I write this post at a time shortly after the holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the "Day of Atonement"), and so my mind has lately been on a theme that is very closely connected to both of the above holidays in Judaism: Teshuva, literally translating to "return," used to mean "repentance".
In more casual conversation, apologizing: One of the most difficult, and one of the most vital, life skills to develop.
So on that note, today I'm going to discuss some general steps it's helpful to follow when we find ourselves in the wrong—and, as someone who struggles with apologizes just as much as the next person, hopefully I'll be able to work on following my own advice as well. :)
You've done something wrong, something you shouldn't have done. You regret it, you wish you hadn't done it, but the fact is: You've done it. And you can't undo it.
... No, that wasn't just to set the scene; I'm stating a fact, and one which, while I may not know exactly who you, my reader, are, or what it is that you've done wrong, I feel fairly confident in stating. If you're a human being, chances are that you've done something you've regretted. I have yet to meet someone who hasn't.
The question, of course, is what you do now.
Acknowledge your error, whatever it may have been. Nobody likes to think about those actions we regret, but if we can't recognize and admit our own mistakes—even to ourselves, let alone to others—we don't stand much of a chance at moving forward in the process of apology. Whether or not we verbalize whatever happened, it still happened, and there's much more to be gained from facing reality than from trying to pretend it never happened. Whether this is something you've done in the past, or something more ongoing (in which case, see the following bullet point), the first step is to honestly recognize for yourself the problem. Think of apologizing as a way of attempting to repair your mistake, and its repercussions, to the best of your ability. If a plumber is trying to fix a clogged drain, they won't be able to even make a start until they are aware that the drain is clogged, where it's clogged, how long it's been clogged, and can at least make a guess at why it might be clogged and what with. Either way, ignoring the drain is unlikely to do anything except allow the clog to grow, so that ultimately it will be even harder to fix.
So, too, with personal wrongdoings: Disregard will only allow them to fester and become stronger, more entrenched, harder to break out of and harder to make amends for. We all say and do things we're sorry for afterwards; it's natural, if unfortunate. What makes the difference is how we handle ourselves afterwards.
Stop, if you haven't already. Depending on the error in question, it may be a one-time thing, or it may be something more ongoing. If the latter, perhaps you've already ceased in the problematic behavior, by the time you acknowledge your error... but perhaps not. Oftentimes, we know that what we're doing is wrong and feel significant regret, before we ever actually stop in doing it. The first example that comes to mind is something I sometimes catch myself doing—snapping at, making hurtful comments, or otherwise being rude towards my siblings. They annoy me frequently, of course (as I'm sure I annoy them!), and I don't always control myself in time to avoid responding hurtfully. Still, seldom can I do so without feeling a twinge of guilt... often as not, at the exact moment that I'm saying something designed to hurt. In this case, the first thing to do is to shut my mouth and stop myself from saying anything else and the situation from deteriorating further. Apologizing for something while still doing it is an excellent way of coming across as hypocritical and insincere, deliberately or otherwise.
On another note, which also fits under the "stop" heading—even if the thing you're acknowledging as an error is in the past, just stopping to breathe and compose yourself before proceeding can still, as in so many other things, be immensely beneficial.
Apologize. "I'm sorry": Two of the hardest words in the English language, and probably any other language as well. Actions speak louder than words... but, sometimes, words speak pretty loudly as well. You may think your regret is obvious; it may even be that your regret is obvious. Still, the act of swallowing your pride, actually verbalizing your regret, acknowledging it to the other person—that means a lot.
The question of what makes a "good" apology is always a complicated one, and because of what a personal thing it is, and how dependent on circumstances, it's all but impossible to write a recipe for the "perfect" apology. That said, some thoughts that may be worth taking into account in this title step:
- Be sincere! Most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those forced apologies, where it's clear to all concerned that there's no real regret in the picture. Of course, it's sometimes hard to tell for sure if an apologizer is indeed sincere (pride, embarassment, etc. can all affect the tone of the apology, even if it is genuine), so as a general rule, I recommend doing your best to take an apology you receive at face value. However, when you're the one in the role of apologizer, you know if you mean what you're saying... and you can probably tell if you're going to come across as sincere or not. It's as simple as this: If you're giving an apology, give a real apology.
But on the other hand, sometimes you may find yourself being prompted or expected to apologize for something you don't think you're responsible for, or that you truly regret. This is a tricky situation; no one should apologize for something they didn't do, and expressing false regret won't do anyone any favors, but at the same time, sometimes it's worth it smooth things over. In this case, consider rephrasing things so that you are still being honest. For instance, if you said that upset someone but don't think you were in the wrong, instead of saying "I'm sorry I said that," try something like "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings". (That said, if you are sorry you said it, then do include that in your apology!)
