Saying sorry — when should I do this?

Saying sorryYou can hear people saying sorry at funny times. I thoughtlessly knocked into someone in the supermarket the other day and she apologised to me even though it wasn’t her fault! Actually, I have noticed that British people do tend to say sorry over the least thing. It seems to be an unthinking response in the presence of strangers. Perhaps we do it as a way of trying to be polite to cover up any embarrassment.  Yet, is it not the case that we can hesitate before saying ‘sorry’, in more important matters, for fear of getting all the blame, or of being punished?

Need to hear people saying sorry

I have found that when you really have let someone down like forgetting to do a job or keep a social arrangement, the other person does need an apology and also receive some indication of why. Without these two things, it really is more difficult for them to let go and move on without harbouring resentment. One example is the resentment of a house seller after the purchaser pulls out of the deal at the last moment without giving any meaningful reason — this despite the vendor having invested much time, money, and emotion in the preparations for house change.

No one is perfect and in our personal lives inevitably we make a few thoughtless mistakes from time to time and sometimes are even careless of other people’s needs. Pouring oil on to troubled waters is so important. How often do you hear about so-and-so not talking to someone because of something he or she had done or failed to do. And of course the longer this failure of communication goes on the more difficult it is to heal the rift. Sadly a family feud can last for years.

Fear of punishment if saying sorry

Sometimes all it needed was an apology. But has there ever been a time when you failed to say ‘sorry’? Perhaps it was because you had no excuse to offer and was uneasy about the other guy getting cross with you.

Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.
(Edward R. Murrow)


There are of course a few people you might happen to offend who love to play the blame game. Once you recognise this person as someone who takes delight in putting others down then you might be a bit cautious in how you apologise even when you are at least partly in the wrong. This overcritical person can need careful handling. There is a technique taught by assertion skills coaches called ‘fogging’. The idea is to disarm the verbal bully by not defensively justifying one’s mistakes — not getting into a fight that the bully knows all too well how to win.

Taunt: “This is some real sloppy work!  You’ve really gone downhill since we’ve employed you!”

Response: “I am sorry that this is not my best work. I guess there were some problems that can be fixed next time.”

Taunt: “What you did was no good at all.”

Response: “I imagine some people might say that. We will have to wait for the customer feedback to be sure.”

Taunt: “You were either careless or lazy.”

Response: “I guess I will be able to be more careful with more realistic time constraints on the next job.”

Fogging, in essence, is giving an apology without appearing to be defensive about it whilst at the same time not necessarily accepting all the blame. In other words agreeing with a small portion of what the bully says that happens to be true, without agreeing with the general point he or she is making, and without agreeing with all the implications.


You may be the sort of person who just finds it very hard to be saying ‘sorry’  to anyone including to those who are ready to forgive. It can be difficult to acknowledge when you are in the wrong because of anxiety associated with fragile self-confidence: or perhaps when you just can’t bear to feel the guilt: or are too proud to admit you are in the wrong. Self-protection can be more important than the truth and can work at an unconscious level. And so this ego-defensiveness is much more noticeable in others than in yourself.

The result for people like this is that they are not really in touch with themselves. They don’t really know themselves and are unaware why they really are doing things.

Spiritual teaching

But even if you do know in general terms about your weaknesses and failings, it is quite another thing to acknowledge where and when you are in the wrong, and yet another to deeply regret what you have done.

According to Emanuel Swedenborg genuine apology is when you both acknowledge what you have done wrong and resolve to change what you do so the error is not repeated. Saying sorry is otherwise meaningless.

I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.
(Leo Tolstoy)

Swedenborg is concerned with the right religious attitude. A few people who you have offended against may be taken in by an insincere apology but he points out you cannot fool the divine spirit of truth who many call God and who sees all things.

He criticises those Christians who believed that a general confession of sin is  sufficient for their personal salvation. Instead, he maintains it is a waste of time for the religious believer to confess their sins to God unless their apology is heartfelt and leads to an attempt at personal change. Only in this way can they hope to gradually receive new spiritual life.

