The oldest thing I own is a piece of homework from 1st grade. It’s actually an entire booklet of paper bound in little plastic rings. “Tiara, Grade 1” is written in purple crayon across the construction paper cover.
God knows how I still have it. It has somehow weathered a hundred homes (and no home at all). I swear one day it will be archived as a religious script because of the shit it has endured. In the future, people will tell the miracle of how the little plastic-bound journal survived tornadoes, fire, and the summer my mom kept goats in the house.
There isn’t too much to report about the Holy Scripts. Mostly pictures of birds in the distance signified by “M”s, yellow sunshines and broccoli trees, but there is one very memorable entry:
My shit list. Well, my “shite” list. Apparently I was an Irish child.
Grade 1 and already making a shit list.
You see, there weren’t a lot of rules in my house. No curfews, no chores, no expectations of grades or school attendance, and the expletives were free to fly. Al Pacino and Eric Cartman screaming “God fucking damnit” echoed around my living room and Tony Montana himself might balk at the curse words that came out of my step dad’s mouth.
But there were two dirty words, so filthy that to speak them meant swift and violent retribution.
Those words were: “I’m sorry.”
My father figure was the type of man who would run right into you while you were sitting in your own bedroom, then yell at you for not looking where you were going. In the thirteen years he and my mother were together, I never heard him apologize. More than that, apologizing was not something that you ever wanted to be caught doing.
To apologize meant to lose. It meant to plead guilty and to intensify your punishment.
“I’m sorry,” I would say for breaking a glass, for opening a piece of his mail, and one horrible incident where I tripped the plug to the television during the last level of a video game.
“You’re damn right you’re sorry,” he would say, that sadistic look spreading across his face, “but not as sorry as you are going to be.”
I would tell you what would happen next, but this is a family program.
Needless to say, my relationship with the words “I’m sorry” has been a complex one.
And so has yours.
Whether it spurts out of your mouth for every little thing, or passes through your lips like acrid tar, I’m sorry to say chances are good your relationship with apologizing could use some work.
To be, or not to be sorry: that is the question
There seems to be two kinds of people when it comes to apologizing. The one who apologizes for the bad weather, the dip in the stock market, and for only being ten minutes early to the meeting. Then there is the person who refuses to apologize for running over your toddler with their vehicle. After all, they shouldn’t have been playing in that McDonald’s ball pit.
Both of these people sadly miss or misuse a crucial component that is the key to happiness, health, and truly having your shit together.
Don’t be that guy
You don’t want to be that person claiming Dutch politicians are being burned alive in front of a group of baffled reporters waving facts at you, but you just hunker down while people at home scream at you on the television, “Oh for god’s sake, just fucking apologize.”
It doesn’t need to be this way. Owning up to your mistakes fully, quickly, and sincerely is better for your reputation, your blood pressure, and your immortal soul. You need to stop seeing apologizing as losing. Apologizing should be one of the most empowering things you do.
To apologize is to take responsibility and control over your world, your actions, and your reactions. What is more empowering than that? Apologizing is acknowledging the truth of what happened, to make something better, and to expertly wield a very powerful healing tool.
It’s an expertise worth learning
The ability to mend what is broken is a universally valuable skill. From car mechanics to art restoration, fixing what is damaged is a trillion dollar economy. When it comes to correcting misunderstandings, and righting what is wrong, embracing your power over a situation gone astray is one of the most valuable things you can learn.
And the economic correlation doesn’t stop there. Your network is your net worth. Enriching the value of your relationships and holding steady on an investment pays off in more ways than one. When it comes to your relationship it’s not the day traders selling any stock that dips a point that comes out the winner. Your connections should be blue chip, baby.
You want to be a powerful, successful person? Learn to apologize.
Learn to do it well
The over-apologizer is not a skilled restoration specialist. They are the band aid brigade. And while I think this person is a sensitive peacekeeper, they miss that apologizing is a process. It’s not about quickly patching something up to avoid a confrontation, it’s about being a fucking surgeon. Put your band aids away and learn how to fix something even better than before it was broken.
No two apologies should ever be the same. You should describe exactly what you did wrong, why it was wrong, that you will not do it again, and how you will handle a similar situation differently in the future.
Just make sure that along that process you don’t fall into a common trap: the “but what about them?”
But what about them?
Apologizing is about taking responsibility for your actions, it’s not about the actions of the other person. Breath baby breathe, this is the hardest part.
There are always many factors that go into something breaking. Maybe the other person left your relationship precariously balanced on the edge of a table. Maybe you told them that is not where it goes, but they put it there anyway. But if you are the one who bumped it, that was the part you played.
In the grown-up world things aren’t as simple as “he broke my toy and is on my shite list.”
My brother and I recently got into it. He was being rude, presumptuous and cruel. And I called him a name.
Did he start it? Yes. Is it a complicated situation? Yes. Was apologizing difficult? I could have eaten a pine cone easier.
But I do not and will not be the type of person who calls other people names. Not on my watch, baby. I am the fucking king of my castle, and no one will force my hand in acting any way that is not kind, patient, and mature… except when they do, then I will apologize.
When you can unwind the complicated knot of conflict and hurt feelings and identify exactly where your string of responsibility winds, you win, your relationships win, the world wins.
Can’t salvage a relationship? Learn The Art of Parting.