Hard to Say I’m Sorry: How to Apologize When You’ve Been a Jerkface

This week’s post is by frequent guest contributor Carrie Basas. Read more about how to apologize when you’ve erred on ableism or really any time at all.

White background, leaves to left, black capital cutout letters spelling SORRY, slightly drifting to the right in a not straight line. Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels.com

By Carrie Basas, guest contributor

I wrote this post a month or two ago and have tinkered with it as I’ve gained more insights into how to say I’m sorry (and my failures) and what I need when others have harmed me. In my work, too, I see people struggle with apologizing to each other. Sometimes, they won’t even recognize that they caused harm to someone else. Other times, it sounds like a Law & Order episode of justifications and closing arguments. Some people who really just need to apologize and mean it, cry or yell. Others withdraw. My favorite permutation of the bad apology is when you raise how you’ve been harmed only to have the other person switch the subject to themselves. I can’t give you a template for how to apologize well and meaningfully. 

I will tell you, however, when I am hurt and name ableism, I have to consider a few things. Will I be labeled as the angry disabled person in a society where disabled experiences and wisdom are often not valued? Will this person minimize my experience or expect me to accept their ableist point of view or ablesplaining? Will I just wish that I had never flagged the concern because now I’m worn down by being asked to recant?

I can’t speak for BIPOC or other communities. I can’t speak for others in disability communities. I can only share my experience of how I’d like someone to respond when I flag ableism. Maybe something will resonate with you as you make your apology mixtape next time.

  • If we tell you that you have harmed us, then you have. No productive conversation will begin and end with your good intentions. Focus on what the person is sharing about the impact on them. A clear example of ableism is denying a disabled person’s experiences. 
  • Listen. That probably means shutting up without shutting down. 
  • Do not shift the conversation to another issue. You are being defensive if you are making the conversation about you.
  • Focus on the relationship repair that you can do. Never expect us to fix your feelings or agree with your rationalization. 
  • Please don’t take a survey of others to see if you’re in the wrong or a victim, especially if your confidante is from a marginalized, oppressed community. Respect privacy. This story isn’t yours to share. For witnesses of these harms, use any power and privilege that you might have to shut down this behavior.
  • Don’t dismiss people by turning to stereotypes about race or disability, for example, and portray our anger or sorrow as overblown, inappropriate personal responses.
  • If you don’t have an answer to what we have shared, then simply say that. If you never even considered the impact of your actions or words, own that. 
  • Recognize the amount of vulnerability, emotional labor, and pain it takes for us to name the harm.  
  • Reflect on how what we shared isn’t an isolated incident or concern. Ableism makes us exhausted, sad, and dehumanized. Maybe we cared enough about the relationship, our joy, or our mental health to tell you.
  • Do not demand a return apology, the person’s trust, a softer delivery, or a better time for the conversation. The conversation is happening now. 
  • Honor when we end the conversation because we need space and support for healing and that process doesn’t always happen with you.  

An apology is empty unless you mean what you say and are committed to doing better. Know why you are sorry. Be specific. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a bad apology, you know it can be self-serving. If you’re about to say, “I am sorry *you* feel that way” or “With all due respect . . .”, please stop. That kind of reaction shows contempt and gaslighting. Now is a good time to ask what you can do to repair the relationship or prevent future harm. Accept what you have been told, which might be to simply figure it out on your own. Don’t negotiate something else in return. 

I still remember my driver’s education instructor telling us that if we ever caused accidents, we shouldn’t admit our fault or remorse to the other driver– and that even a vague apology could be used as evidence against us. Our relationships don’t have to be living examples of mitigating liability. We aren’t always the people others need us to be or even people we’d like, but we can commit to growing– one awkward apology and healing action at a time. I’m still working on it.

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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.