When someone apologises or says that they are sorry they usually are expressing regret for something that they have said or done that has adversely impacted another person (or other people). It may be that the apologising person did something that he or she did not intend or was not aware of doing. Conversely, it may be that the person saying sorry had undertaken and action with full awareness yet later feels regret.
When someone says sorry to us, we may also assume that this means that the person will not engage in the same behaviour again. However, "I'm sorry" said by itself does not mean that things will change. While apologies seem to imply that an action or verbal exchange will not be repeated, often it is really difficult for individuals to change their behaviours.
Often we hear or say "If you were really sorry about that, then you would not do it again" or "you would stop doing it". The logic may be true, but the reality may not be that simple. For example, if someone habitually drinks excessively and loses control, he or she may also hurt people including family and friends. Afterwards, in sobriety, the person could feel immense sorrow, regret and guilt for his or her actions. The person may even vow to change. However, if that person drinks alcohol to excess again, then the same set of behaviours will most likely occur. This does not necessarily mean that the person was not sincere in their previous apology. Rather, it means that there is perhaps a deeper-seated problem with what motivates or triggers the behaviour and that the person does not know how to stop or change it.
In another example, a person might be verbally abusive to someone when he or she feels anger and rage. When that person calms down and realises how his or her words have impacted the recipient of the abuse, he or she may apologise. However, when the person feels anger or rage again, he or she may resort to the personally well-known coping strategy of verbally denigrating and belittling another person. The action is repeated because the person does not know how to cope with his or her feelings of rage in an alternative, more healthy way.
For someone who is regretful of their actions or words, it can be helpful to be clear in addressing these feelings. Offering an apology or saying "I am sorry" if that is true is a healthy first step. If someone wants and intends to change their behaviour, the next step is to say something like "I want to change my behaviour as well and will try to do this". Understanding that the two parts are related but separate can help each party to understand how to resolve the past and find a way forward. It may also become clearer that help or support for intended changes in behaviour is needed. Taking away the assumption that the behaviour will change with the "I'm sorry" can create space for the reality of "I'm not sure I can change, I may need help" or "I would like to change, but I do not know how".
Most people who have been hurt by someone do appreciate an apology. They usually also appreciate acknowledgment and empathy for how they have been impacted. It can be helpful to be clear about what you are accepting from a person that has apologised to you. It can be useful to say something like "I accept your apology for your actions last night". This can be followed up by saying, for example, "And I would really like to see you change that behaviour because I feel hurt by it and would like it to stop."
When we find ourselves or someone we know saying "I'm sorry" for a behaviour that is engaged in repeatedly when change is desired then it might be time to seek help from a professional. In working with a professional, we are able to explore what happens and how we think and feel in our experiences with other people. Usually, when we have greater awareness about why we behave or act in a particular way, we are closer to changing that behaviour. In exploring and experimenting with alternative behaviours and by healing from the past, we are more likely to have longer-lasting relationships that feel healthy and more satisfying.
Blogging about mental health topics that are relevant to counselling and psychotherapy. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.
13/38 Colin Street, West Perth WA 6005 Australia