How to Say Sorry: The Great Apology Tour of 2023

Aug 24, 2023

Seven years ago, I left France (and my entire family) for the last time, knowing that, because of my mistakes, I would likely never return. It was the peak of my addiction, and I managed to leave a trail of destruction in my wake. In my perpetual blackout, I lied, stole, snuck out during the night, brought strange people home, and, worst of all, neglected to interact with my seldom-seen loved ones altogether, treating our family home like a hotel. Back then, I couldn’t bring myself to care—my attention was so profoundly riveted on myself and my own suffering. But over the next few years, as I found recovery and built my life anew, I started to care—very much. And rather than inciting a bid for atonement, my caring kept me away. Stunted by shame, I kept my distance from the only family I had for the better part of seven years.

This summer, I finally went back.

I don’t know what changed. I suspect it was a combination of things. I’ve just moved to a new place to pursue my dream of being a writer and professor, and as many can attest, the pursuit of a dream is a reckless and often painful thing. I’ve built up a clientele of fascinating, motivated people eager to revise and renegotiate their habits—all of whom have inspired me to embrace self-inquiry and ceaselessly examine my own life. And I recently lost my second parent, finding myself alone on this side of the pond. Circumstances conspired to make me homesick. It was time to head back to where it all began.

So I did. 

But home isn’t always a comfortable place to be. Home is crossed signals of custom and discipline—grandma says yes, grandpa says no, mother hesitates to intercede between the two. Home is marital spats conducted in full view of distant cousins and disapproving great-aunts. Home is generational rage—compounded by the injustices of age. Home is memories—folded into the sheets, etched with a key into the wooden buttresses of an old house, flattened into a picture-frame, woven into a bridal crown hanging from a bedpost. 

And when you don’t live at home—when you’re only a visitor—home is other things too. Home is sneaking yogurt cups from the refrigerator at night, wondering who might miss them. Home is a hovering gum wrapper, hesitating between the garbage pail and the recycling bin. Home is fighting over the markers as a child—and over dinner dishes as an adult. It’s wishing for another slice of quiche but never deigning to ask. It’s petting the cat gingerly, willfully ignoring a baby cousin’s disobedience, to avoid incurring the unpleasant consequences of one who has unintentionally crossed invisible boundaries. It’s pretending to sleep when the room is too hot. It’s lying about what you want to do with your day. And it is, above all else, apologizing. 

Home is a nest built of apologies, each supporting the integrity of the whole. When you’re so close together, you step on each other’s toes. You smile weakly, you shift slightly to accommodate the other, you apologize—and the shared airspace between you grows a little bit warmer, a little more conducive to organic growth. There’s a story about a family of porcupines in a Northern climate. In the wintertime, they huddle together for warmth. But they find that they cannot comfortably accommodate one another—the pressure of quills like needles sinking into soft skin. So they fan out, they spread out in the tundra, awaiting the arrival of spring. When spring comes, half of them are dead. Better, then, to huddle together, no matter the cost, no matter the volume of apologies.

Over the last three weeks, I visited each of my family members to deliver an amends in person. I have revisited some of the hardest moments in my life to take responsibility for my actions and atone for my mistakes. And I learned more than I could possibly have ever anticipated—about apologies, about family, about healing towards a better version of myself. Here are some of the things I’ve gathered—and some of the things I hope to impart to you. 

1. Guilt can become its own addiction—and self-forgiveness must come first.

I have become a collector of apologies. I line them up like specimens on the shelf, the labels facing out so I can see them, so I can remember what I’ve done.

I’ve been collecting my apologies for the better part of three decades. One might even say that my life has been an exercise in delivering apologies. I go to most places twice, a drunk once told me, the first time for fun and the second time to apologize. 

I was what my father would call A Problem Child, the sort of child who bites other children for no reason at all and throws inexplicable tantrums over a turn of the weather, an absent mother, a stain on a sweater. I couldn’t particularly control my fits, so I learned to atone for them. I picked flowers for my mother and dutifully pretended to believe in God. I earned good grades for my father and sat, as still as I could, before the cold, hard eyes of teachers who always despised me. And of course, I said sorry—many times, in many ways, until the word itself became a kind of martial cadence in my head, the rhythm to which I set the pattern of my life. I returned to it again and again. For lack of better alternatives, apologies became the only language I shared with the world, my only means of returning myself to an acceptable state of moral neutrality. 

