Like a lot of people, I have an uncomfortable relationship with apologies. I don’t normally like giving them, sometimes I feel unjustified receiving them. And I’ve mis-used them, too.
Saying sorry is one of the most powerful things you can do — it can save a relationship, give you the closure you need to move on, open doors that were closed. Taking fault when the fault is yours, understanding you’ve hurt someone, and resolving to do better? That’s how we improve.
But it’s a difficult concept. People wield or withhold their apologies as a form of societal battle. We’re only human, after all. We wouldn’t have made it this far if we hadn’t learned to use language as our tool, and that includes apologies.
But saying sorry is different, in my opinion. Sorry is a level above, a word that should remain sacrosanct. There are conditions to the word. It took me plenty of years, lots of experience, and a few lost friends to learn what I needed to learn about apologies.
Here are the three lessons I learned.
You have to say sorry when it’s your fault, no matter what
When I was younger, I apologized a lot. It felt like some kind of secret cheat for humankind — just apologize and whatever you did wrong would be forgiven.
Then as I got older, I learned to keep my sorries to myself. Apologizing meant accepting fault, and sometimes that was dangerous.
In a business setting, my boss was quick to tell me to avoid apologizing where possible. If I apologized to a client, then they could use that to force us open, sucking more benefits than we were willing to give. People felt entitled to get free stuff if we admitted we’d done something wrong.
“If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” My apology was the inch that would open the door.
Writing emails, I kept in mind that apologizing was a common habit for women who felt like they needed to say sorry for taking up space, for their very existence. A stranger would bump into me and I’d struggle not to apologize. I’d ask for a favor and hold my sorries back.
But there’s a dangerous trend among people I’ve started noticing: people refuse to say the words “I’m sorry” even when it is indubitably, 100% their fault. Somehow the logic is backward. Folks think if they avoid saying sorry, then they avoid accepting fault.
My manager doesn’t apologize to me when something he promised me is late. The developers don’t apologize to clients when they notice bugs. The man who cut in front of me at the supermarket doesn’t apologize for not noticing me, or for stepping on my foot. He says, “Oh, didn’t see you there,” and turns his back on me.
If you’ve hurt someone when you’ve made a mistake, whether it’s through incompetence or the best of intentions, you have to apologize. You have to take the blame.
Not apologizing doesn’t allow you to not be at fault. It just makes you the *sshole who thinks they can’t be the one in the wrong.
The apology has to be on their terms, not yours
When I was younger, I was quick to forgive and I thought everyone was the same. I’d annoy my little sister, be annoyed when she got annoyed, and rattle off a string of insincere sorries calculated to get her to forgive me as soon as possible so we could get back to the important business: playing with Polly Pockets.
Often, she would not be as quick to move on. She’d be unwilling to play with me for hours, while I languished in bitterness.
I remember being so angry. I’d said sorry, hadn’t I? She was going to forgive me regardless, wasn’t she? Why couldn’t she just get on with it so we could go back to having fun?
My mom would wisely counsel me to give her some space and time. She’d come around eventually, and until then why didn’t I go play by myself for a bit? Fuming, I’d think to myself about how bitter and selfish my sister was, to pettily refuse my apology until she was ready.
It doesn’t matter when you make the apology. It’s not in your hands. It’s out of your control. You’re in the wrong, and not only is it disingenuous to use your apology to force instant forgiveness, but it’s also incredibly selfish to be angry when you, of course, aren’t instantly forgiven.
Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear it. They aren’t ready to forgive you. That’s OK.
That’s something you have to accept as the person making the apology: it’s on their terms, not yours.
Sometimes sorry isn’t enough to mend the hole
This is the hardest lesson for me to learn, and I’m still learning it. Sometimes, saying you’re sorry, making that apology, putting yourself out there to admit fault and expect forgiveness? It isn’t enough.
You have to remember that you’re not apologizing to be forgiven. You’re apologizing because you messed up and it’s the right thing to do. And sometimes it’s not enough for whoever you’ve wronged to come back to you.
Some mistakes will have repercussions that last a lifetime, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
On my twentieth birthday, I went out with a group of friends. Drunkenly, I thought the best way to play matchmaker was to go to the boy my friend Adam liked, and tell him he had a secret admirer. I asked this boy why he didn’t like Adam, who I knew really liked him.
At the time, it was hilarious. Waking up the next morning, I knew it had been a mistake.
Adam told me the next morning that he had been really embarrassed. He was angry that I’d played with his love life like that, ruining his chances with his dream boy. All I could do was apologize, but the deed was done. The chance was lost. I’d betrayed a friend’s trust, and although we were friends after, it wasn’t the same.
There were consequences to my actions, and saying sorry wasn’t enough to atone for them. That’s just the lesson I had to learn.
Apologies, in my mind, are a level above other kinds of human interaction. People play with them, issuing them or withholding them from others to forward their own goals. But those people have missed the point. Apologies are for others, but they’re for you, too. To learn, to improve, and to reflect on yourself is a valuable lesson.
There are some things a “sorry” can do, and there are some it can’t. It’s painful and uncomfortable to learn, but it’s a journey. When it comes to apologizing, you need to remember to say sorry when it’s your fault, know the acceptance is on their terms, and always know that a sorry isn’t always enough.
Zulie Rane is a reader and a writer who believes in the power to change the world through the written word. You can find her writing on ZulieRane.com, posting selfies and art on Instagram at @zulierane and tweeting bad puns on Twitter at @zulierane.
Image courtesy of Ales Me.