There comes a time when you know you’ve royally messed up. The moment of wrong might have passed, but you’re racked with guilt and regret. It feels like you want the ground to swallow you whole (that’s if you do actually regret it).
Will Smith, the recent Oscar winner, will have experienced an array of emotions after “the Slap” incident that’s going down in history alongside his already historic win.
The actor, after much backlash from the celebrity world and beyond, chose to apologise to the recipient of said slap, saying he was “wrong” and “out of line” (this followed Smith’s on-stage demi-apology during his acceptance speech).
Of course, he offered his sorry to comedian Chris Rock via the celebrity-favoured apology medium of an Instagram post. Eschewing the ever-popular Notes apology, Smith used Insta Stories to speak of his regrets.
We mere mortals might choose roads less public.
This is why HuffPost UK spoke to Katerina Georgiou, a psychotherapist and registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, to find out the formula for an apology that really counts.
Here’s how Georgiou breaks it down.
It sounds simple enough right? But you’ve really got to show sincere conviction when you’re saying sorry, says Georgiou.
“First and foremost, an apology only works if you mean it. People can tell if you don’t. So ask yourself first how much you mean your words.”
Actually say sorry
Another no-brainer, but it’s surprising how many people omit the all-important word from an apology.
“Saying the actual word ‘sorry’ is important. It can be easy to skirt around the issue with phrases ‘I feel bad’ or to say ‘I’m sorry IF I hurt you’, but all these statements do is make it about you rather than the person/people who are feeling hurt/betrayed etc,” says Georgiou.
“The point is usually about your impact rather than intention. That is why it is key to get clarity first in whether you are actually sorry.”
So, saying you’re sorry if someone is hurt or offended isn’t the apology you think it is – you’re shirking responsibility by framing it as someone else’s sensibilities instead of an admission of fault.
Own the fault (even if it’s on both sides)
Apologising to someone doesn’t mean the recipient is completely void of fault. Chris Rock, after all, did make a hurtful joke about Jada Pinkett Smith.
“A mistake many make is to assume if they apologise, this is an automatic admission of guilt,” says Georgiou, “but that isn’t true. You can be very sorry, or even ashamed of what you did or said or the impact it had on the other person, and simultaneously feel hurt or angry too for how you feel impacted. The two things are not mutually exclusive and both can co-exist.”
Injustice is usually complex, she adds. “It is not about who is in the right or wrong but about acknowledging your own and others feelings. Respect for each other is where sincere apologies are usually rooted. And if you have made a mistake, it is still possible to own that and show compassion to yourself.
“But you have to believe you did something wrong for that to happen, and it may be that you own your part while still feeling resentment. If you want someone to acknowledge how you feel, you’re better off acknowledging them too.”
Show you’re sorry (as well as saying it)
Georgiou says that as for moving on from an apology goes, it can only really happen if the person being apologised to feels the apology is sincere.
“It comes down to really hearing each other. If you don’t really feel sorry for something, then saying ‘I already said sorry’ is unlikely to satisfy the other person. It really is all about demonstrating acknowledgement. If someone has sincerely apologised and shown acknowledgement and is keen to make amends, it can be helpful or healing to move forwards.”
Don’t expect forgiveness
It’s worth noting that just because you’ve apologised doesn’t mean the person owes you forgiveness.
“We don’t always have to forgive and the person apologising may have to accept that,” says Georgiou. “In the case of Will Smith, what really matters are the people directly involved and how they feel. If they want to move on, then so can we. Again it is about respecting the people impacted.”