“Susie, can I please have the report from last week? I don’t see it in my inbox.”
My heart sank. My boss was asking me for a sales report that I had to submit every Friday. It was Monday. I totally blanked on doing it last week.
I did the only thing I could think of: I lied. “That’s odd—it should be there. I’ll re-send!” In 15 minutes, I scrambled together the shoddiest report ever created and hit send as if my life depended on it. You can imagine the questions my boss had about the errors in the Excel cells later that day. He knew; I knew. But I was resolute in my lie.
I was young. I thought this approach was safer than honesty. But I was wrong. I had not only failed to do the work, but I was also dishonest about it—trying to cover my tracks instead of admitting my mistake.
No matter what you messed up, acknowledging your error can make you feel like a naughty kid again—not the confident adult you’ve become.
Trust me, I know there's nothing like the sting of making a mistake to make you feel inadequate, remorseful, and just plain pissed at yourself. But we all make mistakes in many different ways. Maybe you laid into your S.O. over something insignificant, forgot to text a friend back about plans, or made a glaring typo in an uber-important work memo. No matter what you messed up, acknowledging your error or poor judgment can make you feel like a naughty kid again—not the confident adult you’ve become.
Even worse, instead of addressing our mistake head on, apologizing in an instant, and remedying the situation, many of us do the opposite. We do nothing. We ignore it. We get defensive. Sometimes we even blame the other person. We say he or she is “too sensitive,” or we tell ourselves we’re right and the other person is wrong because we’re too scared to own our mistakes.
Even the most unintentional error, when poorly handled, can snowball into a mess of finger pointing, judgment, and ruined relationships. Instead of sweeping it under the rug, here’s how to remedy any mistake in (almost) any situation.
Some people think apologizing is a weakness or that it means that they're not good or clever enough. But it’s actually the opposite. Say a friend was worried that she offended you with a joke she made. She could just never bring it up again.
What if she said, “Hey, that joke I made last night—I hope I didn’t upset you. I was just trying to be funny and definitely don’t think X or Y.” Would you think that person was weak or strong for addressing this? I bet the latter. Because it takes courage to do this. Courageous people apologize.
Your turn to say sorry? Keep in mind that an awesome apology contains three parts:
- Say “I’m sorry.” (This is where the actual apology happens: You gotta admit your mistake.)
- Admit you were wrong. (Highlight what you regret.)
- Ask what or suggest something you can do to make it better. (The best request for forgiveness is a positive intention to do better in the future.)
Here's an example of a bad apology: “Sorry. I was just kidding. Lighten up! It wasn’t that bad.”
A better apology? “I’m sorry my joke was insensitive. It was bad form of me to make fun of X. How can I make it up to you?”
Don't Beat Yourself Up
Once you have made a sincere apology that checks those three boxes, relax. We all make mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes as long as we live. But it’s how we handle them that counts. Being honest, owning up (and not waiting to do so!), and having a genuine intention not to repeat the mistake is the very best you can do. Let this bring you peace. Apologize sincerely, then surrender the rest. Exhale!
Being honest, owning up, and having a genuine intention not to repeat the mistake is the very best you can do.
I was managing a project recently and asked my colleague why the database wasn’t up to date (it was his job to do this). I thought it was a database error—it wasn’t the first time the system was slow.
“Holy sh*t!” Riley responded over instant messenger. “I’ll do it now. I completely forgot. Can you give me an hour, two max? I'm so sorry.” Instead of being irritated, I was momentarily flooded with affection for Riley. I ribbed him a bit, but his honesty built trust between us. This encounter allowed me to be more vulnerable in making mistakes too.
When you rectify something you’ve done wrong, not only are you displaying your strength, but you're also opening up the space to allow other people to feel safe in making their own mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable—that’s for certain. And resolving them in a true and honest way is the mark of a real leader.
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!