Feelings Rookie: How to Apologize

When I made the conscious decision to get back in touch with emotions again, there was no way I could only do it in some aspects of my life.

For instance, I’m mortified that I wrote “made the conscious decision to get back in touch with emotions” because that sounds like the hogwash a yoga teacher you’ve never met before this moment might say to you when she senses tension in your traps.

But I wrote the truth even if it comes off to me as saccharine, and I’ve got to stick with honesty all the time or not at all. Perhaps you’re the type who can easily flow between those places of truths and lies; that’s just fine, and frankly I’m a bit jealous, because that is my default easy place.

There are alarm bells that go off in my head now when I lie, and I can thank therapy for that (thanks a LOT, jerk therapy). When I hear or think it, I automatically go into checklist mode: Why are you lying? Are you lying because it’s convenient? Are you in defense mode? Is it just for fun? Are you bored?

Usually, though, the answer for lying is, “I don’t want to admit to something because admitting wrongness is tantamount to showing weakness.”

So when I began to chip away at my dammed-up feelings, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy and I had to be all in like when I gave up booze, because I’m not great at the in-between.

I’m lucky, because there was plenty of positive reinforcement when I first started sharing what I was actually thinking and feeling; my wife and my friends and family were appreciative that I trusted them to tell the truth, and they showed me it would not, in fact, kill me.

But there are times when sticking to honesty is harder, especially when you know that you’re on your own, you’re the only one making you do this, and the only way you can fix the problems in front of you is sacrificing your pride.

Yes, I’m talking about apologizing.

The following is what I’ve learned about really apologizing. Funnily enough, I’ve known all these steps since college, where I was a communications major and we were actually tested on this.

Theory is fine, but putting it to practice is difficult. But like I tell my sisters: I fuck up so you don’t have to, so watch and learn, bros. [Wife’s note: Her work has paid off and she is better at this, so she’s not just pulling your chain.]

Let’s say I’m having an argument with my wife. Let’s say she brings up recent behavior on my part that maybe I didn’t realize was hurting her feelings, but now that she’s telling me about it, I can totally see what she’s talking about. (I know it’s vague, but I’d say 80 percent of arguments or discussions follow this pattern for either person.)

My immediate impulse is to cover and run, to listen while she’s talking and start thinking of reasons why I could have possibly done that that aren’t the reasons she’s giving me. If this does end up coming out of my mouth – that I’m going on the defense – I have started to paint myself in a corner.

Instead of listening to what she’s telling me, I’m trying to think of ways she could be wrong, not trying to imagine how she could be right. Instead of opening my arms and heart and ears, I’m battening the hatches and hunkering down.

But, like you, I’m smart. When this is happening, I can feel a small wiggle in the back of my brain, something squirming, saying, “Why are you trying to burn this down when you know you’re wrong?”

Apologizing, though painful for the prideful, is important in this case. Because even if I didn’t think I was hurting her feelings, she’s telling me I was. So what is my end game with my current strategy – make her feel badly for bringing up an emotional issue that she’s uncomfortable with? Make her feel like dirt for being honest with her own feelings?

When I started looking at these situations that way, I realized there’s so much more to give and take within apologizing than merely winning or losing. It’s telling the other person you hear them, you see them, and you respect them enough to take their account into consideration.

In this situation, here’s how it goes:


Step 1: Express Remorse

It’s not an apology until you say the magic words, “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.” You may want to follow those two words up with a nice big “…but,” and I’m here to tell you JUST DON’T. Do not ruin the genuine sentiment of “I’m sorry,” with a caveat because that just shows how not sorry you actually are.

In the case of Molly vs. Her Wife, this would look like me swallowing my ego and saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that made you feel like that. I’m really sorry.”


Step 2: Take Responsibility

This is that piece of emotional honesty that sucks. Admit where you erred. Say it out loud. Take responsibility for your actions or words or behavior. If you were doing or saying or behaving in a good way and were praised for it, it’s not like you’d fight that kicking and screaming. The same has to be true with when you’ve screwed up. Don’t weasel, don’t waffle, and don’t whine.

“I can totally see how my behavior came off that way. It’s important to me that you know I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I definitely see where you’re coming from and it was my mistake.”


Step 3: Make Up For It

This step is also called “making amends,” which is a nice way of saying you’re going to be bold and open and honest with this person right now and you’re going to explain how you are going to make it up to them. This works well with step 2, because it gives you concrete ways to show that you’re actually remorseful.

