Apologizing: Why & How To Do It

Apologizing is something we've all got to do (or should do) now and then, but it's not always easy. Sometimes we just don't know what does and doesn't need to be said or done. Sometimes we end up imitating bad apology habits we've picked up from others. Sometimes we apologize for things we shouldn't and fail to apologize for things we should. So here's a quick and simple guide to apologizing to help you figure out when and where you need to, and what you need (and don't need) to do.

Know what you should and shouldn't apologize for. Whether you meant to do it or not, you should apologize for doing things that hurt others, overstepping your boundaries, creeping people out, infringing on someone's space or belongings (EG, using somebody's personal things without permission just because it was amusing or convenient), failing to keep your word or carry out your obligations, losing your temper, making unsubstantiated assumptions or accusations, calling someone names, or generally being unfair in some other way. You do not need to apologize for doing your job, chores, or homework, using services that are open to everyone, asking questions that aren't covered in FAQs or other easily-accessed places, your personal life choices, your personal tastes and preferences, having different opinions, and taking care of your personal needs (be they physical or mental).

Know the difference between an excuse and an explanation. An explanation simply describes why something happened without shifting the burden of corrective action onto another party, nor does it cite these events as a reason why no corrective action is necessary. Here's the difference in practice:
Explanation: "I'm really sorry. I had a bad day and I lost my temper and took it out on you instead of dealing with it in a more appropriate way. I'll try to do better next time."
Excuse: "Look, I'm sorry I lost my temper, but I had a really bad day at work so you can't blame me for it. Just get off my case, all right?"

Make your apologies short, simple, and to the point. Unnecessarily dragging out an apology always makes things awkward, and going on and on with endless self-deprecation actually makes you look greedy for attention and pity. Here are some examples of what a well-formed apology can look like:
Example 1: "I'm sorry that what I did upset you. Please understand that I didn't intend to be hurtful, and that I'd like to avoid hurting you like that in the future."
Example 2: "I'm sorry for what I said. I wasn't thinking, and I should have been. I'll try to be more considerate in the future."
Example 3: "I'm sorry for making you uncomfortable. I'll try not to do that again. If I start doing something that bothers you, let me know so I can stop."
Example 4: "I'm sorry; I overstepped my boundaries here and I should have been more considerate. I'll try to be more mindful next time."
Example 5: "I'm sorry if I accidentally said something rude. Please let me know if I have so I can be more considerate in the future."

No fauxpologies. A fauxpology is a statement that can look like an apology on the surface, but isn't a true apology because it shifts the burden of responsibility onto another party. Here are some examples of fauxpologies:
Example 1: "I'm sorry you took what I said the wrong way."
Example 2: "I'm sorry that someone messed me up and made me paranoid and suspicious of everyone."
Example 3: "I'm sorry that you think I would try to hurt you like that."
Example 4: "I'm sorry I hurt you, but my parents never taught me any better and I can't exactly help that."

And don't say this other stuff, either. If you say anything like this during an apology, you're doing it wrong:
1. "You're so wrong about me."
2. "I admit that what I did wasn't right, but you can't ignore the fact that you're partly responsible for it."
3. "You know that I'd never hurt you on purpose."
4. "You have no idea what I'm going through right now, so get off my case."

"How can I make it up to you?" is not an apology, nor is it part of an apology. The reason why is because it doesn't actually address the issue you're apologizing for, nor does it have anything to do with taking responsibility for your actions. All you're doing is trying to buy your way back into this person's good graces, which is not a healthy way to go about these things. Don't offer to "make it up." Just admit you did wrong, make it clear that you plan to do better, and then do better. That is what people really want and need from you - not gifts, not makeup sex, not anything else.

And always remember SBAM - Stop, Back Up, Apologize, Move On. Stop: When someone tells you that you're doing something hurtful or inappropriate, stop it right then and there. Don't argue and don't protest. Back up: If you're in physical proximity to this person, take a step back. Whether you are or not, pause a moment to think about your place in the universe here and how what you're doing probably looks to other people. Apologize: Deliver your apology. Move on: Carry on with your life. Get back to business or talk about a less sensitive topic. Don't drag out the apology or carry on about what a horrible person you are or how you didn't mean it that way.

Keep your promises. An apology doesn't mean a whole lot until you keep the promises you make in it, and it's utterly worthless if you break those promises. If you promise try to do better, be more considerate, listen more, etc., do it.

When you clean up your behavior, don't draw attention to it. Let your improved behavior speak for itself. Drawing attention to it by saying things like "I'm doing what you told me to, see?" or "See, I'm doing better just like I promised!" makes you look needy, greedy, and manipulative.

Remember that apologizing does not entitle you to anything afterward. For example, apologizing for behaving rudely in an Internet community you got banned from does not mean you're automatically entitled to be unbanned. Apologizing for treating your now ex-significant other badly doesn't mean your SO has to take you back. And so on and so forth.

That said, if someone continues to hold something against you after you've apologized and changed your behavior, something's wrong - and not with you. The admin of that Internet community doesn't have to let you back in, but if that person keeps acting like you're still the scum of the earth, then that person's just an ass. Don't worry about trying to win this person over - just get on with your life and do the best you can to be a good person. (See also: How To Recognize A Moral Abuser.)

You might also be interested in:

Manipulative fake apologies (Offsite)
Guilt Tripping: What It Is And Isn't, And How To Deal With It
How To Recognize Gaslighting
The Voice of Reason vs. the Control Freak - The Difference
How To Recognize Bad Creative Mentors
Signs You're In A Toxic RP Community
How To Spot & Handle Parasitic Roleplayers

Ways To Deal With Negative Emotions
How To Cultivate A Strong Internal Identity
7 Ways To Make Yourself A Happier Person
5 More Ways To Make Yourself A Happier Person

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