How to Say You’re Sorry and Mean It (Or Not)

This post is a Tuesday Tip related to: One Sentence That Will Change Your Life

We were in the midst of our morning scramble—three kids to school and two parents to work. The kids grabbing backpacks and the parents grabbing their sanity. My nine-year-old son had volunteered to ride with me. But I was running late—putting on socks and brushing teeth and wishing for another hand—while his mom was already walking out to the car.

And this third grade boy of mine wanted to get to the playground as soon as possible.

“Daddy, I’m going with Mom.”

Work in progress

Photo Credit: Alexander Baxevanis (Creative Commons)

I’ve always cherished taking him to school, and he must have seen the shadow of disappointment in my eyes, because he immediately retracted his statement. With a look of anguish, he said, “No, I’ll go with you.”

How easily we can become the one who takes care of everybody, the compulsive pleaser…

I saw the internal drama play out: get to the playground with my friends, or keep Dad happy? For my son, Daddy still wins, but for how long, and at what cost to this little boy?

I saw it play out, and I tried to assure him it was okay to leave with his mother—I told him not to worry about me—but to be honest, I don’t think I handled it very well. I wish I had said, “Aidan, yes, I’m disappointed, but that doesn’t mean you have done something wrong. In this case, there is no right and wrong. You get to choose. It isn’t always your job to make everyone happy. And what I want for you is to choose the thing you most want this morning, to choose it completely and to live it joyfully.”

I think many of us “big kids” also need to get better at living the gray areas of life—the times and places where there simply is no right and wrong. We need to own our choices, live them fully, and if we make mistakes, we can also live our apologies to the fullest.

So, today, think a little bit less and live a little bit more. And then when you lay your head on your pillow tonight, review your day. Not compulsively, but honestly and deliberately:

  1. Do I regret anything about today? Is there anything I did that I regretted in the moment? Is there anything that I look back upon now and feel regret about?
  2. Should I feel regret about it? Am I compulsively seeking perfection, feeling responsible for everyone else’s feelings, feeling not good enough no matter how hard I try? Or did I make a legitimate mistake that requires an apology?
  3. If the answer is yes…I do feel legitimate remorse about that and I need to apologize. Resolve to do so. Decide who you will apologize to, what you want to say, and in what medium you will say it. Now, rest easy and let sleep take you!
  4. If the answer is, “I don’t know…” Decide how you will discern the answer. Will you pray, set aside a specific amount of time to meditate upon it, or talk to a trusted friend about it? Make your decision about discernment. Now, rest easy and let sleep take you!
  5. If the answer is no…say to yourself, “I am worthy, even in my imperfection.” Repeat it, until you start to believe it just might possibly be true. And now, you guessed it, rest easy and let sleep take you!

As you become more comfortable with this process, you might find yourself spending more time on the playgrounds of life, giving yourself permission to play and to live freely. And on life’s playground, you might discover the person you were created to be.

Are you ready to play?

Question: What would you be more free to do if you lived in this way? Share your thoughts in the comments

TUESDAY TIP DISCLAIMER: The Tuesday Tip is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sarah

    I think Aidan did the wise thing, to put the needs of others (his daddy) above his own desires, and that should be encouraged. The more he elevates his own self, the more needs to be undone when he grows up as he needs to learn to die to self.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Sarah, Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you about the need to die to self. I think the self part can be complicated, though. For instance, if your self is expressed in needing to please everyone all the time in order to feel secure and accepted, then, ironically, dying to self would involve pleasing people less! Does that make sense? What do others think?

      • Sarah

        Right, I do agree. It depends on whether it is done out of love for others or out of fear (need to feel secure and accepted as u said). Anything done out of love should be encouraged. Love overcomes fear.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Thanks for this discussion, Sarah!

  • Anonymus

    Here’s my situation: My therapist made a critical mistake in session (admittedly) and I responded with intense anger and said some things I am not proud of. I know that I need to apologize. And like you said I’ve resolved to do so. I know exactly who I need to apologize to, I know exactly what I want to say and I know I need to say it straight up, face to face. But I still cannot “rest easy and let sleep take [me].” It’s been 3 weeks since it happened and all day, everyday I obsess about it. I replay what happened over and over in my head and I play the scene of my apology out in my head innumerous times a day. It’s more than just memorizing what I want to say. I literally create the entire situation in my head…I can imagine the whole thing very realistically.
    This happens to me all the time, preventing me from ever truly resting easy and letting sleep take me. Whenever there is any type of conflict between me and another person all I can do is replay the situation and then rehearse how I want our next interaction to go over and over and over and over again. It’s insanity. And I can’t relax or let go of the anxiety surrounding the conflict until its resolved. So in the case of therapy, it’s torturous because I have to wait a whole week in between interactions and am riddled by anxiety and obsessive thoughts until the next session.
    So…..when I know I have to apologize, or when I know that there is some kind of unresolved conflict…how do I rest easy and let sleep take me?

    • drkellyflanagan

      This is one of those questions that I can’t answer specifically, because this medium doesn’t permit me to know enough of your situation and story to give the best feedback. I guess I would say that, in general, if one of my clients was struggling so much with needing to apologize, I would ask him or her specifically to not apologize and we would have an opportunity to work through the tension of a relationship that is not reconciled perfectly. Best to you as you approach the meeting with your therapist.