THE BLOG
10/09/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

The Art of Saying 'I'm Sorry'

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I never learned to say "I'm sorry." In my household growing up, it wasn't said too often. But learning to say it, and say it the right way, is such a valuable thing to be able to do.

Since I didn't learn how to say it, I'm really bad at it. I realized, some years ago, that I swung between two I'm sorry extremes. I would apologize for the tiniest of mistakes over and over -- the common, lame I'm sorry that women give when they really haven't done anything wrong, or when the problem is so minor that a quick, "sorry," would do the trick. Instead, I would lay it on thick and say it over and over. My other extreme was not apologizing -- or even acknowledging a major mistake I made -- something that could have really hurt feelings, even, and especially when, I didn't mean to.

I determined to change this. I have two daughters, ages 20 and 16, and I want them to use the words "I'm sorry" appropriately.

So we've talked a lot about when to use them. I don't want them to be those pathetic, apologizing women, and I've corrected them when they've apologized for things that are not their fault or for minor offenses for which they've already apologized over and over. "You already said I'm sorry," I'll say. "You don't need to say it again." And then we'll talk about how women do that too much, and how it makes us look weak or not confident and how we don't want to be like that.

But the harder thing is to learn how to apologize artfully for something we've done that is painful -- we've put our own stuff on someone else, in whatever way, and hurt them in the process.

My turn came recently.

My 16-year-old and I were talking about which SAT prep class she should take. I was advocating for one given at a certain time; she wanted another. Since she has a habit of interrupting the minute someone makes an opposing argument, I started off with, "Let me explain my reasoning first before you respond." I could tell that three or four words into my diatribe, she was ready to have at me. In the end, she still chose the class I didn't think was at as good a time for her schedule, and I signed her up for it.

But not before I told her that if her grades suffered during the time period she had chosen, generally one of her weaker times during the school year, then I would not allow her to participate socially in activities during those weekends.

I shouldn't have said that.

My daughter is very conscious of her grades and she works hard. She takes mostly Honors classes. She is diligent. But we've struggled in the past with her taking on too much and it looms over me. She overschedules herself, barely sleeps during the school year, and as a junior, is entering a crucial time for grades. To say that she has a lot on her plate, and that as her "manager," I do as well, is an understatement. I'm nervous about this school year.

Still, that didn't give me the right to say that to her. She already knows what she needs to do and she's going to figure out how to do it, (or not) regardless of what I say.

I repeated the conversation to my husband and he pointed out where I went wrong. The guilt set in immediately. (OK, I probably already knew I'd screwed up.) I wanted to apologize.

A little while later, I asked her to join me in her room. "Why?" she asked warily. "Am I in trouble? What did I do wrong?" (I'm now pretty sure she did something wrong but I haven't found out what it is... yet.)

"Let's go into your room," I said, shutting the door behind us.

Her eyes got really big. "Just tell me what I'm in trouble for." (Yeah, she did something...)

Instead of fishing around, I looked at her directly and said I wanted to apologize. I explained what I had said wrong, how it was about me, not her, and I said those two words -- I'm sorry -- that can be so hard to say. I asked her for a hug. And then I reminded her that I had never learned to say "I'm sorry," never mind do it well, but it was a very important skill to have, and I wanted to both have it and to teach her to use it appropriately. She nodded. All was fine.

I still haven't found out what she thought she was in trouble for, and I probably never will. But at least I apologized, and she heard and accepted the apology.