The Power of an Apology

As a precocious 4-year-old whose greatest desire was to bury myself in a bookshelf, I was obsessed with words, with language. One afternoon, I asked my Nanna what she believed to be ‘the best word in the entire world’. Without diverging from her steady unpegging of freshly laundered bedsheets, she replied, “Sorry”.

I repeated my question. My Nanna laughed lightly before explaining. “No sweetheart. I meant that the best word in the entire world is ‘sorry’.” Intrigued, I asked why ‘sorry’ deserved such a lofty title. Finally turning from her task to look at me, she told me, “Because it makes you human.” It would be a long time before I understood the gravity of her words – over three decades, in fact.

I have been working with children and young people since 2011. When I first stepped into the field of mental health, I had this notion of needing to assert my authority. If I didn’t, how was I ever supposed to gain their respect, or get them to do as they were told? I’m well aware that anyone who has ever worked with children is most likely chuckling to themselves, and I don’t feel that I need to highlight how well this approach worked for me. To put it plainly: it went down like a lead balloon. I was essentially ineffective, and every single shift I worked felt like a battle of wills.

At the time, I was working in a residential care unit with five young people, their ages ranging from twelve to seventeen. I entered this space genuinely believing that I knew everything, believing that I would change their lives with nothing more than a wave of my authority wand. However, after several months – months of being challenged, ignored, blind-sided, and sometimes hated – I found myself exhausted and entirely burnt out. All I wanted was to help, but it soon became clear that I was woefully under-equipped to do so.

One evening, I was cooking dinner for the house. It has been another difficult afternoon, and I felt utterly broken. I was questioning my career, my future; I felt like a failure. As I was trying not to sob into the saucepan, one of the residents – a young man, sixteen years of age – wandered into the kitchen, searching for water. I hadn’t seen him since the previous day when we had locked horns over a house rule. As it turned out, I had been wrong about the said rule, and my mistake had resulted in a confrontation that I feared would destroy what little progress I had managed to make with him. Standing there in the kitchen, I suddenly felt the crushing weight of it all press down upon my shoulders, and I struggled to breathe. The months of consistent failure, my fast-eroding self-confidence, my mentally drafted resignation… in that moment, it seemed I had nothing to lose. I turned to this young man, and in a small voice I murmured, “I’m sorry.”

Lowering his glass down by the sink, he smirked at me and asked, “What for?”

I explained how I had been incorrect about the house rule. I didn’t make excuses; I didn’t lecture him. I didn’t twist the situation or attempt to turn my apology into a backwards, ‘I’m sorry but this is still mostly your fault’ blame-shifting statement. I just said sorry.

After a moment, his smirk softened into a smile. “It’s ok,” he assured me. “We all screw up.” And he was right. We make all make mistakes, each and every one of us. It’s an intrinsic part of being human. What truly matters, however, is how we choose to move forward.

In the wake of this small, seemingly insignificant exchange, I felt things begin to shift. It was as though a tiny, all-but-invisible switch had been flicked, and the lights had suddenly turned on. Previously, I believed that the change needed to begin with them. In reality, the real change needed to be my own. My arrogance and my need to be in control had prevented me from building a real, meaningful relationship with these young people I had been charged to care for.

Over the years, I have repeatedly witnessed the power of those two, simple words: “I’m Sorry”. Whether it be between colleagues, family members, partners or friends, the impact remains the same. Saying sorry isn’t about taking on all the blame; it’s about recognising the influence we have in our current space. An apology is an opportunity for growth, and it is a way to start a conversation. It can be easy to offer an apology when we expect to receive one in return. Saying we’re sorry, however, is not about what we can take from a certain situation. Rather, it’s about what we can give. Never be afraid to apologise. It does not make you weak, or less than. On the contrary: as my Nanna once said, it simply makes you human.

Shanna White

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