“Now that I’m aware, I’ll definitely keep that in check through (specifics. Give specific ways you’ll rectify your behavior). If you see it again, please call me on it. Thank you for telling me.”


Step 4: It Won’t Happen Again

The final step in the process seems easy enough in theory, but in practice, it goes beyond this one conversation. You can say the nicest apology in the world, but if you keep repeating the action, it just shows you’re a good bullshitter. Your actions have to match up with your words, and that’s where personal integrity comes in.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, and I promise it won’t happen again.”

You’ll notice through those four steps that nowhere in there did I give myself any wiggle room. Like I said before, if I’ve got room to wiggle, I’ve got room to screw it up. If I’m wrong, I’ve got to be wrong, plain and simple, and it’s not her job to make up for my mistakes.

Now, of course I should mention that you don’t want to be a doormat just because someone tells you about something you may or may not have done. That’s why apologizing is a conversation – you’ve got to listen to them and be open to what they’re saying, but they’ve also got to extend the same courtesy to you.

But most of us know when we’ve messed up. And given the lack of appreciation for the truth or for apologizing we’ve got in our headlines and our politics right now, it’s more important than ever that we try to take personal responsibility for ourselves. It’s not easy, but it’s one of the simplest and most honest human connections there is.

Molly Priddy is a writer and editor in Northwest Montana. Follow her on Twitter: @mollypriddy

Molly has written 43 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. “I can totally see how my behavior came off that way. It’s important to me that you know I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I definitely see where you’re coming from and it was my mistake.”

    If I got an apology like that, I would still hear it as a lot of minimizing and hedging. When I’m getting an apology, I don’t care about the apologizer’s intent, and if they spend a lot of time explaining to me why they weren’t trying to do something wrong, I question if they understand what they did wrong.

    I’d much rather a straightforward “I’m sorry that I did X because it did Y to you.”

    • This is a fair point!

      In instances with my wife, part of my apology to her is letting her know that there was no intentional malice on my part. I’m not trying to avoid the responsibility of it, but letting her know there wasn’t malicious intent helps soften the conversation.

      She’s still upset with me, and I’m still responsible. These conversations don’t happen in vacuum, either, so context matters. She would be at a different level of upset, and I’d have to do a lot more personal soul-searching and apologizing, if I’d hurt her on purpose. Letting her know it was unintentional – only if it was – puts the conversation at a different starting point.

      Does that make sense?

      • Yes, this makes sense. This column was not very clear on differentiating between apologizing generally and apologizing between you and your wife. Since this is the first Feelings Rookie column I’ve ever read, I’m not sure what kind of line you draw between personal essay and advice to others as you write it, but it is filed under advice and includes instructions, so I said something.

  2. Such a world of difference between “I’m sorry you feel hurt” and “I’m sorry I hurt you (even unintentionally)”. I don’t want someone to apologise for how I feel – my feelings are my own responsibility. I want someone to apologise for their actions (again, whether intentional or not) – their actions are their responsibility. But definitely not to go straight to defense.

    Have been thinking a lot about this lately, thanks so much for writing this column now!

    • Do you mean in the moment or letting go of anger or resentment after an apology? Because in the moment, I’d say: “Thank you for listening to me.” (But only if they actually, you know, listened to you.)

      Otherwise, it’s the other side of the Make Amends coin: If you say you’re going to let it go, you have to try to. If you slip up, talk about it, and keep moving on. I am very human in these situations.

  3. Thank you for outlining these helpful steps. I’d like to also offer a counterpoint (that’s meant to be complementary to what you wrote rather than contradictory). While it is absolutely important to acknowledge and take responsibility for causing hurt, it is also important for the other person to take a certain amount of responsibility for their own feelings. When this dynamic swings too far the other way, you can end up in a situation where one person constantly criticizes and blames the other for every perceived offense, and the other person begins to feel constantly anxious and walking on eggshells. In my opinion, the ideal way to approach these situations is for both people to come into them with generosity of spirit for the other person’s intentions, a lack of reactive assumptions, and an awareness that we all have buttons that will get pushed from time to time that the other person may not even be aware of, and that you may have to do some work of your own on managing your first-impulse responses and feelings.

    • A) Please always share your strategies! I am a rookie, not a pro.

      B) I agree with you very much. I tried to address this power dynamic in the paragraph about not being a doormat, because it’s important to have the conversation go both ways (hey-yo). We should be shooting for listening, not reacting.

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