As discussed in my previous blog, admitting to errors & mistakes can be extremely difficult. And we can’t apologize for mistakes until we first admit them, right? A form of identification, or of attachment, often gets in the way of owning our mistakes. In a sense, we attach our sense of self to a particular idea or position. We our motivated to “defend ourselves” by standing firm even when we are wrong in the fear that some part of ourselves will be lost or annihilated if we were to admit being in error. Relationships, careers, and companies have been torn apart rather than a person admit to being wrong and apologizing. Even worse, wars have been started and protracted rather than a person in a position of power admit to being in error.
I don’t think I’m going to offend too many folks by saying this but, “Hey North Korea! You have a starving, unhappy, and financially desperate population! How about you just admit that the Communism hasn’t worked out like you had hoped and move toward a more democratic society?” Okay, I’m not going to hold my breath on that one, but I think you see my point. 🙂
But the truth is that we don’t really need to defend a position when we are wrong – nothing is lost by just owning up to our mistakes and apologizing. On the contrary, so much can be gained! The simple acts of admitting mistakes coupled with a sincere apology can:
- Allow us to learn and grow from our mistakes. Think of tests in school/college – if we didn’t ever acknowledge our errors on various assignments, we’d keep making them. It seems ludicrous that we wouldn’t look at our errors in school and make changes, and the same principle applies to other matters in life as well. It’s like that quote attributed to Winston Churchill (most likely originating from Spanish philosopher George Santayana) – “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Arguably, one of our main purposes in life is to learn and grow over our lifespan, and we can’t do this if we are denying our mistakes.
- Mend and preserve our relationships. When we make mistakes and then either conceal, deny, or keep defending them, it puts a strain on our relationships. Think of the times when you’ve been on the other side of this – how frustrating is it when the other person won’t admit to the mistake and apologize? Conversely, how does it make you feel toward the person who owns the mistake and apologizes? Me too! Since most of our happiness in life comes from our relationships (around 70% according to some researchers), it is in our own best interest (and the best interest of the other person) to own our mistakes and mend relationships rather than digging in our heels.
- Serve as a role model to others. I’ve always loved the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Jesus’ Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” also applies here. We like to see others admit their mistakes and apologize for them, right? Well, unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. But by owning our mistakes and apologizing for them, it models what we’d like to see in others. In psychology, there’s a construct known as social reciprocity that applies here. Social scientists have demonstrated that people like to keep an equilibrium in relationships…kind of like a quid pro quo. So, when we apologize for our mistakes, it increases the likelihood that others will apologize for their mistakes as well. The experience of an apology lets the other person know that the sky doesn’t fall when a person does it and, in effect, it says my relationship with you is so important to me that I’m willing to own my mistake to preserve the relationship. It is more important than me being “right.” What a powerful message! Apologizing is particularly important as parents. We want to model for our kids what we’d like to see in them AND send the message that they are more important than our ego, pride, or need to be “right” all the time (especially when we ARE wrong!).
For the next part on this blog topic, I’ll cover when to apologize. There is such a thing as over-apologizing. We need to find the sweet spot, and I’ll give some tips on that next time around. Please stay tuned!