged receives our apology. We have to risk them rejecting our apology, maybe even rejecting us. It’s a big act of courage to say sorry and mean it. It’s scary and it requires enough shame-resilience to know that we’re OK, that we’re bigger than the bad thing we did.

If secretly, under all the layers, we feel that we are not OK, then most likely our pride will kick in and we won’t be able to say sorry. We’ll turn it around, refusing to accept full responsibility for what we’ve done. We might say:

  • What I did is not as bad as you think it is
  • I acted that way because you provoked me
  • I did my best
  • I didn’t mean to hurt you
  • You started it

or any number of other things that suggest that we’re not fully behind our apology. This is pride operating – and beneath it lurks shame. If we were to admit our fault it would lead us down a shame spiral to “I’m not good enough” – so our pride kicks in to save us from the humiliation of this and we lash out to protect ourselves.

Now I’m not saying that every situation is simple and there’s always a clear right and wrong. In fact, in most situations involving two people or more, there are wrongs and hurts on both sides. But have you ever seen a successful resolution that doesn’t start with at least one side taking full responsibility for their part of the problem? An unmitigated apology creates space for real, vulnerable, open-hearted dialogue. It’s the first step on the road to communication and understanding, especially in a conflict or argument. And that’s precisely what makes this all so bloody difficult!

When I saw those Japanese suits on their knees on national TV, I understood what a sacrifice it is to say sorry and mean it. That was an extreme example, for sure, and it’s stuck in my head for over twenty years because it was so strong. It had to be extreme because of the shame/pride that caused them to lie to themselves (and the whole country) in the first place. It was an massive apology for an epic fuck-up.

Interestingly, when I shared this article with my lover (to check she was comfortable with me writing about what had passed between us) she added these enriching and valuable thoughts to the discussion:

For me, sorry is something I have to feel fully in order to say, and if I’m feeling humiliated at the prospect of apologising, then I find I can’t also feel the apology fully. At the moment, I’m noticing that wherever fear of humiliation comes up, it’s showing me where I have more processing to do around self-worth: similarly, once that fear has been resolved, then I know I’m ready to apologise if that’s what the situation calls for. However, once I do reach that point, it just feels natural to say, and I don’t feel worried about rejection, because I know that if I come to it with a full heart then I will have done the right thing on my part. So I agree with your perspective on the links between apologising, shame and self-worth, but perhaps have a different take on things when it comes to the aspect of sacrifice or it being difficult.

This in a way takes my argument to its logical conclusion: to apologise deeply you must have a lot of shame-resilience. In her case, she needs to be fully ready to give an apology without fear before doing it. I know that for me, sometimes there is still a trace of fear of humiliation hanging around — but nonetheless, I have overcome my pride/shame enough to be ready to say sorry.

For most of us, most of the time, we don’t have to let things go as far as the Japanese suits did. By developing shame-resilience, which means looking honestly at what we’ve done without thinking we’re wrong at our very core, we can recognise where we might have hurt someone else and apologise for it. And when we do, the situation changes significantly. It may not fix things immediately, but it has a huge positive impact on the situation. It’s a really important thing to do and I salute you for your courage if and when you do it.


The trouble with a lot of spiritual work is that it doesn’t measurably help people become better versions of themselves. For me, what really matters about The Work is that it fosters kindness, humility, authenticity, graciousness and awareness. The rest means precious little to me. I don’t really care how great your visions are, how much you can connect with the universal spirit of Love and how much beauty you feel in your heart. If you still behave in egoic ways and you can’t see it; if you still hurt others through lack of awareness; and above all, if you still don’t have the humility to know when you’ve done something wrong and apologise for it, then what’s the point of all the work you’ve been doing?

Sorry is a tiny word with a huge impact. To say it and mean it, we have to recognise both what we did wrong and that we are not fundamentally wrong. We have to believe that we’re a decent person who fucked up, rather than believing that we are a fucked-up person pretending to be decent. It’s risky, vulnerable, raw and real. And vitally important for healthy relationships.

Because sorry really matters.


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