- Avoid "I'm sorry, but..." This is related to the point about sincerity, above. There are exceptions, of course, and circumstances when this makes sense, but for the most part, following up a meaningful "I'm sorry" with a "but..." Trying to justify your actions or demonstrate why you were, after all, in the right is unlikely to smooth things over - even if you are, in fact, in the right, it can still have a sense of cheapening. If you've deemed the moment worth an apology, let the apology dominate the moment. Time for the rest later. :)
- Consider, but be cautious of, asking forgiveness. Asking to be forgiven can be a good part of an apology, and a good way to communicate that you're being sincere, so it's definitelly something to consider including. Yet, this same thing can also put the other person on spot, and end up just causing discomfort. I'll return to this point later (see paragraphs below: "Respect the wronged person's right to be hurt"), but for now, suffice to say, be careful. Sometimes it's best to leave the focus on yourself and let the other person take the initiative to offer forgiveness; this serves the triple purpose of a) Allowing forgiveness, if it is offered, to be more meaningful, b) Not detracting from the value of your own apology in and of itself, forgiveness notwithstanding, and c) Making it clear that you recognize your mistake and are not trying to gloss it over.
Ideally, an apology is a meaningful expression of regret, not a way of bartering to be forgiven. (Also ideally, forgiveness will be freely given to anyone who's truly sorry... but that's not my call if I'm the one who did something wrong.)
- Tailor to the specific situation. An apology can be written or spoken face-to-face (or both). It can be long, it can be short, it can be simple, it can be in-depth, it can be half-joking, or it can be fully serious. All of this (and more) depends on you, the person you're apologizing to, your relationship, and, of course, what you're apologizing for in the first place. All these variables matter: A hug may be enough to make up with your sister after a fight; a letter of apology to a teacher after misbehaving in class is something rather different. Both are equally important and should be taken seriously, but, clearly, the best form of apology is likely to differ. Similarly, a heartfelt speech might mean the world to one person, while another would just be made uncomfortable.
Really, everything in this section should probably be taken with a grain of salt - there are exceptions to every rule! - and the most fundamental thing to remember, I'd argue, is that there's no such thing as a "one-size-fits-all" apology.
Make amends, to any extent possible. This is, arguably, the most important step, although I'm hesitant to say so, as they're all key. No, you can't undo what you've done—but you can try and make up for it, to the best of your ability. Sometimes, the thing is something you can fix, to a greater or lesser degree, sometimes not. In either case, however, we all have a responsibility to do what we can. Whether these amends really are a way of "undoing" what you've done, or directly making up for it (e.g. you borrowed someone's book and damaged it; one possible way of making amends would be to get them another copy of the book), or something less direct (e.g. you said something hurtful; the words can't be taken back, but you can apologize genuinely and try to make it clear that you didn't mean what you said).
Sometimes, depending on the nature and severity, you might not be able to think of any way to make amends other than a sincere apology, and that's okay. In this case, it may be worth honestly asking the person you've wronged for their advice: "I really regret X; I realize I can't fully fix what I did, but is there anything I can to do to make it up to you?"
Maybe they'll say no, maybe they will think of something you didn't. Either way, you've tried.
Learn from your mistakes! Okay, I take back what I said on my last point: This is, I think, the most important step of all. Again, actions speak louder than words. You can say "I'm sorry" as many times as you like; if you proceed the next day to do the exact same thing you just apologized for, it's bound to cheapen the apology. The sequel to recognizing your mistake is avoiding repeating it.
Occasionally, relapses are inevitable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do our utmost to avoid them.
Respect the wronged person's right to be hurt. When you're genuinely sorry for something, and you've done everything you can to make amends, it can be incredibly upsetting to be denied forgiveness. Still, sometimes people just need time before they can let go of something, and while that'sfrustrating, it is something to recognize and respect. When asking forgiveness for something, be wary of being too pushy or demanding. Forgiveness is a gift, and while it's a gift that, ideally, is given freely, insisting on immediately being given the gift won't do anyone any favors. Even when you're apologizing, perhaps try saying something like "I hope you can forgive me," instead of "Do you forgive me?". This gives them the opportunity to offer forgiveness without pressuring them into an immediate response... and, honestly, probably increases the likelihood that you will be truly, freely forgiven.
And bear in mind, also, that being forgiven isn't the same as being forgotten. In case of a serious offense, it may take time and effort to regain trust that's been lost, even if the person insists they're not holding a grudge. Try to put yourself in their place, and remember that everyone has their own process of healing. You've done your best; now, the closure falls to them.
And, when the roles switch and you're on the other side of the coin, as you inevitably will be one time or another, remember your experience with apologizing, and do your best to be as understanding and forgiving as you can—another way of learning from your mistakes. Ultimately, holding a grudge accomplishes very little other than letting the anger and hurt fester.
And there we have it: The Hypocrite's Guide to Apologizing. :-) Of course, all of the above is much more easier said than done, as I know first hand. In many ways, it's a lifelong process, and I don't know that anyone will ever perfectly master the art swallowing pride, apologizing, and making amends going forward. Still, one can always strive.
As usual, please share any thoughts you may have in the comments below! Do apologies come easily to you, or not so much? What about the side of the coin, which I've only talked about briefly: forgiveness? Do you have any stories or experiences involving either apologizing or being apologized to? Any advice of your own?
Thank you for reading, and I apologize for my own hypocricy. :')