Nobody likes saying sorry. It’s not fun.
Even as adults we say it in a loud burst, like it’s being forcefully expelled from us after hours of holding it in. Or we whisper it while we stare down at our toes like a three-year-old.
Nobody likes being wrong. Being wrong is just wrong. It means you, as a person are wrong. Even worse, it means you are bad. We do all we can to avoid this feeling.
We are good people, right? We are caring, loving people. We vote our conscience, we stand up for others, we recycle, we donate to charity. WE ARE GOOD PEOPLE. Good people don’t have to say sorry.
Until we do.
Our reluctance to say sorry when we’ve been wrong often causes more harm than our original offense. We argue, we gaslight. We force the person we’ve harmed to justify, over and over again, their right to feel hurt by our actions, and then we still deny them that. We make them the enemy, we become the injured party. We demand apologies for having to think of ourselves as less than good people. And we don’t learn.
As someone who has dedicated a lot of her life to social justice issues, as someone who is known for calling out injustice, it really SUCKS when I mess up. And, boy, have I messed up.
I’ve used words that were insensitive to marginalized people that I wouldn’t dare use to their faces. I’ve lied to people. I’ve talked an insane amount of crap about “friends” that I was too chicken to admit I didn’t like — perfectly nice people who trusted me and considered me a friend. I’ve let bigotry color my opinions and treatment of people. I’ve used hateful words in anger. I’ve taken people for granted. I’ve cheated. I’ve made serious mistakes.
I don’t like to admit this about myself. I have hurt people — not always on purpose, but sometimes quite willingly.
I’ve finally made some peace with “sorry.” It hasn’t been easy; it still sucks every time I have to say it. I still have to suppress the urge to yell, “I know you are but what am I!” But I’ve made the decision that if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t want to hurt them more by denying my accountability. I’ve made the decision that I want to grow as a person — I want to see myself more clearly, no matter how painful that can be sometimes.
And so I’ve dedicated some serious time and thought to apologies and, through trial and error, have come up with some tips for those of you who might want to get better at a true apology, too.
Here are my “5 Rules For Apologizing Like A Grownup.”
1. You cannot put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Don’t even try.
This is one of the big traps of the whole “walk a mile in my shoes” thing, because you can’t. And as often as this tact seems to be a way to bring people together, it’s also a really convenient way to deny somebody’s experience.
The truth is, you can’t experience anything the same way somebody else does. You can have some idea, sometimes, but you will never really know. And your ability to imagine someone else’s pain is not a requirement for you to believe that pain. So if you imagine yourself in somebody else’s situation and you think, “Well, that wouldn’t upset me” — so what? It’s not happening to you. It doesn’t matter what you think you would do.
2. Apologize for what you did.
None of this, “I’m sorry if you are offended” bs. No, “I’m sorry if you took it that way.” An apology is, “I did ____ and it caused _____. I’m sorry.” If you can’t figure out what you did that hurt someone, you should either try harder or just be honest and admit that you don’t care.
If you don’t care just say it. I’ve said it. There are times where I’ve said things that hurt people and I was sorry — there are times where I’ve said things that hurt people and I wasn’t. I have to own that either way. But even if I’m not sorry it doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have a right to be hurt.
3. If you are sorry, think of what you will do to fix the situation or prevent it from happening again.
Communicate that to the person you are apologizing to, if they are willing to listen. Sorry doesn’t mean anything if you plan on shaking your head like an Etch-A-Sketch a minute later and forgetting it ever happened.
The growth part here comes from figuring out how you can make it right, and if you can’t make it right, how to prevent it. Please also note, if you are the one who messed up, the person you offended doesn’t owe you any help here. You should figure this one out yourself and be grateful if they do offer any assistance.
4. No “but”s.
“I’m sorry, but—” should signal a bucket of water to splash down on your head to bring you to your senses. That’s not an apology. That’s an argument. If you are apologizing, that moment belongs to the thing that you did that was wrong, and the feelings of the person you wronged. Your feelings and opinions on the matter don’t mean jack.
Did this person do something wrong, too? Cool — wait your turn. Say your apology. Mean it. Let it sink in. Then find the appropriate time to bring up your grievances. And if that person doesn’t apologize for their wrongdoings, you don’t get to take your apology back. You are a potty-trained adult.
5. Remember that forgiveness isn’t part of the deal.
The person you wronged doesn’t owe you anything. They don’t have to hear you. They don’t have to forgive you. They don’t have to like you. You can apologize and they can say, “Screw you, I don’t want to hear it. You are a terrible person.”
And you know what? That’s fine. They don’t have to hear it. And you were a terrible person — to them. They are allowed to think that. Forever. Nobody owes you friendship. Nobody owes you forgiveness. And if you grovel every day and somebody says, “Nope, don’t forgive you,” that’s fine, too. It doesn’t mean you have to grovel forever, but their refusal to forgive is not an offense against you. You did the wrong thing. So long as they aren’t violating your rights or looking to harm you or people you care about in retaliation, they are allowed to despise you and it doesn’t make your apology any less necessary.
There are quite a few people in the world who think I’m a horrible person. I’ve earned that. I don’t apologize so they’ll think I’m a better person, I apologize so I can actually become a better person. I apologize because it’s the right thing to do.
So, this is my working list right now. I’m sure I’ll revise it as I go along — I’m getting more comfortable with the fact that I’m not infallible. I’m learning that my good deeds do not define me, and my bad deeds do not either. I’m a human, a complicated, wonderful human who is many things to many people — some good and some bad. I’ll never be done growing, I’ll never be done making mistakes. All I can do is try to be honest with myself and do what I can to do better.
And the more I apologize, the more I learn that as hard as “sorry” can be, it feels way better than avoiding eye contact with someone you’ve wronged.
Ijeoma Olou is a blogger living in Seattle.