Woman in a field

How to make yourself feel better by apologising

This is about a rather selfish topic: how yo make yourself feel better when you have wronged somebody else. But stay with me: everyone will come out a winner in the end.

I need to start by telling you a story about an embarrassing event that happened to me. Last week, I sent out an email newsletter for a community group I run. It contained a write-up of a recent talk we had, in which a world leading expert on gender in education had presented his research.

I wrote the newsletter at 11pm, after a long day at work, typing one-handed while I tried to soothe my baby daughter to sleep with the other arm. Believe it or not, this is not the best way to focus on what you are doing!

As a result, I made a mistake. I used a triple negative, saying "he did not fail to disappoint", implying that he had given a disappointing talking! I only realised when another member of the committee messaged me the next day to point out the mistake.

The embarrassment is painful

When I received the message about the mistake, I began to panic. I was out for a run at the time, so there was nothing I could do. But the thoughts went over and over in my mind: has he read the email? Have I upset him? How many people have seen the mistake?

For many of us with anxiety, these thoughts do not go away. They stick around with us long after the event. Some people experience flashbacks to embarrassing memories from years ago.

As anxiety-sufferers, our memory is often not our friend. It is quick to pull out the unpleasant and embarrassing memories from our past, and slow to remember the successes and the good times, leading us to have a negative and biased view of the world.

How you should respond

Perhaps the worst thing we could do would be to try to forget it. Our memory is not our friend. It has no plans to let us forget about it. Instead, we need to confront it.

1. Talk to people about it. I started with my wife. If anyone will know the strains of trying to form coherent sentences whole juggling a small child, it is probably her. I talked to my friend on the committee. She reassured me that people would know what I meant.

2. Apologise to the person you have wronged. I phoned the speaker (who is also a friend) and apologised for the mistake. People are quick to grant forgiveness, but also to trivialise the incident. It may feel _hugely_ embarrassing to you, but they may be amused by it, or not think it is a big deal.

3. Correct your mistake. I sent out a message to explain what had happened. You might expect that people will think less of you if you admit to a mistake, but just the opposite is true. Admitting to a mistake, especially one they themselves did not notice, actually builds trust rather than destroys it.

There is no need to make excuses. Just admit the mistake. This is difficult. In fact, in the correct I sent out, I did mention some of my excuses, but I also stressed the biggest reason it probably happened was that I was an idiot.

"It could have been because it was 11pm, it could have been because I was typing one-handed while soothing a baby in the other, or, and this is most likely, it could be because I am an idiot."

What we want to do here is to put it behind us and move on. Mark the incident as closed, so that it does not linger on in our memories.

Conclusion

Everyone makes mistakes. Ideally, we would not make any. But of course, we will. In this case, I have work, and a family, and other commitments. The newsletter gets written in the time I have; I am not going to take time away from other priorities to make sure it is 100% perfect.

Instead of avoiding making any mistakes, which is impossible, we need to admit to our mistakes when they happen and put them right.

This will give us a sense of closure, preventing the incident from lingering on in our mind. When it does, we need to remind ourselves that it is our anxiety that is making us worry so much about it.

We can gain this sense of closure by putting an end to it: apologise to those you have wronged. It will make them feel better and it will make you feel better. Everyone comes out a winner.

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Published 5 December 2016. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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