Why do we need to apologize

by Jelena
why we need to apologize, mistakes

I’ve been struggling for a very long time to say “Sorry” when it’s needed and accept that I am not perfect. As I have embarked on a spiritual journey of inner growth, I have started to understand where all of this learned behavior actually comes from and how important is to apologize. 

In this blog I share some of the lessons I’ve learned on my journey to becoming a better version of myself. There is a lot of inner work, lots of “cleaning up” of my own yard so to speak – lots of questioning, fears, and doubts.

One of the most profound self-improvement projects still underway, and one I will endeavor to work on the rest of my life, is to accept that I am not perfect and that I can hurt people even with my best intentions.

I have found myself in situations many times where I had to apologize even when I didn’t feel I was wrong and when my Ego was shouting excuses and justifications for my behavior. I was ready to immediately fix the damage, but I wasn’t ok with saying “I’m sorry” because I didn’t see the purpose of it. I was insecure in the idea of being vulnerable to the world.

All of these experiences have led me to look for answers to why we need to apologize and how to apologize in a meaningful way.

Book recommendations

Have you read books by Dr. Garry Chapman? His book “The 5 love languages” really turned my life around back in the day when I didn’t understand how each of us speaks a unique language of love. It is possible to be misunderstood when you are expressing your love although you may not see it at first. I learned to appreciate how different we all are when we love someone.

He wrote other books that I found quite helpful as well, and as it turns out, we also speak different languages of apology.
Sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is not enough to fix the damage we inflicted with our behavior.

Naturally, this book was perfect for me to learn another skill in life and a very useful one – how to apologize and make amends when we hurt the people around us, especially the ones we love.

Here are the five primary languages of apology:

  1. Expressing regret: It is important to say “I am sorry
  2. Accepting responsibility: Although it is easy to blame it on circumstances or others, the truth is, we have hurt someone with our behavior and we need to take responsibility without saying “but.” “I am sorry that I’ve caused you pain” is the right way.
  3. Making restitution: Sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. There needs to be something more to it. Just like when a child takes away a toy from another child, it is not enough to just say “sorry.” It is important to return the toy in addition to the verbal apology.
  4. Genuinely repenting: We need to make sure the other person knows that we will do our best not to hurt them again like that and explain to them how we plan to do that. “I will make sure to call you if I will be late again.
  5. Requesting forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” is a very hard thing to ask because we might be rejected when we expose ourselves in such a way. As we are seeking to be relieved from guilt, we also have to accept that the person we’ve hurt might not be ready for that. This final step is crucial because it sets free both parties and allows proper healing, which is something we cannot rush.

When we are hurt by somebody, there is anger in us that makes us want some form of justice to be restored.

We want that person to know how much they’ve hurt us, we want them to show us they understood why this has caused us pain and say they will make an effort to not hurt us again. When somebody hurts us, we lose trust in them and in order to restore that trust and heal the broken link there needs to be a proper apology and restitution in place.

Saying “I’m sorry, but…” nullifies the apology.

In our rush to get rid of guilt we feel when we make mistakes, we tend to use “cliches” and standardized apologies that make more damage than good. Here is how some of the false apologies sound to a person that was hurt:

I’m sorry you took it that way. It wasn’t what I meant.

It actually sounds to another person:

I think it’s too bad that you had difficulty understanding me correctly.

Or when we say:

I’m sorry if I offended you.

The other person hears:

I can’t think of anything I did wrong, but if you think so, I’d be happy to apologize so I can get back in your good graces.

Ouch. I do this quite a lot. Do you say something like this to people?

I’m sorry I didn’t call-I’ve been really busy.

To them it sounds like this:

Please be understanding about the fact that other things were more important than you.

Yep. Not fun.

Just as Dr. Garry Chapman said in his book

In a perfect world, there would be no need for apologies. But since we don’t live in a perfect world,  apologies are very necessary.

The good news is, we can learn that skill too.

The story about nails in the fence

We learn the best through stories. When I was a kid, I was told a story that left a very profound impact on me. I wasn’t ready for it. It made me feel afraid of making mistakes and it made me feel like there is no point to apologize when I make one, as the wound or scar will forever remain.