So, if he is right and if you want your personal life to be spiritually transformed, I would suggest you really do need to listen to your inner conscience, humbly acknowledge where you are specifically going wrong, say sorry in your heart to your image of God, and sincerely resolve to try to change your ways.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

17th July 2013CategoriesEthics, Interpersonal EthicsTags,, , , , , , ,, , , , , ,, , , Leave a comment

Criticise them – But how to do so safely?

criticiseYes it can happen. No one likes their faults to be pointed out and some people with thin skins when you criticise them see this as a personal attack. They get shirty, defensive or bite your head off. You probably would think twice before taking the risk of saying what you really think to them. Yet keeping quiet means not doing anything about the problem.


“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” (Winston Churchill)

So what’s the best way to criticise someone?

Shirley needed to criticise her neighbour

Shirley was really getting fed up with her new next door neighbour who played his music loudly some nights after coming home from shift-work. Once, she had called round to ask him to turn the volume down, which was done, but the level of loudness would resume another night. It probably wasn’t bad enough to make a complaint to the local authority. The adjoining walls of their homes were not sound-proofed. She  had heard from someone that her neighbour could turn nasty if provoked. How could she deal with the problem which was upsetting her a lot?

Next time Shirley tackled the guy, she wasn’t sure she could trust herself not to shout and lose her temper. When you criticise it is important to keep the matter in proportion, neither overdoing things, nor being too timid. If she were to come over as arrogant, curt or annoyed, she probably wouldn’t be listened to properly. And were she to resort to insults and hostility the chances are the door would be slammed in her face.

How not to criticise

A Laurel and Hardy comedy comes to mind when the two friends engaged in a tit-for-tat war with their neighbour, each side doing things to damage the next door property, with the punishing actions mounting, until the ludicrous outcome was the destruction of both homes.

The film comically showed the pitfalls of an unkind attitude — using the opportunity to make the critic feel superior or perhaps want to provoke or vent a bit of anger. Shirley could soften her criticism by saying things like “I have made the same mistake myself…” It avoids showing any air of superiority.

Criticise showing respect

The common advice psychologists give is “Respect the individual, and focus the criticism on the behaviour that needs changing – on what people actually do or actually say.”

Good criticism generally comes with some degree of humility and respect for the  possibility of other equally valid points of view. In other words Shirley is advised to refrain from any criticism of the person but merely of the noise he makes. Giving respect means not assuming that he is being thoughtless, inconsiderate, or selfish.
Perhaps he is hard of hearing and doesn’t appreciate how others find loud noise annoying.

Once you start to jump to conclusions about someone’s character then you are liable to show this in how you talk to them revealing sarcasm, anger, hostility or condescension. People hear how you say things more than they hear what you say. You mainly communicate through the tone of voice and facial expressions.

Also choosing the right words still matter.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” (Zig Ziglar)

Criticise in a precise way

It is important to explain what it is that the other person is doing that is a problem for you and how you feel about it. Don’t say ‘You are causing me grief’ but say ‘I feel the noise is causing me grief.’

If the individual is respected with a bit of humour, and due credit is given to the possibility of their sympathy for your difficulty, it is vastly more likely that the criticism will be understood, and taken seriously.

To criticise can be less difficult

Shirley had the disadvantage of not knowing the person she wanted to criticize. It is easier to point out a fault if you have an ongoing friendly relationship with the person. You have a greater chance of counting on their sympathy or embarrassment. At least she could try to get into rapport with the neighbour before voicing her issue. Perhaps if she invited him into her own house when somebody else was also present when his music was on then her neighbour could more easily appreciate the nuisance he was causing.

When a relationship has already turned sour, then it may need a bit of patience, waiting before the right time and place arrive to make a fair criticism. It may take considerable effort to create the situation in which the criticism will be “heard”. On the other hand if the relationship between enemies is so bad the best thing may be to get a mediator for justice.

“Virtues which have to do with … moral wisdom … have various names, and they are called … integrity, kindliness, friendliness, modesty, honesty, helpfulness, courteousness; … not to mention many others…. In all of these justice and judgment prevail.” (Conjugial Love section 164 by Emanuel Swedenborg)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems