How (Not) to Apologize

People make mistakes. That’s not an earth-shattering observation. But it’s important to remember. People trip and fall and attempt boneheaded stunts that end up on YouTube. Some people drink too much and make an ass of themselves. Others confidently assert they know something and are quickly proven wrong.

When you don’t know how to cook, there’s an assortment of (sometimes dangerous) mixups and missteps. Maybe you’ve scored on your own team in a game. Hit the road with only a drop of gas left in the tank. Spilled food on your shirt.

We all make mistakes. Many of them are hilarious and become good stories.

There’s another kind of mistake, and they aren’t funny. They don’t always have happy endings. These are the mistakes that hurt other people. Emotionally. Physically. They damage someone else’s sense of self and their outlook on life.

We all make these mistakes, too. Unlike the ones where we make a fool of ourselves and joke about it later, mistakes that hurt people aren’t something we like to take credit for. When you screw up in ways that hurt someone, you can experience a whirlwind of shame, guilt, denial, anger, sadness, and more. You know you blew it, but you’d rather find other causes to blame. You know you should apologize, but that means admitting you messed up.

Many of us get around this by saying something that seems like an apology but isn’t. You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m sorry, but…” That but is a wrecking ball. They almost owned their mistake, and then smashed it to the ground with qualification and rationalization. “I’m sorry I blew up in your face, but you were being a pain in the ass.” Not an apology. Not gonna go anywhere good.

Or maybe you’ve said, “I’m sorry if…” “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” If? What’s that doing there? If can be just as destructive as but. It makes the other person question whether they were actually hurt or not. Are my feelings hurt? Was it really that bad or a big deal? Am I’m being too hard on the person who hurt me? If is a conditional thing–muddying the waters of certainty. “I’m sorry if…(but maybe that’s not the case and I’m off the hook)”. It’s a doubt-sowing non-apology.

How about an “I’m sorry you feel that way”? Ever tried to sneak that past someone? It’s some not-so-clever blame shifting. It looks like an apology on the surface. But it’s really you saying you acted perfectly fine and for some (inexplicable) reason, the other person is going through some emotions about it. I don’t know why you’re all worked up about it, but hey–I’m sorry you feel that way.

In a real apology, you own your mistake and what it did to the other person. Nothing more, nothing less. A true apology keeps the focus on your actions. No qualifications, no muddying the waters, no blame-shifting. Say what you did, and be open-minded and curious about what they’re going through because of it. Someone who’s hurt wants you to get what they’re feeling and care about it. An unqualified “I’m sorry that I…” can open the space for that connection to happen.

In a real apology, both people are validated in the process. The person you hurt is affirmed and cared for. You, the mistake-maker, show that you’re trying to be objective and accept your human shortcomings. And that you respect your relationship enough to make things right. Real apologies create the potential for healing instead of hurts that smolder. And give relationships strength and a future instead of enlarging the animosity and space between you.

We’re all human. Making mistakes is in our DNA. If you screw up and hurt someone, own it and actually apologize. We need more healed relationships in the world.

 

Eric

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