One of the most important parts of growing up and becoming a mature adult is realizing that you aren’t perfect, that you’re bound to make many mistakes throughout your years, that you need to accept responsibility for your errors, and that every action comes with consequences.
Indeed, knowing how to swallow your pride and face up to your actions is one of the true signs that you have integrity as a person.
And part of accepting responsibility for your mistakes is apologizing to those you’ve wronged. Unfortunately, people tend to get this wrong. It’s not enough to say “Sorry” and move on. There’s a lot more to it than that—if you don’t want to come off as an immature brat, anyway.
What Is an Apology?
An apology is an expression of regret for wrongdoing, and an important step toward reconciliation in a damaged relationship. Whether between parent and child, husband and wife, boss and employee, two or more friends—it’s an important life skill to develop because you are going to commit wrongs and you will need to apologize for them.
Note that an apology isn’t just acknowledging that you’ve done something wrong, but expressing regret for what you’ve done wrong. Which means you need to believe that what you did was truly wrong. And you need to be remorseful about it. Without remorse, apologies are empty and meaningless—and this is where a lot of less mature people stumble. If you don’t have the capacity to feel remorse for your actions, your relationships will keep breaking instead of growing stronger.
How to Apologize Like an Adult: 5 Steps
1. Acknowledge That You’ve Hurt Them
There are actually two parts to this step: first, realizing that you’ve hurt someone or done something wrong to them, and second, verbally letting them know that you’ve come to this realization. The second part is crucial because it’s the initiating step of the apology. It opens up a dialogue between you and the wronged party, bringing everything to the table for discussion and, hopefully, a resolution. In many ways, that makes this the hardest step. You can’t skip it.
2. Don’t Make Excuses or Try to Justify Yourself
The crux of a proper apology revolves around the fact that your actions wronged somebody. The implicit truth here is that you are at fault. It doesn’t matter why you did what you did; what matters is that you did do what you did and they got hurt because of it. Keep the focus of the apology on them, not you. The goal of an apology is restored relationship, and that can’t happen if you hog the spotlight.
Try to put yourself in their shoes to see why this is a bad idea. If someone offended you, you wouldn’t care why they did it, right? What matters is that they recognize they hurt you and feel remorse over it. A good explanation rarely softens the blow; in fact, it often stokes the coals and causes a greater rift in the relationship. By attempting to explain your behavior, you’re unconsciously suggesting that you haven’t done anything wrong and that their feelings are invalid.
If you ever find yourself saying “I’m sorry, but…” then your apology might be insincere.
3. Right Your Wrongdoing, If Possible
Not all wrongs can be made right via physical action, but you should always do something to show that your remorse is more than just words. For example, if you borrowed from a friend and forgot to pay them back, make haste and give them what they’re due (and if you’re really sorry, give them a little extra for the trouble). If you forget your mother’s birthday, a belated gift is better than nothing at all. If your spouse doesn’t like the trajectory of your relationship with a coworker, perhaps it’s time to set boundaries for that relationship. Whatever you do, it’s important that your reconciliatory action is related to the original wrongdoing.
4. Ask for Forgiveness
A lot of people assume that the act of apologizing inherently carries a petition for forgiveness, but it’s a lot more meaningful if you directly and verbally ask for it. “Can you forgive me?” may sound dramatic. It may feel weird saying it, especially if you’ve never said it before. But that uneasiness and discomfort show how important those words are.
You’re the one who hurt them—the least you can do is suffer a little discomfort to ask this very important question. You caused a rift in your relationship with your wrongdoing; this question shifts the power dynamic of your relationship in their favor. It’s now up to them whether they want to forgive you. If they do forgive you, the power dynamic is resolved and returns to normal. If they don’t forgive you, you have no right to be angry with them. As the wounded party, it’s their call.
5. Learn From the Experience
Hopefully you’ve reconciled and things are back to normal, or at least on the path toward going back to normal. However, for your apology to be meaningful, you need to learn from it and avoid committing the same mistake(s) in the future. A mature adult doesn’t get locked into an endless cycle of apologizing for the same wrongdoing; a few times, maybe, but eventually the mature adult grows from the experience and changes for the better. After all, that’s what maturity means, isn’t it? Change and growth.