Janet Iversen - Part of a personal tune-up

With experience, psychotherapists eventually realize how, when people’s lives grind to a halt, it often is due to the gradual accumulation of small mistakes. Like the gunk that can hamper the efficiency of a car engine, enough mistakes will cause most of us to believe we’re simply inept. Then we stop trying.

This simile suggests that therapy often involves changing the oil and filter of a client’s life. We do this by helping clients discover what they didn’t know … ignorance, of course, causing most of life’s little mistakes.

To pummel the analogy a bit, wouldn’t it be nice if we could schedule regular psychological maintenance to keep our lives running more smoothly? What would we need to know to be able to tune up our own psyches?

We would need access to state-of-the-art tutorials teaching us, proactively, the psychological truths we weren’t taught growing up. To that end, the McMinnville Public Library is sponsoring a series of free talks that address this need. One topic is how to make a real apology.

My bad: the complete apology

In essence, an apology is a business transaction. When we make a mistake affecting someone else, we incur an interpersonal debt. If we’re wise, we acknowledge the debt and set out to make amends. A thorough apology lays out the terms of the repayment process and needs to accomplish the following: assign responsibility, assess damage, clarify new intentions, pledge changed behavior and rebuild trust.

  • Assign responsibility. A true apology starts with the honorable truth: I did this. Examples of an effective first step would be: “I interrupted you again.” Or “I said things that were simply untrue during our argument.” Examples of hedging would be: “I thought you were finished talking, so I started speaking.” Or, “You made me so mad I lost my temper during our argument.”
  • Assess damage. “I realize now how it hurt you.” There needs to be an empathic accounting of the emotional damage done so the awful perversion of an apology — “I’m sorry if something I did hurt you” — is avoided. Examples of an effective second step would be: “My interrupting may make you feel like your thoughts aren’t important.” “When I use character assassination as a fighting strategy, it makes it hard for you to ever feel safe with me.” Examples of ineffective second steps would include: “You’re so sensitive about being interrupted.” “You know I don’t mean those hurtful things I say during arguments.”
  • Clarify new intentions. “I don’t want to make those kinds of mistakes.” When done correctly, this step sends a strong message that you want to change your behavior because you don’t like to be hurtful to others. Examples of an effective third step would be: “I simply decided to speak over you. That was wrong, and I don’t like it when I arbitrarily decide what I am saying is more important than what another person is saying.” “I indulged in name-calling and I don’t want to be the kind of a person who will do anything to win an argument.” Examples of ineffective third steps would be: “I didn’t realize I was interrupting, but I won’t do it anymore if it bothers you.” “You know I have a foul mouth, and, besides, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I’ll stop the name-calling.”
  •  Pledge new behavior. “I am truly sorry and I will not do it again.” This is a pledge you are making to two people: yourself and the person you wronged. If you are making the pledge to only the other person, the apology will not be robust because the motivation to change comes solely from a sense of compliance. For someone to trust more fully in your ability to take this fourth step, you must clearly want to change your behavior for your own sense of accomplishment.
  • Rebuild trust. “I will behave better.” Behavior change is the currency of trust. In other words, when we improve our behavior, we are establishing ourselves as trustworthy. We work to ensure that, as time passes, we remain true to the promises of the apology contract.


An apology is clearly much more than simply muttering the words “I’m sorry,” or the even more lame “I owe you an apology.” Once you know the steps of a well-crafted apology, you will have two new strengths: the ability to create a thorough apology and the ability to recognize when and if you have received one.

Guest writer Jan Iversen is a licensed psychologist who moved to McMinnville with her family in 2009. Her doctorate is from the University of California, and she has 20 years in academia and private practice. She enjoys making jam, running and shooing deer out of her garden.

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