Learning to Say Sorry Properly

For most people saying sorry has just become a trick we learn to perform whenever the appropriate social cues present themselves. Girlfriend crying? Say sorry. Got caught in a lie? Say sorry. Forgot your anniversary? You'd better say sorry unless you want to sleep on the couch forever. The problem is that for too many people the words of an apology are empty and nothing more than lip service. But learning when and how to say sorry is a major part of self improvement and ultimately becoming happy.

The Story of a Compulsive Apologiser

A few years back I was a "people pleaser". I had very low self confidence and I desperately wanted to be liked. By everyone. No matter if it was some random I had just met I was always seeking approval from others. It was terrible. I was so focused on getting other people to like me that I generally did whatever I could to make other people happy, often at my own expense. The biggest example was my habit of saying sorry for everything.

If we ran out of toilet paper I would apologise for not getting some more. Even if my housemates had just been at the shops. If got into one of those awkward moments when a stranger and I tried to pass each other but kept moving in the same direction I would apologise. It was crazy. This went on for years until I woke up to myself and began my self development journey.

First stop on my journey was to develop some self confidence and I did this with good success. Deep down I did love and value myself for who I was but I just had to remind myself. But in this process I developed the attitude of never saying sorry because I thought it showed weakness. No apologies. Ever. Even if I was a complete jackass.

This attitude was just as silly as the original one. I had gone from one extreme to the other and it wasn't pretty. I offended people, I hurt people, and I caused some major hiccups in my personal relationships.

Early on in our dating days I occasionally said or did something to hurt Sophie emotionally. Nothing major, but at times I could be a little rude and Sophie would take offensive. But I would not say sorry because I was too much of a man to do that. It would sacrifice all the power in the relationship to her and I would be forever apologising. Luckily for me, I learned that this attitude was wrong and I managed to turn it around before I ruined the relationship.

In the process I have discovered how powerful saying sorry is for encouraging personal growth. When you say sorry and actually mean it then you have shown the ability to observe and assess your own actions, recognise how they impact the world around you, and take ownership of your mistakes. This is how you learn about yourself and develop as a human being. It is the basis for all personal growth.

Act with Good Intentions

I now focus on acting with good intentions and saying sorry only when its truly needed.  As long as I am always aiming to help others, but not to the detriment of myself, then my actions will be respected. As long as I maintain positivity and never receive a benefit at the expense of others, I will not need to apologise.

But even following this new motto I still have times where I need to apologise. I am not perfect and I will make mistakes but as long as I keep saying sorry when and how I should then I will always be improving myself and nurturing healthy positive relationships.

When to Say Sorry

The best time to apologise is anytime. It does not have to be right after the moment. It can be days, weeks, months, or even years down the track but I can promise you that any sincere apology is worth it, not matter how long it has been.

The key is that it must be sincere. When you actually feel real sorrow for the pain you have caused in another then you are ready to think about how to actually say sorry.

How to Say Sorry

Sorry is not a magic word. You cannot just say it and expect the world to right itself again. The magic of an apology comes from the feeling and sincerity behind it.

The apology must come from the heart and must not be for any personal reason or gain. It must not be just because you are feeling guilty, or because you want everyone to like you. You should only say sorry when you truly regret your actions that caused a negative outcome in someone's life.

The tricky area is to define what a negative outcome is. Often people will react negatively to actions in their life which are actually positive. They either cannot see the positivity, do not want to see it, or have trained themselves to be negative-focused.

For example, providing constructive criticism to a friend is positive because it highlights how their actions affect you and encourages them to grow. Initially the friend may reject the criticism and display negative emotions but this does not mean you should apologise for it. If you were acting with good intentions, not purposefully trying to hurt your friend, then in the long run it will be a positive action.

What to Say Sorry For

Following on my that example and my life motto of acting with good intentions, an important skill to learn is what to say sorry for. If you keep these two scenarios in your mind and apologise appropriately when they arise then you will begin to experience a happier and more positive life:

  • When you act with bad intentions - this includes taking advantage of a situation at the expense of others, ignoring the effects your decisions have on others, or purposefully hurting others for any reason. This is simply not on in any situation and and apology is required.
  • When your actions are neither good nor bad intentioned but cause hurt in someone - these are likely to be accidents and you should be willing to apologise if they cause pain for other people. But watch out for people who will try to make them bigger than they really are. It was an accident so apologise once and move on.

Getting Your Apologies Valued

One thing I noticed is that after refusing to apologise for so long, when I started saying sorry again people respected it more. It became obvious to myself and others that I am truly sorry whenever I apologise which gives it much more weight.

I encourage you to look at your own usage of "sorry" and question whether it has lost its meaning for you too. Hopefully you experience a similarly positive journey like I did.