the nightmare of having to write “I’m Sorry” 1,000 times as a punishment for destructive behavior came true for three Colorado teens. The three 16-year-olds were responsible for igniting a fire that burned more than 2,000 acres in Colorado. As part of their sentences, the court required them to write letters of apology to the victims of the fire–more than 1,000 households had to evacuate.
Although most people will not experience anything that drastic, chances are that sometime you will do or say something that strains your relationship with a friend or family member. Then the only way to mend things will be to apologize.
Some apologies are second nature: You bump into someone as you both arrive at the door at the same time, and “Sorry” automatically comes out. On the other hand, however, offhand comments such as “Trish really needs to update her wardrobe” can destroy a friendship. For example, suppose the comment gets back to Trish, and she refuses to speak to you. When you ask her what’s wrong, she says, “I guess you don’t want to be seen with a bag lady,” and stomps off.
Why It’s Hard
You value your friendship with Trish, but you can’t imagine actually saying “I’m sorry” to her. You’re embarrassed that Trish heard about your comment, but if you apologize, you may look like a wimp with no convictions. Besides, you tell yourself, Trish shouldn’t be so sensitive. Doesn’t she understand you were only trying to help?
“Admitting you’re wrong is what makes apologizing hard,” says Ross Logan, 16. Psychologist Robin Muir agrees: “When you have to apologize, you feel shame and guilt. You’re vulnerable to the idea that the other person may reject your apology, and your defenses are down. But if you don’t apologize, your relationship with your friend may become more distant and less trustful.”
Recognizing that you have done or said something wrong is important. And, says Muir, apologizing is not a sign of weakness. “Apologizing can actually be empowering. You’ve put yourself out. You feel you did the right thing, and you’re able to let go of some of your emotions.” By apologizing, you show that you know what happened and that you will take responsibility for your actions.
Once you’ve calmed down, you’re ready to make that apology–but don’t take too long. Ross says, “The longer you wait, the harder it is to apologize.” Don’t allow the other person to stew over the problem for a long time.
Steps to Take
Apologize face-to-face. Yes, it’s harder than writing a letter or E-mail, but it’s also more personal and more effective. Ask the other person if the two of you can talk, and then find a place where you have some privacy. Remember, this is a situation in which just saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it, so be prepared for serious discussion. Stay calm and keep your voice pleasant. You can be honest without being unkind.
Be specific when you tell your friend what you are apologizing for. “I made a stupid remark yesterday when I said that you couldn’t even get on a T-ball team.”
Explain that you didn’t mean any harm. “I really didn’t mean it.”
Make sure you aren’t blaming the other person for your mistake. “I had no idea I would upset you.”
Show the other person that you really regret what you did. Saying “I wish I could take the words back” may not be adequate. While that makes you feel better, it doesn’t necessarily make your friend feel better. You need to convince him that you understand what he went through. “I would be upset by that remark too. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
Repair the damage. If the damage is physical–you crashed your friend’s bike–you can take it to be repaired. Emotional hurts, however, take more strategy. Have some plan to show your friend this won’t happen again: “From now on I’m going to keep my mouth shut until my brain is engaged.”
You’ve put yourself through this torture and you and your friend are buddies again, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. Even though you’ve apologized, the other person may require some time to repair the friendship. In most cases, if your friendship is strong, your friend will accept your apology.
Ross no longer worries about losing friends over slights. “I think younger teens are afraid friends won’t be friends again. Most of the time my friends and I can work it out.”
Brittany Moser, 18, finds it easier to apologize to a friend than to a stranger. “You and your friend know each other, and you are more willing to work things out.”
Apologizing isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about accepting responsibility, and building friendships.
Test your apology skills. Write a script for what you might say in each of the following situations. Remember to make the apology fit the seriousness of the offense