Whole30 Co-Founder Melissa Hartwig's Invaluable Advice On How To Say 'I'm Sorry'
I'm in a relatively unique position to write this how-to: I've both messed up big-time AND done so in a spectacularly public fashion. Like, I’ve stepped in it in front of hundreds of thousands of people, offending entire population groups in a single ill-conceived Instagram post.
Most recently, I wrote a post about a social media celebrity sharing their “modified Whole30” on Instagram Stories. (For those of you who follow me, you know how I feel about modifying the Whole30.) So in my famous tough-love fashion… I called them out. Publicly. “Hey, XXX,” I wrote, “You’re such a role model as a parent, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for representation. How is a badass like you going out to a square of chocolate?”
My intentions were good, but I immediately got a mild icky-belly feeling; the first indicator that I had messed up somewhere. Still, I meant well, I told myself, so I let it be and walked away from my phone for an hour. When I returned to my feed, my community had spoken. “Calling someone out in public is not the way this should have been handled.” “This was a cheap shot; not what I would have expected from you.” “This feels like public shaming to me.”
Taken aback, I responded to those comments defensively; the second indicator that I messed up.At this point, however, I’m seriously evaluating the effect of my post, and started doing The Work (my go-to analysis whenever I’m feeling “off”).
Finally, the celebrity responded in a truly classy fashion, posting, “If you have the willpower to do the real Whole30, you should! I just know that if I am realistic about my goals, I’ll stick to them more.” By this time, thanks to The Work,I realized I was operating outside of my integrity. It’s not my business how they run their Whole30; at most I should have privately offered my unconditional support, then stepped back.
In summary, I deleted the post, spent time crafting an apology, and posted it publicly to my community. (I also sent one to the celebrity.) That day sucked … but for my own personal growth, it was a valuable lesson. In today’s social media world, building fierce loyalty within your community takes hundreds of posts, replies, and direct message exchanges, often requiring years of engagement. But destroying the trust and reputation you’ve worked so hard to build with your following can happen in an instant: one post, one comment, one tweet.
In a space where people judge your character based on a single post or paragraph, you’re making a first impression every minute of every day, and second chances can be hard to come by. The art of apology has been one of the most important social skills I’ve ever crafted.
I wish I hadn’t had so much practice, but issuing a fast, sincere, direct AF public apology is perhaps the only reason I’ve received a second chance from some members of my loyal and compassionate community. I hope the lessons I've learned the hard way will help you move through a difficult situation with more grace:
1. You cannot craft an authentic apology just because someone wants you to.
It has to come from you, and the realization and acceptance that your actions or words were not in alignment with your integrity. To apologize because someone asked you to will always sound hollow. To apologize for you rings of truth and sincerity.
2. Speak plainly.
"I apologize" is so much stronger than "I'm so sorry; I feel awful, really." Be specific in your language. "I know I hurt you" is lame, but "THIS action was wrong for THIS reason, and THESE were the consequences" translates as ownership. If you're really in a place where you have accepted responsibility for your behavior, speaking your truth plainly should be easy.
3. Avoid the word "but."
Do not attempt to justify your actions or deflect by including something hurtful done by someone else. The only purpose of your apology is to apologize, not to defend, rationalize, or excuse. If you're still trying to do this, you're not actually ready to apologize.
4. Use as personal a method as possible.
In-person and face-to-face is best. Barring that, use FaceTime, call them on the telephone, or send a handwritten note. Email if the circumstances make that necessary, although I can think of only a handful of scenarios where an emailed apology is the best you can do. Send a social media DM only if you have no other means of getting in touch. Don't even consider a text message, under any circumstances.
5. Play to your communication strengths.
I'm generally a good public speaker, but apologies leave me fumbling. So I’ll write my truth first to make sure it comes out right, and close with a request to share the same sentiments in person if they are willing to call or meet me.
6. If you're tempted to post your apology on social media, be smart about it.
Don’t post a private apology meant for one person or a small handful of people publicly; it will look like you’re trying to turn it into a PR opportunity. In fact, do not ever try to "spin" an apology into a PR event, unless you want to dig yourself an even deeper hole. This never fools anyone.
7. Don't ask the other person to accept your apology.
And don't consider it a failure if they choose not to. It's not your business what they do with it, and it's not for them anyway.
8. Let go of guilt.
You are not your actions. You are simply a well-intentioned/confused/hurt person who did something regrettable. Beating yourself up doesn't help. Holding onto it doesn't help. Burying it and trying to "move on" won’t help, either. What truly sets you free is acknowledging the ways you were out of your integrity, taking full ownership, noting the lesson, and moving on.
That's a form of self-love all unto itself.
For more from Melissa Hartwig, read up on what she eats in a day.
Melissa Urban is a certified sports nutritionist who specializes in helping people change their relationship with food and create life-long, healthy habits. She is the co-creator of the Whole30 program, the New York Times bestselling author of It Starts With Food and The Whole30, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Details, Redbook, and Woman’s World. Urban has presented over 150 health and nutrition seminars worldwide, and connects with more than 1 million people a month through the Whole30 website.
Photo credit: Taylor Gage