Michael Mantell, Ph.D. has been building people for more than 40 years. He’s helped coach clients from the depths of unhappiness to the highs of authentic joy. Often, he’s helped folks learn to say, “I’m sorry, please forgive me” with genuine intent, mindful of putting the harmed person in the driver’s seat. But how many times have you heard someone say something truly judgmental, obnoxious, hurtful, sarcastic or otherwise inappropriate only to be followed by a “Oh, I was only kidding.” There may also be a, “C’mon can’t you take a joke?” “I didn’t mean it.”
Here’s a simple fact: They weren’t kidding.
Here’s another simple fact: They weren’t joking.
And here’s yet another simple fact: They did mean it.
Freud’s term for statements of this type was “faulty action” (Fehleistung), for which his editor/translator adopted the pseudo-Greek scientism parapraxis. The colloquial label is “Freudian slip.” Freud’s fascinating 1901 book on the subject, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, distinguishes errors of speech (Versprechen), memory (Vergessen), and action (Vergreifen). In every case there is presumed to be an unconscious determinant of the faulty action, which can sometimes be easily understood. In everyday usage, Freudian slip has come to mean a slip of the tongue that reveals the speaker’s true meaning or intention.
“Oh, I didn’t mean it. I was just kidding.” Sorry, you did mean it and you could have ONLY allowed yourself to say it through kidding. Some things only slip out with a smile.
You’ve heard them. They sound like this: “You look like you’ve gained weight? Oh, I was only kidding.” Or, “This dinner tastes awful. Oh, I was only kidding.” Or, “Your hair looks ridiculous. Oh, I was only kidding.” Or, “You are such a loser. Oh, I was only kidding.” Or, “I am gonna kill you. Oh, I was only kidding.”
How about the 7th grade teacher, William Sheehan, who referred to two boys in his class as homosexual lovers? Twice. Then “apologized” with an “Oh, I was only kidding.”
The Lunachicks, admittedly a group you will not find on my ever-growing iPod songlist, have a song, “Say What You Mean.” Here are some of the song’s lyrics:

Say what you mean
Mean what you say
Don’t say it mean
Say what you say what you say what you mean!

So if you are guilty of saying what you mean while hiding behind an “Oh, I’m only kidding,” follow the advice of the Lunachicks. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If the dinner doesn’t taste good, if someone has done something you really don’t approve of, and you can’t control yourself and just really need to announce it, at least take responsibility for what you think and say.

In this society where so many people prefer to be (ugh!!!) politically correct rather than completely correct, perhaps it is better to err on the side of shunning pleasantries and candor in favor of going directly to the heart of the matter and calling it exactly as you see it. If you mean it, say it. If you say it, don’t cover up by saying you didn’t mean it. You mean you didn’t mean to say it.

The, “Oh, I was just kidding,” excuse/apology/defense doesn’t hold water in real life anywhere except in the mind of the person uttering these nonsensical words hoping the other person will believe it. Here are some thoughts on other counterfeit apologies:

Example: “I’m sorry I didn’t call – I’ve been really busy.”
Translation: “Please be understanding about the fact that other things were more important to me at this time than you.”

“Sorry–Denial of Intent”
Example: “I’m sorry you took it that way. It wasn’t what I meant.”
Translation: “I think it’s too bad that you had difficulty understanding me correctly.”

Example: “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
Translation: “I can’t think of anything I did wrong, but if you think I did, I’d be happy to apologize though I have no idea what you are talking about, just so I can get back in your good graces.”

Example: “I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner. It seems like you’ve been feeling insecure about our relationship lately. Are you?”
Translation: “If you are upset about my not calling, the real cause is your own insecurity, not anything I did.”

Only say “I’m sorry,” when you mean it and can specify exactly what you are apologizing for. When we give what I believe is a “healthy” or authentic apology, we can state clearly what we did that was disrespectful or inconsiderate without immediately explaining why we did it, telling the person that however it looked or sounded, it wasn’t our real intention, or, bringing up some other issue that suggests that the other person contributed to or caused the problem.

I’ve taught that instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” it’s far better to say, “Will you forgive me?” The first takes you off of your own hook and leaves the “injured party” still with that throbbing toe you stepped on. When you ask for forgiveness, you put the other person in the position where he or she belongs, in the power spot to say “Yes,” or “No.” It’s gives the other person the ability to recognize that he or she has the ability to take you off the hook. Forgiveness is a healthy step.

Declining to accept an apology that is not given sincerely is a perfectly normal thing to do. It just may not be the healthiest to harbor anger. Forgiveness doesn’t make what the other person did to you right or wrong. It just releases you from being blocked up and harming yourself with energy that isn’t life empowering. Holding on to the grudge builds walls of separation, and keeps you in an emotional prison. Forgiveness is not an option for healthy living.

When you disingenuously accept an apology and then walk away knowing it wasn’t real, you may enter a world of make-believe where you pretend an issue is resolved while harboring resentments. Gently, firmly, without anger, you can decline a hollow apology. For example: “If you believe that I simply misunderstood you, then I would rather not have an apology from you. Only if you believe you did something hurtful would I want one.”

Understandable? Yes. Wise? No. When you refuse to accept even an insincere apology, you refuse to surrender to being manipulated or pacified, but at the peril of your own wellbeing. It’s be far wiser and more noble to think, “I know he or she didn’t really mean it when she/he said ‘I’m sorry,’ but my health and emotional freedom is far more important.”

If we can change how we give, receive and accept apologies, we can become less defensive, gain insight, grow wiser, and strengthen all of our relationships. We can also, be a strong model for others, including our children, teaching them that real apologies and forgiveness show strength of character, gain the respect of others, and have great healing power.