How To Admit You’re Wrong

Photo: Stephen Brace

This last summer, my wife and I had a fight.  As with many fights between married couples, the surface issue was inconsequential but housed an important issue underneath.  I’d accidentally burned the hamburgers I was grilling for our dinner (because we hadn’t cleaned our barbecue for some time, grease had accumulated, which increased the barbecue temperature as it burned).  When I placed the charred hockey puck burgers in front of her, she became annoyed (having warned me about the grease).  When I apologized, she said nothing, and I became angry that she was still annoyed with me. I didn’t think overcooking hamburger meat warranted her reaction and soon we were yelling back and forth, saying things we’ve luckily both long since forgotten.  We ended up eating our dinner in cold silence.

The next morning, while chanting about the situation, I found myself thinking about what had happened and becoming angry all over again.  I’d made a mistake, certainly, but one for which I’d apologized (though, I had to admit, with a tone containing less sincerity than anger), and that my apology hadn’t been met with understanding forgiveness incensed me.

As I continued to chant, I found myself wondering why I was so incensed.  In the next few minutes, I realized I hadn’t become angry at her irritation.  I’d become angry because her irritation felt like a rebuke—an accusation that I was incompetent.

I hate being incompetent.  I hate being even viewed as incompetent.  I don’t mind being ignorant (that is, not knowing how to do something I haven’t been taught), and I don’t mind making mistakes as I’m learning a new skill.  But accuse me of incompetence, even indirectly, and I get mad.

I get mad, of course, to regain a sense of power when I feel powerless (one of the four uses of anger I detailed in a previous post, How To Manage Anger), and nothing makes me feel more powerless than when I demonstrate incompetence.  The thing about using anger this way is that it works.  It makes me feel powerful.  But at a high cost:  peaceful relations with the person on the receiving end of my anger.  Could my wife have been more understanding when I accidentally burned our hamburgers?  Of course.  But it was my anger that escalated her disappointment and irritation into a full-blown domestic dispute.

I found myself looking back over many of our past fights and saw just how many of them had occurred as a result of my anger, anger I was unconsciously using as a strategy to feel potent and capable when interactions with her made me feel the opposite.  When I stood up after finishing my morning chanting, my anger was gone.  In its place lay a desire to apologize sincerely.  Which, as soon as she awoke, I did.  This time, she responded to my sincerity with a warm acceptance of my apology, and we moved on as if the fight had never happened.

THE BENEFITS OF A SINCERE APOLOGY

An apology is the simplest of acts:  the speaking of words of genuine regret to another for having harmed, denigrated, or insulted them in some way.  And yet it has almost magical power to repair fraying relationships.  Most of us seem to be more judgmental of the intent with which a person acts than of their actions’ outcomes.  Even when someone acts maliciously toward us, if he later comes to regret it genuinely, almost to view his earlier self as a different person from his present regretful self, that kind of contrition rarely fails to move us.

Apologies of this kind bring resolution and closure.  At most they cost us an admission that we were wrong, that we’re imperfect, or that we need to improve in some way.  If such a cost seems beyond what we’re willing to pay, we need to examine the cause of our resistance as such a cause always represents an obstacle to our own happiness (i.e., a bloated ego). Sometimes, of course, we’re not actually in the wrong but apologize in order to help someone else achieve closure.  This kind of apology is less an expression of contrition and more one of regret that someone experienced an adverse outcome to which we contributed nothing.  For example, I apologize all the time to my patients for errors that aren’t mine:  scheduling mistakes, delays in test results, unpleasant experiences they have in other corners of our health care system.  I do this because such expressions of sympathy make people feel better.  Just knowing someone else feels for us and cares about what happened to us—well, I’ve observed it has the same magical power as accepting blame.

HOW TO APOLOGIZE

Apologizing for things that aren’t my fault, however, has been far easier for me than apologizing for things that are.  In the past, I’ve resisted admitting my imperfections, especially to people who were close to me personally.  I found it threatening to my view of myself as flawlessly competent, a view from which I’ve had to work hard to wean myself in order to build a more autonomous self-esteem.

In order to do this, I’ve had to learn to admit first to myself when I’ve been at fault and allow myself to be so—to remind myself constantly that being at fault doesn’t represent a character flaw.  I’ve let go of my need to be right by becoming more interested in becoming better.  (If I refuse to ever acknowledge I’m wrong, not seeing the need for improvement, I’d have no real motivation to make any attempts to improve myself—and then my ego would stand as the greatest barrier to my own happiness.)  I’ve tried instead to make a more conscious effort to stop and ask myself if I’m the cause of conflict when it arises in my relationships before automatically assigning blame to the other party (I still fail at this regularly—it takes constant practice).  I try to ask myself if I’m coming at a person from a bad place or a good place, acting out of weakness or virtue.  Often, physical and temporal distance from the person with whom I’m in conflict helps me attain this perspective.  The “adrenergic storm” that often accompanies an inflamed ego needs a chance to peter out before more rational, objective self-evaluation becomes possible.

