Feeling sorry about something does not mean you should necessarily feel weak. The fact that you did something wrong does not make you a less worthy person.
Apologizing is a gesture of humility – thus there is a certain amount of weakness involved. A sincere apology puts no pressure for the person receiving the apology to accept it – and thus the apologizer freely admits powerlessness to change or influence the other’s feelings, and just accepts things as they are. But if the apologizer goes too far the other way, feeling that [s]he deserves bad things, this is not optimal either. Very often, this is what is lurking behind apologies that make you feel “weak” or inferior.
A sincere apology should make you feel relieved and stronger, like you have truly dealt with something and put the worst of it behind you. Self-abusing apologies do not strengthen you like this – they tear you down, and should be avoided. You cannot hope to apologize well if you are willing to sacrifice yourself in the process.
Apologizing from a place of self-respect
We have talked about how a sincere apology accepts the state of things: how the victim feels, the fact that nothing can go back and undo what has been done, and so on. But if you don’t hold yourself to this standard of acceptance, you end up… not accepting yourself. And that, my friend, is where the constant feelings of insufficiency start.
It’s important not to equate a statement like “you didn’t deserve these bad things” with “I deserve these bad things.” This is a hidden leap, and a dangerous one. In the heat of the moment, revenge and retribution may look good – but they aren’t. Negative consequences that organically happen are one thing; if, for example, you betray a friend’s trust and that friend can no longer be your friend … that’s a logical consequence, not a vengeful one – and your sincere apology will accept such a consequence. But the positive individual then thinks “I screwed up, but I will be better and do better from now on,” rather than continuing to think about all the bad things [s]he deserves.
A truly sincere apology works both ways, you see; the other person gets the recognition that you have witnessed their pain, that you truly care – but you also get the recognition from yourself that you are doing what it takes to get back on the right track, if you will. The apology liberates you for a moment from having to fix anything or change anything – the act of apologizing is an admission that you either don’t know what to fix or how, or that it’s just not your place to try. You also get some breathing room to regroup and re-orient.
Listen without judgment toward anybody, yourself included
And speaking of re-orienting, often the best follow-up to a sincere apology is to open up your ears and listen. Sometimes the person who was wronged will have a lot to say that they want you to hear. Sometimes they will turn away and say nothing – and that will say a lot. Sometimes a bystander to the events in question will do the talking. Hear it all out, and remember that accepting how somebody feels is not the same as agreeing with them. Humbled as you may sometimes feel, you are under no obligation to agree with anything. Not voicing a disagreement – often the best thing to do when you are listening – is not the same as not having a disagreement, and you can’t make yourself believe something that you don’t actually believe.
Sometimes, especially in cultures that pride selfless honor, there is a backdoor thinking that, when somebody apologizes, the receiver of the apology is entitled to some schadenfreude (delight in other people’s misery) – as though, when person A does something wrong to person B, person A is expected to be put through something painful as atonement, and person B is welcome to enjoy it. You are free, if you so desire, to participate in such rituals if you really want to – but only if you really want to. Because when you unquestioningly submit to these feel-my-pain practices as a way of showing humility, what you are really doing is showing humiliation – which ain’t the same animal.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” This is still true in a situation in which you are vulnerable to such feelings of inferiority – like when saying you’re sorry. You’ve got a right – and a duty to yourself and others – to be truthful to yourself; stop for a moment and see if something doesn’t feel right. Because hey – if somebody you wronged said that they wanted you to go to the highway, walk onto the road, and get hit by a speeding car as atonement, would that feel right? Sure, this is an extreme example, but the same principle applies with anything else that you are “supposed” to do as “atonement.” No matter how humble you strive to feel, giving yourself away will not increase your return on apologetic investment. In fact, it’ll likely leave you more resentful of the whole process, often keeping the bad memories of the wrongful event that started the whole apologizing process floating around, rather than focusing on healing the wound and moving on. That’s bad news for you, but it’s also not so helpful to the person you are apologizing to, to continue giving these bad memories life.
Don’t give your self and your sense of choice and autonomy away just cause you feel bad – hold on to it. You won’t feel strong and relieved after apologizing if you’ve just given yourself away – and besides, strength on the part of the apologizer is very important. It represents taking responsibility for one’s actions. In fact, it often happens that when somebody who apologizes shows strength, the victim believes it more even when the apology isn’t as sincere – because the less sincere somebody is in apologizing, the more it can look like they are coming from a position of strength, since they can more easily manipulate the feelings they are projecting.
But just because strength in apologizing can be manipulated by charlatans doesn’t mean that there is no place for it alongside sincerity. it takes a certain strength, doesn’t it, to be able to stand there in acceptance of the things you can’t change when the time comes to say you’re sorry – which includes the possibility that your victim will not listen to your apology. But if they do listen – which they often will – you aren’t just strong for yourself; you are strong for your potential partner in the apologizing process. Even if your apology is not accepted right away, once the other person is interacting with you, they are looking for a partnership in resolving the injustice (even though such interaction can die away completely once the resolution is reached). Such a partnership – any partnership, in fact – requires a strength and responsibility in order for both people involved in it to manage it well and mutually benefit. To someone who is looking for that hands-on sincere engagement to figure out why something went so wrong and what to do about it, the best humility is a strong, well-tempered humility.
If you want to project the best outward, even in prostrate humility, you must make sure you are self-centered, first and foremost. Does that sound a bit weird? Well… it actually makes a lot of sense.