I’ve messed up a lot in my life and I’ve hurt a lot of people. Many of those people I’m no longer in contact with, and will probably never apologize to. And now, although I can’t think of the last time I intentionally tried to hurt someone else, I still do it far more frequently than I wish I did.
Bottom line, human relationships are messy. Even if you try to never offend or upset anyone ever and coat all your words in sugar-honey-molasses-toffee and say whatever you think the other person wants you to say…you will upset someone sometime. And also that sugary business sounds exhausting and requires a lot of mind-reading. Which is a skill I do not possess at the time of this writing.
Combine all the accidental-offense giving with all the times I just plain make stupid mistakes, like paperwork errors, forgetting to respond to an email, or forgetting to pick something up at the store, and what you have is a moderate-sized stew of human error.
Fortunately, I can cope with that.
I know how to take accountability.
Now this is a skill I had to develop, because my preferred method of dealing with my own eff-ups is to hide from everyone that they ever happened and stubbornly insist that I am in the right. Because *sigh, being in the right just feels goood. (Though I can’t say the same for hiding mistakes).
But. Always being in the right is not good for relationships. And being that there are a whole lot of people I love, and being that I try to cultivate a fulfilling life…I have to prioritize those relationships over that sweet, smug satisfaction of pretending to be a perfect saint.
So in the course of effing up so very many times, and in the course of becoming a therapist and receiving training in how to not be a terrible therapist… I have learned a thing or two about how to handle it when you realize you’ve messed up.
There is a formula: a few basic things to do, and a whole bunch of things not to do.
What to Do:
Now, here is the important part! The next step is the hard part.
Leave it at that.
Don’t lie down on the floor and invite them to stomp on your face, don’t grovel at their feet, don’t beg their forgiveness. Don’t threaten suicide or harm to yourself.
Don’t explain why you did what you did. Don’t get defensive. Don’t justify it, don’t helpfully explain to them how they contributed to the problem, don’t attempt to regain the moral high ground.
Don’t send the message that you are unable to cope or live with the regret. Don’t send the message that you believe yourself to be the scum of the earth because of what you did. Don’t go to extreme lengths to show them how sorry you are. Don’t try to force them to get over it by acting uncharacteristically/creepily saccharine.
Why all these don’ts? Many of the above strategies are how many of us learned to “make up” after messing up. But there is a problem with all of them:
They make it all about the person who made the mistake.
A general rule of thumb: if the person I am apologizing to ends up feeling like they have to take care of me and reassure me that it’s not that bad and I’m still an okay person and not a complete failure, then my apology is all about me and is doing more harm than good.
Because then I’ve failed to make it safe for the other person to feel however they feel. I’ve taken my apology and turned it into a way to get something for myself (like comfort or reassurance), rather than simply taking accountability for what I’ve done.
So after following the formula, the ball is now in the other person’s court. If they are mad/sad/hurt/frustrated/exasperated, let them feel that way and convey understanding for those feelings. Convey the sense that you are capable of tolerating their feelings and that you can handle your own regret. You are a safe place for their emotions.
It’s like being a warm, safe harbor for someone else. It’s a great gift.
Join the conversation in the comments below!
What is your preferred method of handling apologies? Do you love being in the right as much as I do?
Are you wondering whether my baby is here yet? (Spoiler, no she’s not). Will you send me magical vibes that will put me into labor please? Thank you.
Also, how are your holidays going?