I’ve found only after the storm has passed can I ask myself why I acted badly.  And that’s when I learn things about myself I really want to know.  Like why I was angry at my wife for being irritated with me.  Once I saw that her irritation pricked at my feelings of incompetence, I recognized that feeling incompetent wasn’t her issue, but mine.  That, in turn, brought me back a sense of control (the irony in using anger to feel powerful and in control is that in feeling it you actually lose control).  I realized I can’t stop my wife from feeling irritated or disappointed or anything else she’s going to feel (the goal of my anger), but I can chip away at whatever feelings of inadequacy her irritation stirs up in me.

And that’s what I decided to do.  As a result, the entire incident was transformed from a source of unhappiness in our marriage into an opportunity for me to improve myself and become happier.  My apology to her, though crucial for our relationship’s continued health, occurred almost incidentally.

Next WeekI’m on vacation, so look for the next post in two weeks.  Feel free to browse the archives in the meantime and have a happy and safe holiday season.

20 comments to How To Admit You’re Wrong

  • Alex,

    I liked this post and would like to offer one observation:

    “…almost to view his earlier self as a different person from his present regretful self…”

    In my mind, this is in fact reality (I would even argue, happens continuously).

    We really aren’t a fixed “self.” Certainly in my own experience, I have very little in common (in terms of beliefs and perspectives) with my younger self. I find this recognition to be empowering, as it frees us to let go of old beliefs, habits, prejudices, and the like with the recognition that they no longer serve us. We are not those beliefs. They are simply something we have held on to (for whatever reason), and we can simply “let them go” if we sincerely choose to do so.

    Life is a wonderful experience, moment-to-moment. What person would we like to be right now?

    As always, thanks for sharing your insight.

    S-

  • thquah

    I believe if you apologize sincerely for whatever mistakes that you have made this kind of apology will bring a resolution and closure and both parties will feel at ease and the stress will be gone without us noticing it. As usual married couples do always have fights and arguments, we have our share. Fortunately, my wife and I always managed to resolve the fight before we head for bed.

    By apologizing means that we are not at a losing end but willing to learn and improve on yourself.

  • Audrey from MA

    I ask myself what I felt moments before the anger. Usually, I felt hurt.

    I so badly want to escape that painful feeling of hurt, that I switch to anger before I allow myself to acknowledge the hurt.

    JT

  • Patricia

    My experience with an apology came on the acceptance side and is too long to detail here, but let me say that forgiving the person who hurt me so deeply over a long period of time came immediately once the apology was offered. It was sincere and touching. The burden of bitterness and even hatred that I had been carrying around was lifted—what a relief not to be filled with such negativity. I was so surprised that so much hurt was released based on one conversation. Apparently I needed the closure as much as she did.

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  • Michele in FL

    SO true. I have found that when I’m extremely angry, it’s not about the situation in which I became angry, but about something deeper.

    Thank you Alex, for continually making me a better person by opening my eyes to my own faults.

  • Melinda

    Thank you for your posts, and for the link to the post about anger (hey, there were QUITE a lot comments!).

    Here it’s too early to say anything smart, but I wanted to mention that since a time I like Mondays a lot more than before. There’s one more thing to look forward to to. 🙂

    Happy Holidays!

    Melinda

  • Ecyoj

    Your writing is easy on the reader and I must say, I think I heard bells chime as I related to what was written. This is where learning begins. Thank you for the insights…

  • Dear Alex,

    This timely post touch my ego is ways you would not believe! I think we react to situations of discourse in much the same way. In particular, this statement is one I strongly believe in… “Often, physical and temporal distance from the person with whom I’m in conflict helps me attain this perspective.” And this one “The ‘adrenergic storm’ that often accompanies an inflamed ego needs a chance to peter out before more rational, objective self-evaluation becomes possible.”

    Thank you. May you and your family have a peaceful New Year!

  • Eve

    Dear Alex,
    I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now. Thank you for your insights, your humor, and your compassion. I look forward to reading you on Mondays and then returning a day or two later to read the thoughtful reader comments.

    I wish you and your family a healthy, peaceful year.

