Anatomy of a Mindful Apology

Photo by Brett Jordan

An apology, when well intended and mindfully applied, can be one of human beings’ most powerful elixirs for both the giver and receiver. Yet like many concepts, it has been misunderstood and misused. When we offer a shallow or knee-jerk apology, or one with unacknowledged ulterior motives, it can create even more harm to ourselves and to those to whom we offer it. There’s a wise saying that compares trust to a priceless vase – easily broken, and once shattered, very difficult to return its former glory. A mindful apology has the potential to become a fixative that restores and perhaps even strengthens trust, which is the lifeblood of healthy relationships.

Mindfulness means being aware of what’s truly here in an objective and nonjudgmental way. A mindful apology arises out of a clear awareness of the harmful consequences of, or error in, our line of thinking, something we’ve said, or an overt action we’ve taken. Our mindfulness practice can help us craft a skillful apology through examining all of its aspects, from intention through application and beyond. Some helpful questions we can ask ourselves before offering an apology include:

  • What is my intention for making this apology? Do I wish to decrease the suffering of those I may have hurt? Do I wish to right a wrong or prevent it from happening again? Is there some privilege I wish to gain for myself through making an apology?
  • Do I truly understand the harm (actual or potential) resulting from my error and am I willing to acknowledge it without excuses or explanations? Do I accept responsibility for my part in what happened?
  • Do I feel genuine remorse? Accepting that I have acted in error, do I have a sense of regret – would I go back and change my conduct if I could?
  • Am I willing to make amends that help demonstrate and increase the likelihood I won’t repeat my mistake? Am I sorry enough to make an effort toward change?
  • How attached am I to the outcome of my apology? Can I be satisfied with an apology for its own sake, or must there be some particular observable result in order for it to feel worthwhile?

A mindful apology is just the start in the journey toward repairing relationships. Healing and trust-building take time and ongoing effort. We can inquire honestly into whether we are endeavoring to embody the following qualities that support the reconstruction of trust:

  • Consistency – Am I showing a regular pattern of trustworthy behavior with few contradictions?
  • Reliability – Am I doing what I say I will do or what I have agreed to?
  • Honesty – Am I being truthful, sincere and authentic without intention to deceive?
  • Open Communication – Am I sharing of myself freely, offering needed information without having to be asked first?
  • Competence – Am I demonstrating the skills, wisdom and experience necessary to do what I promised or what is reasonably expected of me?

Remember, a sincere apology is intended for those who have been wronged, not for the benefit of the “transgressor” – it should be intended to promote healing, not merely to obtain forgiveness. Often times we never come to know how an apology ultimately lands, but this doesn’t diminish its value. Though a genuine apology is meant for others, it tends to change us in beneficial ways. By acknowledging and deeply connecting with our mistakes, we see the benefit in accepting our errors, making us more likely to learn from them and less likely to repeat them.

We’ve all been wronged at some point in our lives and its very fortunate that we don’t actually need an apology to be able to move forward and thrive. Though it can be incredibly helpful, reconciliation with the person who wronged us is not a necessary component. Reconciliation is a two way street – we ultimately have no control over how others think and feel and limited control over how they act. So, it’s in our best interest to engage in the work of personal and collective healing without any guarantee of an apology. Over the long term, the consequences of continually feeding and entertaining painful thoughts and feelings of hurt and betrayal can seep into and poison our relationships and negatively impact our physical and emotional wellbeing.

It’s important to realize that we don’t have to forget in order to forgive. In fact, we do need to remember our mistakes – especially the gravest ones – so that they aren’t repeated and so that we can protect ourselves from ongoing harm. Forgiveness is simply (but not easily) letting go of the desire for revenge as well as any hateful thoughts, grudges, bitterness or resentment toward those who wronged us. In this way, we are better able to benefit from a painful lesson learned without prolonging or being hijacked by the suffering we’ve experienced. Collectively engaging in a clear-eyed approach to apology and forgiveness can empower us to co-create a kinder, more just and peaceful world.

My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.The Fifth Remembrance

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