You’ve heard it thrice already before breakfast. You hear it in line for coffee, you hear it when you open the door for someone. An arm brushes against you unexpectedly at work or the yogi next to you scoots their mat a few inches to the right to make space in a crowded class and knocks your elbow.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so. so. sorry.
The problem with over-apologizing isn’t just that it cuts away at our self-respect – how can we respect our own opinions if we’re constantly apologizing for them? – it’s also that an abundance of apologies makes us like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Or rather, the Girl Who Cried SORRY. You remember the story: this kid is watching some sheep, and keeps yelling that there’s a wolf. The villagers rush out each time, terrified, only to be met by the little twerp laughing at them. Of course, when a wolf finally DOES show up and he calls for help, no one believes him. Can you blame them?
If we’re known as a constant sorry-sayer, it doesn’t matter how genuinely sorry we are or how terrible we feel – our sorrys are not trustworthy and are deemed inauthentic. “Sorry” has become cheap, and is way too often associated with weakness or being a pushover.
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But sometimes you screw up – majorly. Maybe it’s a missed deadline. Maybe you forget about important plans. Maybe you sleep through your alarm clock or lose a pair of borrowed earrings or think it’s Sunday when it’s actually Monday. Or maybe it’s worse.
Whatever the case, you’re deeply sorry – yet don’t know how to accurately portray how sincere you really are without coming across as flippant, disingenuous, or just another sorry-monster.
Saying “sorry” can be a lackluster way of protecting yourself or trying to make friends – instead of really, truly, feeling regret or sorrow over something you said or did. But what about those times when you actually are sorry?
The most sensitive and aware of us are usually the ones that mistakes hit hardest. I highly doubt it’s just me that can/will dwell over a misspoken word or even a tone of voice that might have been “taken the wrong way.” I’ll dwell for days. Weeks. I mean, there are things I said or did in fifth grade I still stress over. A sample from my collection of thoughts I’ve gathered over the years: Do they hate me? Will I get fired? Will he break up with me? Is my reputation dead? Should I just quit everything and start fresh where no one knows me?
The act of saying “sorry” holds a lot more weight than others may realize – especially for you, Ms Sensitive Soul. The trick is to subtly shift the way you apologize and be the slow-yet-steady change you wish to see in the world (because change and mistakes go hand-in-hand).
Here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to how to say sorry, for those of us who get hit the deepest by our own mistakes and want to make our apologies last longer than just five little letters:
FESS UP COMPLETELY.
When we’re in the wrong, it’s tempting to lean on stories, excuses, or even little white lies in hopes of getting us in the clear quicker. However legitimate (or convincing, in the case of little white lies) your story, you’ve gotta face the facts. The act has already been done, the opportunity has been lost, and you just might have let someone down. An explanation might be necessary, but not if it’s in hopes of defending yourself. An explanation and an excuse are two very different things. Fess up completely, and explain whatever you need to in order to support your apology, not ask for a free pass.
As for the “omission of truths?” I’ve found that white lies can be habit-forming, or just icky. Little white lies are like plaque on your soul, and can (and will) build up inside you. Over time, they morph into a weighty guilt that is way harder to shake than telling the truth ever would be.
GO FOR QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY.
When you’re truly sorry for something you did, the best thing to do first is accept full responsibility – but keep it concise. Long, drawn-out apologies can seem inauthentic and water down your true intentions. Side note, they can make you seem weak, which you’re not. Acknowledge your faux pas, acknowledge the fact that you fell below your usual standards for yourself, then turn your focus onto the other person (friend, boss, lover, whoever). Look the other person in the eye and listen to all they have to say. Prepare to be met with at least a little bit of anger, frustration, or sadness. You might get a lecture and your impulse might be to go into defense mode. But being fully present, fully accepting of both the other person’s perceptions and emotions, as well as your own inherently beautifully flawed humanity, is one of the noblest, strongest things you can do to move forward in an effective way.
OFFER YOUR SERVICE.
Are you able to fix the situation? Get on it. Ask if there is anything you can do to help the situation – and offer clear-cut suggestions to prove you’re not just asking because you think you should. Is there something you can replace? Go find it. Is there an additional apology you can make to someone else? Go make it. Is there an errand you can run or a call you can make, or something unrelated yet needed that the other person values? Figure out what it is and make it happen. Being of service after a screw-up not only helps others feel good again, it helps you feel useful and proactive instead of ashamed and defeated.
MAKE A PREVENTION PLAN.
Ever heard that hindsight comes right after you need it most? Not necessarily. Forgive yourself first and foremost, then take at least one active step to prevent your mistake from happening again. Find yourself sleeping through your alarm when you’ve had a long day/week/month? Schedule a free wake-up call online. Work mostly off of memory or your phone’s calendar? Maybe an old-school, handheld Day Planner is what will help you stay organized (I personally need to take this advice – something about pen-to-paper keeps me on track like no app ever could). Did your mistake involve more of a slip of the tongue or an offensive remark? Start practicing extreme compassion and empathy in every single one of your interactions throughout the day. Constantly ask yourself what would make you feel good, how you would want to be treated, how you would want someone to breach a difficult topic to you. Basically, be the kindest, most thoughtful person you know.
The way you are wired might be different than others, but the simple act of exercising empathy on a day-to-day basis could be the thing that saves you from a major misstep in the future. And if it doesn’t? You know what to do to make your apology count.
In the comments below, tell me about a time you made a mistake and had to apologize. What did you do to mend the situation or relationship? What was the lesson you learned as a result? Has it shaped the way you do things today?
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a version of this post originally appeared on the chalkboard mag in 2014