Humans — all of us — are often bad at being constructive when we’ve hurt others. Luckily, there are skills here we can train and improve. Everyone makes mistakes, but how we handle ourselves afterwards is what matters. This piece focuses on effective apologizing and personal growth, as opposed to ‘just saying sorry’. It examines what you can do in situations where you have been the transgressor and how to achieve a complete apology, including acceptance, knowledge and understanding.
We’ll assume in this article that you don’t mean to cross anyone’s boundaries. If you do, though, your initial reaction may be to withdraw and exclude yourself from larp to keep yourself and those around you safe. You may also recognise a loss of trust, and feel shame accompanying it. What you need,, though, is to recover, heal, and move forward with confidence and trust in yourself. First we’ll look at rebuilding trust in yourself, and then at what it will take from you for co-players to rebuild trust in you.
Where to Start
Accountability and Responsibility
It’s a personal call where a boundary is and when it has been pushed or crossed. Regardless of whether you share that boundary, it’s not your place to decide which boundaries should be respected. This type of accountability can feel like an attack, but it isn’t. Accountability is acknowledging that a line was crossed, and accepting how your behavior has harmed others. To start rebuilding trust you need to first process what has happened and then demonstrate responsibility with changed behavior.
Taking responsibility as an adult doesn’t mean blurting out that you’re sorry immediately when you’ve caused serious harm. This isn’t how a real apology works and is likely more about you seeking relief from shame — and it can also put pressure on the person you’ve harmed, making things worse (especially if it’s a big public production of an apology) Instead, direct the focus away from yourself and onto the situation at hand. Show remorse by making it clear you understand that something has happened and that you take responsibility for doing something in response. Accountability will come as you process what happened and demonstrate that you have changed in ways that will help it not happen again. This may take time and work.
Knowing as a Prerequisite for Change
If you don’t know what you did, you won’t be able to change your behavior. If you know what you did (either because you were told or from your own processing) but don’t understand it yet, you have something you can work on. Intangible knowledge like “you made someone feel unsafe” isn’t enough to work with. You can reach out to the event organizers or the safety team and ask them to help you get the knowledge you need. This isn’t about getting them to solve the situation for you, but rather helping you get the knowledge you need to resolve things yourself. Remember to say this out loud — you know this is your goal but they might not.
A Plan for Change
You need a plan for how to change. Change lets you build trust in yourself. This is where isolation might feel right. Only do this with specific intent, after real consideration, and don’t isolate yourself from people who can help you. Use isolation as a meditative space where you can process what has happened. if you’re doing the work, you will either come to understand what happened, or conclude that you can’t yet, on your own — and this is where you should break your isolation, even though shame will tell you to keep handling it alone. You need feedback and help from others. Reach out to a friend, a safety person, a professional therapist, or all three. For larger or more serious transgressions, you’re likely to need more resources and more time.
How to Apologize
It is hard not to focus on ourselves when we apologize. We mean well, but it comes across as dismissive or explanatory and doesn’t rebuild trust. Here are two tools to help you apologize: the elements of a sincere apology, and the types of apology different recipients may need.
- Permission: Ask permission to apologise. Respect it if they are not in a place to receive your apology.
- Remorse: Show that you understand you hurt them. Directly say that you are sorry for what you did. We try to say this in many ways but often we are not good at saying it directly.
- Understanding: Show that you understand the impact of your transgression. This is about empathy, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This may be hard and it’s okay to say you don’t fully understand it yet.
- Change: Show what you have done and are doing to change. This is the promise you make on how to avoid this in the future.
- Forgiveness: Ask for forgiveness. It is not up to you if you are forgiven or not. Know that it might take time — you may not get it at this point.
We have different temperaments, but Chapman and Thomas (2006) theorised we can be put into five categories when it comes to our preferred apologies. Considering what type or combination of types you would need yourself can help you understand what other people need. If you can understand what the person you’ve hurt needs from you, you’ll be better able to communicate a sincere apology.
The Five Languages of Apology
- Expressing regret
- Is best done by verbalising your “sorry”. Those who fall into this category want to hear that you understand how you hurt them and that you regret what you have done. This is about acknowledging how you’ve affected them emotionally.
- Accepting responsibility
- Drop the excuses. Those who fall into this category don’t want to know why you did what you did, they want you to own up to the impact of it. Your intention doesn’t matter at this point. Explaining will not do you any good.
- Making restitution
- People in this category want to know how you plan to change your behavior so it doesn’t happen again. This is about being action-oriented and committed to the change. Words don’t mean much unless there’s a plan and action behind them.
- Genuinely repenting
- Why did you do it and do you still care? These people want to understand what happened, and whether you’re willing to do what they need to show that you repent.
- Requesting forgiveness
- This isn’t you being entitled to forgiveness but about you asking for it respecting their agency and the time it takes for them to grant it or not. Ask, give room, and pull away until they are ready to answer.
Gary Chapman & Jennifer Thomas (2006): The Five Languages of Apology. Gale Thompson.