People, especially women and others who are frequently put down, are often told not to apologize for who they are. But sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference between apologizing for who you are and apologizing for what you've done. I had trouble learning how to apologize sincerely because it felt like I was apologizing for my very existence. But that perception usually comes from our own insecurities. In reality, our mistakes don't define us. A good apology requires the confidence to acknowledge you've messed up and acknowledge that this doesn't make you a less awesome person.
In order to stop freaking out about every negative thing anyone says about you, you need to know yourself inside and out. You need to understand that every single personality trait out there is at least sometimes present in everyone, including you. Even the neatest people are sometimes messy. Even the most peaceful people are sometimes aggressive. Even the friendliest people are sometimes cold. Admitting to your messiness, aggression, and coldness in no way disavows your neatness, peacefulness, or friendliness. It just acknowledges the impact that the less desired traits can have on others.
My first and most important step toward getting better at apologies was embracing the qualities I didn't like and understanding that they didn't define my personality. But to get into more detail, here are some concrete things I've been doing recently to improve my apologies.
1. Focus On Impact, Not Intent
I absolutely hate to hear the phrase "I didn't mean it," yet I've still used it. I didn't want people to think I had something personally against them! A better way to say this, though, would be, "I don't believe X, so I'm sorry it came across that way." Talking about what you meant to do trivializes what you did.
Trust that the other person already understands you didn't mean it. If they thought you were just a mean person who went around intentionally harming others, they probably wouldn't be confronting you in the first place.
2. Really Emphasize How Bad Your Impact Was — And Why
If people just hear "sorry" or "sorry you're upset" or even "I'm very sorry I hurt you," they may think you're apologizing just to appease them. In order to show that you actually understand you did something wrong, you have to describe what it was you did and why it was wrong. Bonus points if you can think of reasons it was wrong that the other person hasn't even brought up.
For example, I received a great apology the other day from a friend who responded insensitively when I confided in him about a problem. "You must have felt like I don't have your back," he said — something I'd said myself — then he added, "you also might've felt judged by me." It's very hard not to forgive someone who's being even harder on themselves than you're being on them.
3. Acknowledge Every Kernel Of Truth In Someone's Point, Even If They're Mostly Wrong
The other day, I was frustrated because my stuff got stuck in a locker and the guy in charge of getting it out kept telling me "just 10 minutes" as I waited for an hour. When I lost my cool and said "yeah, that's what you said half an hour ago," he replied, "it's really not that hard to remember a locker combination." I'd never forgotten a combination — it wouldn't even let me set one. But instead of pointing that out and keeping the argument going, I thought: Who knows? There's an (albeit small) chance I set one and forgot. So I just apologized for getting mad and thanked him, because the fact was, he didn't have to be helping me at all.
The implication that I'd forgotten something like that felt like an accusation that I was irresponsible. But the truth is, it doesn't really matter if someone I'll probably never see again thinks I'm irresponsible. Why not let the other person win once in a while? If it'll save you an unnecessary argument, it doesn't really matter if they're wrong.
4. Thank Them
It may not feel like it, but when someone tells you that you've messed up, they're doing you a favor. After all, they're teaching you how to live with as much integrity as possible. Even if their criticism is nit picky, it's not such a bad thing to be nit picky about how we treat others. If you can add something like "that's a good way to think of it" or "now that you say it, I can totally see how that could be hurtful," even better.
Again, the secret to doing all of these things is becoming more self-confident. When you're insecure, you'll take every piece of criticism as evidence that your suspicions were right and you're actually horrible. If you know who you are and can't let anyone else's opinion sway you, then admitting to being careless or even unkind in certain situations won't make you feel like a bad person. It'll just help you become an even better one.