As I grew older, I veered more frequently into the wrong lane, and so I learned to apologize more often. But the trouble with compulsion is that indulgence of its demands doesn’t put an end to them. As I apologized, so did my culpability bleed from between the lines, expanding into virgin territory, until every part of me was either an article of blame or a measure I’d taken to ease it. 

Apologies became central to my addiction—because addiction is, in and of itself, a cycle of guilt and absolution. We commit harms, we drink (or use or misbehave) to alleviate our shame about those harms. Rinse and repeat. And just as apologies guide addictions, so do they pave the road to recovery.

Long into recovery, I persisted in fixating on my own guilt in every situation. Apologies became my new compulsion—the one I implemented to replace the last. It’s not uncommon for addicts to overly apologize, to become so fixated on taking accountability that they forgo self-care. Most programs of recovery emphasize the importance of apologies—without mentioning the importance of personal absolution—of forgiveness for oneself.

Because the first and most important step of any apology is self-forgiveness. We cannot trust the forgiveness that others extend to us until we have offered the same to ourselves. Paradoxically, sometimes self-forgiveness comes only once we have made the apology. But either way, developing compassion for ourselves is the necessary catalyst for extending that same compassion to others. 

If you’re new to this journey of recovery, start with self-forgiveness. Here are some of the resources I used to soften my approach to personal accountability.

  1. Self-forgiveness meditations are easily accessible on YouTube and have been immensely helpful in teaching me to extend tolerance to myself and remain present despite my regrets for the past. 

  2. Journaling allows me to track my infractions and the measures I take to redress them. When approaching personal accountability I typically:

    1. Start by naming the mistake 

    2. List the measures I’ve taken to amend harm.

    3. List potential measures I can take.

    4. Contextualize my mistake by reminding myself of the good I have done. 

  3. Working with a coach helps me to adopt concrete solutions for patterns of (mis)behavior. I work with a coach to ensure that I make a mistake once—rather than over and over again. If you’re looking for a coach, book a free session with me so I can help you find one who fits your needs.

2. Apologies are not about guilt: here’s what they are about

For most of us, apologies are born of guilt; we apologize because we feel bad—and because we want to feel better. For some, like me, apologies are tainted with shame: we apologize for who we are rather than what we have done.

But apologies are not about guilt or shame at all. While guilt can help develop awareness of the need for an apology, it becomes an impediment to delivering that same apology, since amends are meant to meet the restorative needs of others rather than our own desire for absolution. Shame, on the other hand, is altogether antithetical to effective amends—when we feel shame, we are thinking of ourselves rather than of what we can do to ease the pain of another. 

So what does a good apology look like?

According to the researchers who concern themselves with such things, effective apologies consist of six elements: regret, reflection, accountability, repentance, amends, and (a request for) atonement. 

  1. Regret consists of expressing one’s awareness of the mistake. This is the step in which guilt can be useful—generative, even.

  2. Reflection entails acknowledging one’s mistakes in detail; listing the harms one has inflicted upon another

  3. Accountability is taking personal responsibility for our mistakes—acknowledging our part. 

  4. Repentance is saying “I’m sorry—” two simple words that are chronically overused but mean so much to so many.

  5. Amends is the process of repairing what has been broken—taking the physical steps to remedy the situation. Without this step, apologies are moot. 

  6. Atonement is asking for forgiveness. Whether we receive it or not is immaterial; others have a right to refuse us forgiveness—and we don’t need it to move on.

