My friends, today we’re going to talk about apologies. Why? Because as much as we might want to be in our integrity at all times, none of us are perfectly integrated, so there will be times when unconscious or unexpected parts of ourselves come out to play and we behave badly.
Also, wholeness, which is the foundation of integrity, doesn’t mean “only the bright, shiny, nice bits” of ourselves. Wholeness means also the hurt, angry, sad, jealous, yearning, aggressive, selfish bits of ourselves. Integrity means owning those bits, too, and figuring out how to experience them without undue damage to ourselves and other people. Sometimes, though, there is damage, and learning how to apologize well when we’ve done damage is one of the most important ways that we show up with integrity in our relationships.
To be able to apologize well and sincerely requires both vulnerability and courage. It can be incredibly painful to admit that we have done something wrong. We may fear losing someone’s love or respect, or that if we open ourselves up to any discussion of our faults that it will be like taking our finger from a dyke. Our mistakes and inadequacies will drown out everything else.
The truth is, it is incredibly hard to apologize well from a position of low self-esteem, but it is also true that learning to apologize well is one of the most reliable ways to build positive self-regard. I hated apologizing for anything when I was younger mostly because I hated making mistakes. I didn’t believe I was worth anything— that I was always a single, unintended mishap away from my utter worthlessness being exposed for all to see. To acknowledge that I had made a mistake that impacted someone else meant tempting exposure and humiliation. Who would want to do that? Better to just scramble, hide, and lie, lie, lie to cover up whatever I had done.
I existed in almost constant anxious fear of being discovered to be what, it turns out, is just human. Once I took the risk to own my mistakes and begin learning to apologize well I was shocked (shocked, I tell you) to discover that nine times out of ten I had not done irreparable damage to myself or my relationships. It was uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, to sit with the honest consequences of my missteps or ill-considered actions, but, y’know, nobody died. Not even me.
I started to learn that I could fuck up and people would still love me. In fact, realizing that I could bear the weight of all of the consequences of my actions allowed me to accept love more fully and love other people better because I wasn’t so afraid all the time. Love struggles to flourish in the face of fear.
So, how do we apologize well? Here are 8 solid rules for apologizing with integrity:
Know why you’re apologizing
Before you even attempt to apologize to someone not only do you need to understand what you’re apologizing for, you need to know why you’re apologizing. What are you hoping to accomplish?
Don’t apologize in the hopes they’ll apologize, too. Apologizing in order to evoke an apology from the other person is insincere and manipulative. More often than not there’s at least two sides to every situation, but you only get to control your accountability for your part.
Don’t apologize to avoid conflict or to shut the other person up. Apologizing when you didn’t do anything wrong to mollify someone who’s not taking responsibility for themselves will only damage your self-worth. Offering insincere apologies in the hopes that the other person will move on from something you don’t want to talk about anymore is just, honestly, shitty.
Don’t apologize for who you are, ever. Apologies are for behavior that you feel was wrong, that you regret, and that you would like to offer amends for. It is a reparative effort on the part of a whole person for another whole person. If you’re apologizing for who you are then you’re trying to barter parts of yourself away to buy connection. There’s no integrity in that, and you deserve better— from yourself and for yourself.
If you don’t know what you did wrong, ask.
Sometimes we do something wrong and we know exactly what we did. Sometimes we sense we did something wrong, but we don’t actually know what it was. We just know that things feel “off” now. Our communication with someone becomes tense. Their body language is closed off. They’re not responding to calls, texts, or private messages.
It is okay to describe the experience you’re having of any change in connection or communication, and to ask if you did something that needs to be addressed. Then you have to engage in empathic listening without defensiveness. If you feel defensiveness rising up, thank them for letting you know what happened from their perspective and set up a different time to offer your apology after you’ve processed your own emotions.
Ask permission to apologize
If you’ve done something that negatively impacts someone else, you’ve likely transgressed some kind of spoken or unspoken boundary. This is a violation, and violations (even if they are small) involve a misuse or misappropriation of power. The first step is to give the person who’s been damaged back their power by not presuming you can do something that involves them. They may grant you permission immediately or need some space and time to feel angry or sad without you, but letting them decide starts your apology out on the right (humble) foot.
Name what you did specifically, with no justifications
Being able to articulate what you did that was hurtful or wrong shows the person that you’re apologizing to that you understand the impact of your behavior. Vague statements like, “I’m sorry I made a mistake” or “I’m sorry I hurt you” don’t communicate an understanding of what you actually, specifically did that was damaging. Also, once we get to making amends you’re setting yourself (and them) up for failure, because you cannot reliably or honestly promise to never make a mistake again or never hurt someone again.
