The Value of An Apology

As a woman, I have always had a very adversarial relationship with apologies. As a young girl I suffered, as most young girls do, from an inability to stop apologizing for everything. It got to the point that I felt the need to apologize for simply existing in the physical world. I remember all too well the need to make myself as small as possible when walking through a crowded hallway and singing the chorus to “Sorry, excuse me, I’m so sorry!”. To this day, I still know the lyrics, though I try my hardest to simply hum the tune in my head. Indeed, as a woman, I have made a conscious effort to no longer apologize unless absolutely necessary. Unless I have wronged someone, and acknowledge that I am indeed the one who is wrong, the words “I am sorry” won’t dare cross my lips.

Much like a pendulum, I have swung from one extreme to another. From a girl whose very identity was nothing but a giant apology to a grown woman who’d rather not even know how to spell apology if it wasn’t for spellcheck. Unfortunately, neither extreme has served me well. I am either the girl who lets people walk all over her or the bitch who never takes responsibility for her mistakes. Luckily, a pendulum has to come to rest in the center at one point or another and, at 25, I have finally found my center.

I no longer view an apology as a blanket admission of guilt or an overt sign of weakness. I see it as a connector, a way to foster and grow relationships; as a path to forgiveness; as a tool to take responsibility; as a reminder of humility, empathy and compassion and, finally, as a sign of respect.

I use an apology mindfully, thinking critically about its utility before actually putting it out there for the world to receive. I ask myself the following questions:

  • What is its purpose here? Perhaps I’m running late because of a bad accident on my way to a meeting. Sure, the accident is not my fault and thus my running late is beyond my control. But me saying, “I’m sorry for being late” is not an admission of guilt. The purpose here is to show respect for the other person and the time they have taken out of their busy day to meet with me. I used to not apologize when one student meeting ran over and I was a few minutes late for the next one. In my mind, that previous student needed the extra time and it was my duty to provide it. As such, I shouldn’t have to apologize for doing my job. What a toxic way of thinking! Now, I offer an apology as a sign of my respect for the student and their time. It is a way for me to show them that I value them taking the time out of their day to meet with me and that I appreciate them patiently waiting.
  • What is the feeling behind it? When meeting with students, I often hear myself say “I am sorry to hear that”, when they share bad news with me. Whether it’s a death in the family or a bad grade, the purpose here is to share my genuine empathy and compassion with the individual sitting across from me. The apology serves as a connector between two human beings, as opposed to an authority figure and a student. It helps me foster a relationship between myself and the student and demonstrates that I am here to listen.
  • Who needs it? Sometimes, an apology serves the person giving it more than the person receiving it. I have definitely used it as a way to, not only take responsibility for my mistakes, but more so as a way to help me forgive myself. I tend to carry past mistakes with me wherever I go. They weigh on me and keep me from moving forward. An apology, whether it is directed at another person or myself, allows me to let go of those mistakes, forgive myself for having made them and to move on as a better person.

What are your thoughts on apologies? How do you view them? How do you use them? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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