So many of us focus on one at the expense of others: indulging in excessive self-flagellation or busying ourselves with identifying solutions rather than acknowledging harm. And we add elements that aren’t meant to be there: namely, excessive guilt and shame. We do so because we misunderstand the structure and purpose of an apology; how it is a narrative rather than a singular gesture, how it emerges of the sum of its parts. The apology leads us from the past into the future—from regret and reflection into repair and atonement. It mimics the structure of our lives, the unfolding of who we are through time. Its movement echoes the perpetual instability of the Self, revealing our self-concept for the fragile, evanescent creature that it is. An apology is not a public persecution but a personal reckoning, an encounter with the truth of what we are: something other than what we have done. 

3. Apologies are the ground on which intimacy is built 

When we think of apologies, we typically think of the damage we have done to the relationship—focusing on the negative, as we are primed to do. 

But what I found, over the course of my Great Apology Tour, is that apologies are often the starting point for something far more valuable than what we had before. After I apologized to my uncle, we shared honestly of our experiences of the past. After I apologized to my cousin, we spoke of how I could become more involved in his son’s life. 

Apologies deepen our relationships to others. When we take accountability, we are signaling to others that we are committed to our relationships with them, that we are willing to invest more of ourselves into them. Researchers have found that apologies foster forgiveness, and in so doing, communicate to the other the increased value of the relationship as a whole. In other words, when we say “sorry,” we are not diminishing ourselves in the eyes of another—but increasing their ability to trust us. 

So here’s my recommendation on how to deepen intimacy through apologies:

  1. Keep a daily record of the potential harms you have caused that you may need to apologize for.

  2. Apologize in the moment as much as possible. It is easier to deliver an apology in a timely manner

  3. Remember to communicate the value of the relationship to signal to the other that you aren’t acting out of self-interest or a desire to absolve your guilt—you truly care. 

  4. Ask what you can do to amend the situation. It’s important to solicit feedback from the person to whom you are apologizing. After all, amends are ultimately intended to redress harm rather than simply atone for it. 

4. Apologies reveal us to ourselves; and in so doing, pave the road to recovery 

Delivering my apologies taught me so much. But what I learned, above all, was something of myself—something of who I am and who I aim to be. An apology is a gesture that bridges past, present, and future. The apology reconciles with the past. Forgiveness occurs in the present moment. And amends deal with the future—the promise of who we can be to make up for what we have done.

We apologize to reconcile who we are with who we have been—and who we wish ourselves to be moving forward. The only successful apology is one that takes all three into account and aims to make sense of change—how a person can change over time, how one version of us can be at odds with another and still remain, in essence, who we are. When we apologize, we are acknowledging the limitations of identity: how a gesture is at once our responsibility and yet not always a representation of who we are—or who we think we are. We are also implicitly acknowledging the limitations of identity—how it is really, in essence, an operational concept around which we organize the disparate moments of our lives, the narrative thread that binds. 

We are acknowledging that we can be one person in one moment and another in the next and that both of those people can inform who we are in the future. But maybe we are also signaling what we are not. Are we closer to the version of ourselves that made the mistake, or the one that condemns it, the one that apologizes? That is the question at the heart of forgiveness. To forgive someone is to accept that the mistake does not define them. To neglect to forgive is to refuse to relinquish the version of the Other that includes the mistake. I think, in apologies as in all things, flexibility is of the essence. 

And this is why we apologize: to see ourselves—or rather, to see beyond the illusion of ourselves—with greater clarity. Apologies, in threading our disparate selves together, allow us to make sense of our purpose on this planet: to learn, to grow, to change, to approximate the best of what we can be. And in this way, apologies are central to healing. They drive our personal evolution. They sew something new from the fabric of the past. They allow us to release that which no longer serves us in favor of a more compelling vision for the future: one in which who we are is more than the sum of our hurts—the ones we’ve borne and the ones we’ve inflicted. A future in which we are free. 

If you’re searching for freedom from compulsion and addiction—or any habit big or small—please do not hesitate to book a free Recovery Discovery Coaching Session on my calendar. I hope to see you soon! 

Stay tuned for excerpts from my upcoming essay piece on The Great Apology Tour of 2023—and become a paid subscriber to receive dozens of free resources and guides on everything healing and recovery related. 


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, metus at rhoncus dapibus, habitasse vitae cubilia odio sed.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.