How to Show You're Sorry When You Screw Up

We’ve all screwed up at some time in our lives. Whether we’ve broken a piece of expensive dinnerware at a friend’s party, dented the fender on a borrowed car, or gotten into a full-blown argument with someone at work, we’ve all done it at some time in our adult lives.

Chances are good that when we were kids, we were forced to say we were sorry, and our parents insisted that we meant it, without concern for whether we felt it our not.

bouquet of pink, green and yellow flowers in a round glass bowl, in florist case

We apologize most effectively when we repair the damage. A symbol of our regret, while appropriate, is never sufficient by itself.

If they also failed to help us recognize that we are separate from our actions, we were likely left feeling we had no choice, and that we were generally a bad person. There was nothing genuine about the situation because honesty was not a factor and honesty is the root of every effective apology. No wonder we can find it hard to show or say we’re sorry when we screw up as adults!

Fortunately, as adults, we can be genuine in our apologies, and show our own children a better way to handle our mistakes. We demonstrate our integrity and our maturity, and put our reputation and our relationship back on the right track, when we take five effective steps to make amends.

Do Not Duck The Problem

Be the bearer of your own bad news because if you don’t, others will do it for you.

Own up to what has happened and do not blame anyone else or attempt to justify your actions or choices. Former President Bill Clinton is a textbook example of how to be honest about his oval office shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky. So far, Paula Dean seems unable to be honest.

Make a Full Apology

I prefer to write my apologies, promptly, and by hand when possible, rather than to state them verbally. Writing provides a permanent reminder to us both of what has happened and of my apology. Writing also allows me to choose my words deliberately and thoughtfully. Finally, writing allows the other person the luxury of time to consider my apology and avoids further confrontation when emotions are still high.

Make Good on the Damage

We don’t fully take responsibility until we take steps to make good.  It’s not enough to say I am sorry and I promise not to do it again because our words do not magically undoing the damage. We have to also repair, replace or otherwise make restitution (financial or otherwise) for the harm we have caused. When those things are not possible – such as when we behave badly at a party – it is always possible to run errands or give other services or even give a small gift as a demonstration of our gratitude for the other person’s understanding and appreciation for their refusal to hold a grudge.

Work to Earn Others’ Trust Again

There is a hidden damage that remains long after the repairs are made. That damage is the loss of trust between us and the person we have harmed. We’ve proven ourselves to be less trustworthy that previously assumed. We start to rebuild that trust by showing that while we may have screwed up, and thus we are fallibly human, we are still a person of integrity. The handwritten note, or verbal apology, begins that process. Making restitution or otherwise compensating for the harm we have caused is the next step. From there, we start with small things to show we understand we must rebuild trust. Mike Tyson has famously shown he is not interested in earning our trust. Having once bitten the ear of Evander Holyfield, he bit his other ear in a subsequent fighting match.

Demonstrate That You Have Learned From Your Mistake

The most important part of rebuilding trust is to show that we have learned from our mistake and have no intention of repeating it. After Michael Vick was freed from prison for his role in illegal interstate dog fighting, the Humane Society arranged for him to take part in their efforts to end dog fighting. By contrast, former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner has failed to take any of these necessary steps and has continued to engage in unacceptable sexual exploits. Accordingly, the public turned its back on him in the Democratic primary for the New York mayoral race.

Most of us will never be publicly vilified for our actions or go to jail. It is not necessary for us to go to extraordinary lengths to make amends and prove ourselves trustworthy. Admitting our mistake, apologizing, making restitution, re-earning trust, and rebuilding the relationship is enough to put our relationship back on track.

Life Is Honest, Open and True: Honesty about our actions, a genuine effort to repair the damage we have caused, and actions that show we have learned from our mistake all show our integrity and maturity. When we couple those with a heartfelt apology and a willingness to regain others’ trust in us, we can make up for our mistakes.

Related Posts: Making Amends 

Resolve to be Your Own Friend

Do You Dwell on It, or Do You Move On?

The Truth Is, I Made a Mistake

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