    Eve (in Israel)

  • DocTed

    At one point you mention that your wife’s reaction “made” you feel angry. It’s my observation that this much-too-frequent metaphor treats the self as a sock puppet, entirely under the other’s control, and surely contributing to the sense of incompetence you mention. I recognize that it often feels that way, but recognizing the metaphor’s destructiveness is surely an important part of over owing it’s power.

    DocTed: I agree with you. Certainly, any time we react to another person, our particular reaction occurs as a result of two things: the other person’s action and the reaction that action triggers in us. The latter is certainly not fixed, as evidenced by how many people learn to control their tempers, for example, so ultimately the responsibility for our reactions must lie with us. And yet we must also acknowledge just how difficult it often is to change them.

    Alex

  • Angela

    Thank you Alex! I am glad to be able to share in your experience; you are able to articulate your experience so clearly, which is extremely helpful for me and others. I do wholly agree with S’s post that we are indeed not a fixed self–though we have to choose to believe this. However, by accepting this fact, we have the ability to free ourselves to then find ourselves. Self-examination is key as you aptly demonstrated here; I find that as we grow older, we need to peel away the layer of selves that we’ve acquired during our most vulnerable stages. I believe that as a consequence of this process you will be less likely to assume your angry self in the face of incompetence, which will allow you to see the many other response pathways that you were previously blind to.

  • Sandy

    Very insightful—I enjoyed it, thanks Alex.

    This is so true: “I get mad, of course, to regain a sense of power when I feel powerless.”—aha moment there for me.

    Now, where can I find some hockey pucks?? Ha ha. 😉

  • molly

    My mom has a phrase for this: “You’re not mad at what you’re mad at.”

  • gloria morey

    I, too, burned the hamburgers—one broken nose later, my husband apologized for lashing out!

    I no longer eat beef.

  • Jeann

    Steven’s comment about not being a fixed self stayed with me, and Angela’s comment reminded me of it. It is almost as if we are not fixed—except by our principles—it seems from moment to moment. I may fully feel and believe something to be true for me, with fierce conviction, and within hours of reflecting back on it, what was so true for me in that previous moment still holds truth, but it has subtly shifted and nuanced with the different perspective. Thanks for helping me recognize this!

  • anonymous

    Great read.

  • I’m working on admitting I’m wrong and apologizing. It’s so hard for me to not fear my apology will be used against me somehow. This post was just what I needed to keep at my goals. Thank you.

  • Mary

    I have many faults but apologizing when I need to is not one of them! 99.9% of the time it’s me who initiates a phone call or reaches out even after a few years, sometimes even apologizing when the other person should be doing it or even when they take NO responsibility for their part.

    I’m actually working on not being so eager to take all the responsibility to make peace. I know this sounds funny but this problem has been the opposite for me. In a few instances if I would have listened to my intuition about the person I would NEVER have contacted them a few years later to spark up a “false friendship” again, and I say false because after pulling a few knives out of my back I realized what a waste of time this person was; basically I’ve had to step back on the need and feeling “to fix it.”

    I just recently did this again! I don’t regret apologizing for my part but the person has such a overwhelming ego that this worked the opposite with them, like their ego got off on it. I had a light bulb moment when I was sent a email back that was a bait but when given a response back to them their ego rejoiced in the rejection, same old drama, same weird games. I had to laugh and shake my head for doing the same old behavior, and I own it so I have the power to change it!

    I know an apology is sincere and should be heartfelt; also one should be detached from all outcomes. However I would do this after a long period of time when actually the person didn’t really deserve one. The awareness and recognizing this has made me realize I can make peace with the entire situation without contacting them in anyway!

    Great article and I’ve definitely have to work on stepping back and letting others own their stuff and apologize instead of me “fixing it all.” Now I have MORE of a tendency to keep my mouth shut and just chant about it first. It feels much better and this problem has improved a lot. LOL

  • Steven P

    I always love when someone has the talent to take a lesson that I have learned (and unlearned more times than I care to admit) and sets it forth in a concise, compelling and clear manner. You have covered the topic perfectly.

    I would only add that when I do apologize for something and my apology is accepted, I am often blown away how what was a big issue can disappear in an instant. When you think about it, given all the angst that can proceed actually making an apology, it is kind of miraculous that the upset which loomed so large disappears when you are forgiven.

    Because I find that miracle to be such a gift, I have gotten into the habit of always thanking the other party for forgiving me. I become truly grateful that I have been forgiven and it just seems natural to express gratitude for that. After all, they did not have to forgive us but chose to do so because they valued us and valued the continuing relationship.

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