How To Say Sorry

repairing relationship counselling brightonAcknowledging that our behavior has hurt someone’s feelings and taking responsibility for our own part in a situation can be a very powerful way of healing rifts, cementing relationships and preventing resentment from building up. What might we aim for when saying sorry?
Family Difficulties
One of the most common themes I encounter in my work as a counsellor and psychotherapist is anger and upset between family members – especially parents and adult children – that can often date back many decades. This might be someone trying to come to terms with painful or confusing feelings left over from their childhood or adolescence but I also meet people who want to heal rifts between themselves and their adult children and don’t know where to start.
What Not To Say
If a loved-one is angry or upset with us the situation is not likely to be improved if we dismiss their feelings as unimportant or unjustified. We might think we are addressing the problem when in fact we are running the risk of making things worse. Some examples of unhelpful responses to someone challenging our behaviour include:

  • it was all in the past, it’s time you moved on
  • everyone makes mistakes
  • don’t be so silly / stupid / selfish etc
  • I did my best!
  • you’ve no right to feel that way
  • it’s not a big deal
  • I wouldn’t have acted that way if you hadn’t said or done ‘blah’
  • well, what about the things you did to me, and (the classic)
  • after all I’ve done for you!

All of the above send out a variety of messages: ‘I’m not going to listen to you’, ‘the problem is yours, not mine’, ‘I’m not going to acknowledge that my actions hurt you’, ‘I’m not going to take responsibility for my part in what happened’. And perhaps ultimately, ‘I’ve no interest in learning from my mistakes and changing my behaviour.’
Improving Communication and Healing Old Hurts
If someone challenges us about our behaviour what they often need (sometimes more than an apology) is an acknowledgement from us that we have heard them and that their feelings are valid. We do not have to agree with everything they say and neither do we have to take responsibility for things that are beyond our control. In the case of difficulties between parents and adult children, old tensions often remain surrounding experiences of divorce, separation, integration of step-families, moving house (especially if this disrupted schooling and friendship groups) or other more general grievances that happened during childhood or adolescence. These events, especially if handled insensitively, can have profound effects on young people who at the time might have had little say in the decisions that were made. And, of course, often these decisions were made by parents who were themselves under extreme pressure on an emotional level.
Here, if parents are able to set aside their own feelings and empathise with how their children might have felt during such times of upheaval there is a good chance that relationships can be improved. In my experience, the best results come about during a conversation in which we are able to stay in the other person’s shoes as much as possible and avoid being defensive; a long list of justifications as to why we behaved in a certain way will almost certainly undo the impact of acknowledging hurt or angry feelings.
Here are some examples:

  • I can see that it was a difficult time for you
  • I could have been more sensitive
  • I’m sorry we had to move away. I didn’t think hard enough about the impact on you – missing your friends, starting a new school
  • It must have been difficult to get used to sharing our house with your step-brothers
  • I know you had to shuttle between two homes and that this was especially hard when you were doing your GCSE’s

How Can Counselling and Psychotherapy Help?
If you find yourself stuck with feelings of resentment towards a family member, talking with a counsellor or psychotherapist about the past can be immensely liberating in itself. For some people, it will be the first time that anyone has ever sat down and really listened to their version of events and acknowledged how they feel. You might also hope to gain a wider perspective of what happened to you and to sort out in your mind whether or how you might want to challenge the person whose behaviour has upset you, if that is still possible.
If, however, you are aware of distance between you and your adult child, the therapeutic process can help you think about how you might go about talking with them about what has gone wrong. In addition, historic and unresolved problems between family members can often be played out in current relationships e.g. between couples, friends or colleagues. Counselling and psychotherapy can be a useful way of bringing such ‘unfinished business’ into consciousness so that you can decide for yourself whether the past is getting in the way of the present – and what to do about it.
Please note that mental health problems can both complicate and exacerbate relationship difficulties and their resolution. Also, this post deals with general upheaval and hurt feelings. This does not include childhood neglect or physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation. Emailing in the first instance seems to work best.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Counselling and Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove, Sussex.
Image courtesy of Cecelia at

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