I wasn’t aware of the root of my “problem” until I had a very deep meditation with my spiritual teacher. As he was guiding me through, this story popped out in my mind so vividly and I had that “Aha!” moment.

Here is the story:

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who had a bad temper.

His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.

The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally, the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”

How did this story feel to you? 

As a parent, I can understand why this story was told in the first place. Kids don’t think much about mistakes because they don’t understand the consequences. To help them understand, we like to dramatize things and tell them stories with the worst possible outcome to make them stay away from that “unwanted” behavior.

It wasn’t a good story for me.

It actually programmed my subconscious to see that I am not at all allowed to make mistakes. That apologizing is useless when the damage is done because nothing can repair the wound and the pain will scar for life.

Obviously, that wasn’t the intention of the story, but with my young and impressionable mind, this is what I took away.

My version of the story

I needed to find a way to heal. It turned out that for me the best way was writing. So I wrote a different end to the story that made such a huge impact on me.

While I still work on honoring my mistakes by apologizing in the right way, now I get to do that in front of my children with the right story to partner it with.

Would you like to hear it?

Here it goes:

Once upon a time there was a little boy who had a bad temper.

His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.

The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally, the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.

He said, “You have done well, my son,it is important to acknowledge our emotions. Sometimes they drive us towards mistakes. As you grow, you will learn which emotions are destructive and you will be better at calming yourself before causing harm to others. And sometimes, despite your best intentions, you will still make mistake and hurt somebody. We all do. No matter what, it is important to apologize and make amends. You see these holes in the fence? Now, they are lifeless and empty. They look like scars don’t they? But they can become something great if we pour love into them. They can become foundation for something much stronger than before.”

The boy was silent for a while before he said:

“Thank you Dad. I understand now. I was angry and I didn’t think about causing harm to others. In my pain, I have caused pain to this tree too. It was very sensless of me and I would love to make amends. What can I do?”

Father huged his son and said:

“Thank you my son. This is the best way to give meaning and purpose to our mistakes. Shall we now use these holes to make a stronger fence than before?

And so they built a stronger fence together.

We are Humans

Many books are written on how to be tougher, wiser, better businessmen and women, fearless and ruthless all the way up the ladder of success. Most of them share how apologizing is a sign of weakness.

At the beginning of my professional career, my mentor recommended to me a book called “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Green. A perennial best-selling book that is truly a “must read.” It is a book that showed me who I never want to become as a result of power.

My understanding of life is that we are here to be humans. We are here to demonstrate humanity in each role we take on. No role is more important than the other, and we are all equal as we learn.

As we grow wiser and older, we might get better at doing things, but we will continue making mistakes if we welcome our inner child to guide us. We are supposed to be open to new experiences and new opportunities for our entire lives.

The only time we will stop making mistakes is if we stop trying new things.

We have to accept suffering and pain as the process of learning.

The most useful skill we will ever learn is to apologize and learn from our mistakes. That’s why I am so happy to have shared my journey with you.

And to end this blog with a very powerful quote by Maxwel Maltz:

You make mistakes. Mistakes don’t make you.

It is ok to make mistakes. It is ok.

Do you struggle to admit your mistakes and apologize? What do you think of the story of nails in the fence?

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9 comments

Craig Woods February 16, 2019 - 12:37 am

Hi Jelena, thanks for this blog. I especially enjoyed the story about the nails in the fence. I think its important to, first and foremost, understand that some of the guilt we feel is an illusion. We feel guilt when we believe we’ve done something wrong. We’re even convinced to feel guilty for being true to ourselves at times whilst mingling in our present society. Understanding the source of the guilt is fundamentally important because apologizing to someone when it isn’t truly merited will only reinforce their ego.

To me personally, true repentance is changed behaviour. Your ending to the story was interesting, because in Japan’s culture when they break a piece of pottery, they fill in the cracks with gold to make them look even more beautiful. It also reminds me of the Rumi quote: “The wound is where the light enters you.”

Of course, we’re human beings with egos and we all make mistakes from time to time. But without them, how could we grow and expand into even better versions of ourselves? We’re allowed to be a work in progress and a masterpiece at the same time. 🙂 Man’s beauty lies not in his perfection, but in his imperfections, as it’s through these imperfections that he has more reasons to blossom even more beautifully. As a former drug abuser (I have been clean for 9 years now) I find that true healing begins when we completely own and acknowledge every single experience we’ve had in our lives up to this point. The good, the bad, the mistakes, the poor decisions and so on. Make them all valid. Completely accept them. Allow them all to have a place in the story of your life. The stars can’t shine without being surrounded by darkness. Nor can we perceive the gates of heaven without walking through hell, first. Mistakes are contrast, and if used correctly, they can expand our consciousness in new ways.

After being who I wasn’t for such a long time. I discovered who I was.

─Craig

Reply
Kristina Lalova February 16, 2019 - 12:49 am

Hi Jelena,

To be honest, I like your version of the story much better. Life is a journey throughout which we all make mistakes. They are inevitable. We might hurt others and leave wounds in other people’s hearts. Still, we can heal those wounds and lift others up. We need to remember that we are all human and are not perfect. We can learn and grow at our own pace so that we can become better versions of ourselves. If we hold onto pain and negative emotions, it will be damaging to our health and our relationships with others. We need to let go so that we can open space for positivity to enter into our lives.
As we learn other people’s languages of love, we will become more aware of our own behavior toward others. I have also read another book by Dr. Gary Chapman – ‘The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace’. It has opened my eyes on how to be an understanding colleague and team-player. We all tend to communicate and express our love and emotions in a different manner. So, it is important to observe the behavior of other people so that you can adjust your own behavior accordingly. With that said, we might be showing different sides of our character depending on who we are communicating with and how comfortable we feel around them.
As I was reading your article, I contemplated on the meaning of love. I believe that love can heal everything and can unlock sides of our characters that we haven’t known about. If we fill our hearts with love, we will fill the world with love. This is what love is about. When you love someone, you are willing to compromise and you see your future in the other person’s future, and you find your happiness in the other person’s happiness. I have a very romanticized idea about love which I am sometimes wondering whether it is only in my head or not. In my opinion, love is eternal and is in every person’s heart. You are absolutely right that if we work together as human-beings and move away from the hurt and move away from our egos, we can truly make this world a better place. I admire what you and Novak do for your country. The world deserves more people like you with kind hearts who work toward their dreams fearlessly and leave a positive mark on it. Thank you for another beautiful article!

Much love and peace,
Kristina

Reply
Jovana Biljic February 16, 2019 - 12:20 pm

Thank you one more time for sharing!

When I’m angry I’m trying not to say bad words or to curse to the other person. I’m afraid I will say something that I will regret later. And when I’m angry I don’t like myself because I think that is bad version of me.

It’s better to wait or count to ten or one hundred, and after angry pass by to have constructive conversation. I know how to say sorry and also how to ask for forgiveness, but as you said we have to find right moment for that question. I’m still learning.

Thank you for recommending all these books.

Reply
Michela February 16, 2019 - 3:26 pm

Hi Jelena, I liked the story, it’s very clear and true and I loved your final change. I think mistakes are necessary to learn but it’s right to apologize when you hurt others too, specially without “but”. I love reading your blog, it’s very good, you are a great beautiful person. Thank you to share your experience with us.
Love from Michela

Reply
Carrie Bauer February 16, 2019 - 5:40 pm

Hello Jelena,
This is a great topic! I love the way you are staying true to your heart with your blogging, if that makes sense! Very thoughtfully written. I also love the comments from Craig and Kristina, they gave amazing insight to this discussion. I am just turning 56 yrs old and I am always seeking more wisdom and it sends me on quite a journey such as this blog. I am very thankful for this experience! Tolerance, compassion and grace are my constant words of wisdom. I feel like that is my life mantra that keep me on the right path. I recently was given a book from my 22 yr old daughter, “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. This book has helped me so much with this particular topic. I always try to do my best under any circumstance. But I know that my best will not be the same from one moment to the next, because everything is changing all the time. I used to be one of those people who was always sorry. It was my go to word. Not authentic! Just an easy escape from any and all confrontations. Slowly through my journey of authentic empowerment, I learned self worth and when to not say I’m sorry when it wasn’t authentic and how to say I’m truly sorry and accept my consequences for that particular incident. I have often heard that when you offer an apology it should be an acknowledgement of that moment only and there should not be an explanation attached because then that is an excuse. However, I have found when apologizing to my daughters for certain situations that have occurred between us, an explanation of my behavior became a learning experience for them too. Our communication between our children and/or family is extremely important. By me apologizing and NOT making an excuse for my behavior, but rather an explanation of how I could have handled the situation differently or how my tone was the real issue, etc., I have taught my daughters to do the same. Stand up and put your Ego in it’s place when necessary or calmly discuss the situation with that other person and explain to them why you feel that you do not need to apologize. Choosing love and light is always the right path. I rarely find myself in any situation where I need to say I’m sorry anymore. I am so grateful for all of my experiences, good and bad, which have helped with my Soul journey.
I loved your version of Nails in the fence much better than the original! Changing what the father says to the son at the end. Thank you my son. This is the best way to give meaning and purpose to our mistakes. Shall we now use these holes to make a stronger fence than before? And so they built a stronger fence together. Very nurturing and a much better lesson! I also like what you said about welcoming our inner child to guide us. I have been reading about that a lot lately and I welcome this new path in my long hike I am taking in my life. Thank you so much for your insights, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
With love and light,
Carrie

Reply
alessandra giovati February 16, 2019 - 9:22 pm

Hello Jelena,
nice to read this post. The story of the nails in the fence lets me think and reflect: it is really a very valid teaching, much more than many words. It goes directly to the mind, to the heart and to our ability to reflect.
About the apologize I know that I have made many mistakes, especially with my daughter. She is now 16 and we are rebuilding a good relationship, after three years of quarrels and discussions. You oerfectly know that adolescence is a difficult period, everybody knows it, even I knew it, as I had already made experience with my son. Nevertheless I often lost my patience and gave her bad answers, I was screaming and I didn’t have a kind behaviour.
After our quarrels I didn’t want to apologize with her, as I was devoured by rage. I said “I am sorry” only rarely. The worst thing was that I realized that she was sad, but my rage was stronger.
Then she began to mature and, in the meantime, I heard an even stronger inner voice which told me “you are parent, you are adult, it is up to you to set a good example, she is your daughter and she is doing her growing experiences”. I realized that she had a better relationship with my husband (who is so calm to let me lose patience).
I finally understood that I was the first one to be wrong, because I didn’t accept her observations and criticisms. I started from this awareness and I did my best to rebuild our mother – daughter relationship, as it was my priority. This is what I wanted most.
I understood that I have to count up to 100 before speaking and that sometimes it is better to remain silent.
Now everything has been solved, even if we sometimes have still some discussions, but I think they are part of life.
I feel much better with a good relationship with my family and I hope not to repeat the same mistakes.
Thank you very much for this precious teaching: we can’t forget it
Love

Alessandra

Reply
Craig Woods February 16, 2019 - 10:35 pm

https://divineconsciousness451476739.wordpress.com/2019/02/16/your-comfort-zone-anything-but-comfortable/

I saw you and Novak chatting on youtube about your fear of skiing and thought this blog could help you. Please check it out if you have time. Much love sister.

Reply
Padma Rajan February 20, 2019 - 9:06 pm

Hello Jelena,

I was so intrigued by the headline since I am always someone who does apologize when it is necessary and I also do my best with my actions for the person to know that I am genuinely contrite and mean it:)

As I read through your blog post further and the Nails in the Fence story, I understood how you were impacted by it at a young impressionable age. I loved how you modified the story to one of empowerment – to feel that it is ok and important to apologize.

I actually liked this part the best – indeed we are here to demonstrate humanity:)
“My understanding of life is that we are here to be humans. We are here to demonstrate humanity in each role we take on. No role is more important than the other, and we are all equal as we learn.”

At 31, you have extraordinary wisdom and maturity:) Keep on being you!

Loads of love from Florida,
-Padma

Reply
josephine February 26, 2019 - 8:09 am

I just want to say i love you and your family so much!!!!

Reply

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