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A (Not So Beginners’) Guide To Apologies

So here you are, feeling kind of embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty that you did that thing to that person. You search for someone else to blame, but a small voice in your head disagrees: “This was on you. You need to apologise.”

This happens to the best of us. Whether you’re a YouTuber whose life is subject to the scrutiny of the online audience, or a low-profile human being who is simply living life and interacting with other people, there will come a time when you do somebody wrong – unintentionally or otherwise – and have to apologise. 

We know that unlike toddlers arguing about candy or toys, a curt “I’m sorry” doesn’t really do the job, because our conflicts are often more nuanced and carry more serious consequences than who gets the chocolate bar or the better Lego set. And I’m sure we’ve seen more than enough bad apologies from people who we once held in high regard, but whose insincere apology reveals a toddler-like immaturity and lack of emotional intelligence.

However, when done right, an apology will not only mend your relationship with others, but also bring the relationship to the next level because you now understand their — and your own — boundaries. Of course, it’s very tricky work, but here are a few tips that might make things easier for you and ensure a better success rate for your “I’m sorry”.

1. Make sure you actually want to apologise

A big problem with many apologies is that they’re reluctant — not in the sense that the apologiser was being held at gunpoint to say sorry, but because these apologies were clearly borne out of monetary or other external incentives (such as to protect one’s public image), rather than a genuine willingness to confront a mistake and change for the better. 

A lot of YouTubers’ apology videos get flak because they all sound similar — even tears are shed in similar ways. Such identical apology formats show their lack of understanding of exactly why they are in the wrong; rather, the viewer gets the feeling that they’re just apologising for the sake of it, which of course seems inadequate. 

But even in our daily lives, reluctant apologies can be frequently seen, where someone is expected to “be the bigger person” and forcefully suppress their unhappiness to apologise to and appease another. In the long run, these bottled-up emotions can lead to an intense outburst, causing much more damage than the conflict that induced the apology in the first place.

Our advice? Take some time to reflect on your own emotions, because they are valid too, and ask yourself if you are really feeling apologetic. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to see how your actions could have been hurtful. Make sure you’re in a good headspace to accept criticism or any negative response from the other person. 

2. You don’t have to explain why you did what you did

You can have the best of intentions and still cause hurt to others. The thing is, you’re not apologising for having good intentions, but for causing hurt. 

When someone hurts us, we don’t really want to hear reasons that justify that behaviour; instead, we want them to show sensitivity toward our feelings (even if they don’t fully comprehend them) and genuine regret for having caused us distress. In fact, the point of an apology is to demonstrate that the person in the wrong is making the effort to see things from other people’s point of view.

That’s why defensive apologies like “I’m sorry if you’re angry” “I’m sorry that you took it the wrong way” are a surefire way to make things worse, because such remarks still centre around the apologiser’s own point of view, and trivialise the other person’s feelings. Instead of displaying an effort to understand others, defensive apologies blame the other person for not being understanding enough.

So it’s more effective to take full responsibility for your actions and admit that you were in the wrong — full stop, no excuses. 

3. Have your own boundaries

While we’ve established that you should always try to see things from the other viewpoint, this doesn’t mean you should neglect your own boundaries. Know what you’re apologising for, and if you feel like there’s something you shouldn’t be sorry about, communicate frankly and clarify by asking questions like, “I don’t think I did that, could you help me understand this incident better?”

Moreover, avoid pointlessly attacking yourself to guilt-trip the other person into accepting your apology, such as saying statements like “I’m just a terrible person” or “Everyone hates me”. Doing so fails to address the actual issue, and brings about unpleasant feelings on both sides. Saying sorry is an act of vulnerability; if you find yourself constantly apologising to another person and demeaning yourself in exchange for peace, it’s time to re-evaluate the friendship or relationship.

It could be difficult to find the balance between empathy for others and empathy for ourselves, so check in regularly to see whether the outcome of the apology is overall positive for both you and the other party. 

4. Offer an action plan

An apology means nothing if you continue to make the same mistakes and inflict the same hurt. Provide an action plan — not just a vague “I will reflect on myself” or “I will be more careful”, but solid steps you can take that will actually make things better. Examples include “I want you to call me out every time I’m being insensitive” or “I will plan out my schedule earlier so I won’t miss our outings”. If there’s a will, there’s a way, and it’s up to you to propose a practical solution for the mistake you made.

Finally, I’d also like to assure you that even if you’re not a master at apologising, the fact that you’re willing to leave your ego, face your errors and fix the problem is already a good first step. It’s possible that your apology isn’t accepted; in this case, be patient and acknowledge this outcome with graciousness, and stay open to further communication if that’s viable. You won’t be able to decide how another person feels or reacts, but it’s within your power to respect them, empathise with them, and correct your wrongs.

Ruijia Huang

Nanyang Tech '23

A Psychology & Linguistics undergraduate who is a little obsessed with lifting and Chinese food.