Statements like, “I’m sorry if you were hurt/offended” are also not going to cut it. You’re not taking responsibility for yourself. You’re placing the responsibility on them for how they responded. Don’t do this, period.
What your intention was, or what you think they did first, or whatever you were consumed or distracted by at the moment you transgressed is not important. Being accountable for yourself is your primary job here.
“I’m sorry I missed the meeting. I didn’t mean to be so late.” NOPE.
“I’m sorry I lost my cool and yelled, but you dropped my favorite mug.” NOPE.
“I’m sorry I bailed on the assignment and left you hanging. I’ve just been so overwhelmed by all these classes I signed up for.” NOPE.
You can absolutely provide explanations or context if the person you’re apologizing to needs or wants that, but context is not an excuse. You’re still taking responsibility for your own behavior.
“I’m sorry I bailed on the assignment and left you to do all the work. My work load felt overwhelming, but I shouldn’t have just dropped the ball and not communicated with you.” YES.
Acknowledge the damage. Express remorse.
Whether you hurt their feelings, violated their trust, betrayed their confidence, scared them, or left them hanging, you need to name that to show you understand the extent of the emotional damage you’ve done. It communicates that you have empathy for what they’re suffering as a result of your behavior and you honestly and sincerely feel sorry to have affected them in that way.
“I shouldn’t have lied to you about where I was. I know you were so terrified when you couldn’t find me. I’m so sorry I betrayed your trust and scared you.”
If you wish you’d behaved differently, or could go back and make a different choice, say that, but only if you mean it. If you would do the same thing again, even knowing you would hurt them, don’t lie about it. That will also come back to bite you in the ass later. Trust me.
Don’t overdo it
Let the apology fit the transgression. Don’t be histrionic about it, letting the apology drag on forever with lots of emotional display, or revisiting it in repeated conversations. Definitely don’t put yourself down as part of the whole thing, like “I’m so sorry that I broke your phone. I’m so clumsy! I’m just the worst." or “I apologize. I shouldn’t have lied to you. I always ruin everything!”
That sort of drama hijacks the whole process and forces them to take care of you. You’re taking responsibility for you, remember?
Commit to change
Talk is cheap, ultimately, even if it cost you a ton of courage to say the right words up to this point. The words of your apology must be followed by a change in behavior in the future or you’re just wasting air time. Describe how you are going to do things differently moving forward and then actually do that. If you trashed something, commit to fixing or replacing it. If you violated a boundary, explain what the boundary is and how you’re going to manage yourself so you don’t transgress it again.
If you don’t know what to do to make amends, ask. Giving the person you’ve hurt the opportunity to define your necessary atonement is a powerful offering.
Ask for forgiveness, but don’t expect it
You can, and probably should, ask to be forgiven. You can certainly express the hope the you will be forgiven. But you don’t get to expect or require forgiveness, like it is a payment you have earned for all the hard work you put into apologizing.
Apologizing is not a tit-for-tat. It’s not like you’ve given someone a present and now they’re supposed to send you a thank you card. Taking full and sincere responsibility for your impact on other people must be a gift freely given, with no expectations of reward or recompense from anyone else.
If they forgive you, it will be something they do for themselves in order to move on. It may affect you, but it’s not for you, and it’s definitely never owed to you.
If you want to dive in for a true master class on all the in’s and out’s of both giving and receiving apologies with some integrity and grace I would strongly encourage you to listen to these two Unlocking Us podcast episodes, in which host Brené Brown and author Harriet Lerner discuss Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.
At this point in my life I’ve gotten fairly good at offering apologies. What I’m not good at is communicating with people who’ve hurt me about what they’ve done in a way that might actually leave the door open for them to offer a sincere apology. I’m a warrior at heart, and when people really hurt me I tend to come out swinging, full of fire and righteous indignation. Even if what I say about what they did is true, I tend to say it in ways that will exert maximum damage.
In that moment I want them to feel as hurt as I do, and though it’s perhaps understandable why I want that, I often feel some regret afterwards even if I don’t want to maintain the relationship because it doesn’t feel like I’m in my integrity. They’ve already broken my heart. Compromising my integrity over them on top of everything else hurts me, and I can at least control one of us hurting me, so I’m working on it.
What’s challenging about apologies for you? Are you better at giving or receiving?
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