“I’m sorry.” Two simple words and yet two of the hardest to say. We easily utter them in response to trivial matters like accidentally jostling a stranger on the subway or giving the cashier the wrong change. Yet in important matters and to those who mean the most to us, we can find ourselves practically choking on the words. But the inability to apologize can critically wound all of our relationships, from home to work. Learning how to properly apologize is a necessary step in moving from boy to man.
Why We Don’t Apologize
Embarrassment. If we messed up royally, doing something truly boneheaded even though we knew better, it can be difficult to talk about it to the person we hurt or let down. We feel stupid and would rather pretend like it didn’t happen.
Anger. Things that need apologizing for are rarely a one way street (more on this later). We probably did something wrong, but the other person probably did too. And sometimes our anger over how they offended us is so great that we justify what we did and can’t get past it to apologize.
The antidote to all 3 obstacles? Humility. The reason we put up these walls is that we have an overinflated view of our true selves. We’re always right; we always have it together. But it ain’t true. We’re human. We mess up sometimes. You have to accept your imperfection as a part of life. Suppressing it will cut you off from others. Embracing it will allow you to grow as a man.
When to Apologize
Even when it’s not fully your fault. There is a breed of man who will not apologize unless he feels 100% at fault for something. “But it’s not my fault!” is his battle cry. He’s not at fault for throwing away an important document at work because no one specifically told him to hold onto it. He’s not at fault for hurting his girlfriend’s feelings because she shouldn’t have been listening to his conversation with his friends.
But almost no situation is 100% one person’s fault. If your wife flew off the handle and called you some cutting things for seemingly no reason, it’s not because she’s just an ice princess; she’s hurt because you’ve been working 80 hour weeks and not spending enough time with her.
Even if the fault split is something like 1%/99%, you still need to work hard to humble yourself and come to an understanding of what that 1% is rooted in. Don’t live your life as though every day you’re pleading your case before an imaginary court, presenting evidence for why you are not at fault and are innocent as charged. It’s not as important to be right as it is to have healthy relationships with others. Would you rather be right than give up your relationship with someone? Would you rather be right than lift the hurt feelings from another? Being self-satisfied in your justice offers little benefit but the feeling of smugness. And smugness won’t keep you warm at night.
You don’t have to apologize for what truly wasn’t your fault, but you can find the things, no matter how small, that you could have handled better. Once you apologize for those things, that will get the ball rolling for the other person to own up to their mistakes. Don’t let pride stop you from being the bigger person and taking the initiative.
Even when you haven’t been caught. As a boy, did you ever break something and then run away, hoping that no one would notice, and that if they did, they wouldn’t connect the crime back to you? This is how a child handles his mistakes. A man owns up to his mistakes and offenses whether or not he thinks he will be held accountable.
Quickly. Apologize as soon as you can after making a mistake or committing an offense. The longer you wait, the more resentment is going to build up on both sides, the harder it will be to make the first move, and the more awkward the situation will become. Be a man and nip it in the bud.