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How To Apologize: 9 Rules For An Authentic Apology

Being part of the world takes courage even on your best days, which is why learning how to have relationships with other people can be life changing. Many times, having friendships, relationships, partnerships, and coworking experiences can be where hang ups happen. Even if some interactions are happening virtually right now, there is still shared space being created.

When we share space with others; resentments can build, expectations can fall short, and mistakes can happen. Even when this occurs, there is a solution that can move you forward again. It comes in the form of an apology.

Authentic apologies are a way to mend, sever, and ultimately move forward with relationships, including the one with yourself.

True apologies have several characteristics that ensure speaking, listening, and learning can happen with everyone involved. Sometimes, over apologizing can occur; existing in a space doesn’t require an apology. 

It’s difficult to take genuine remorse seriously if you apologize all of the time. So, be thoughtful in how you approach your amends.

If you bump into someone, you can say a quick sorry. If you bump into someone and then tell them how terrible you are in the process, you are over apologizing. It’s okay to make mistakes.

It’s okay not to be perfect. There is no need to overdo it because you will have opportunities throughout your lifetime.

An apology isn’t a replacement for a pattern change; It is the start of a pattern change. You get to decide what you do before and after an amends. Clinical Psychologist, Harriet Lerner Ph.D., is an apology expert and shares

9 rules for an authentic apology:

1. Skip the word but.

By including the word but, you are excluding your authenticity. It negates everything you said before the word. I’m sorry but… As a recipient, you no longer hear or feel your empathy. In fact, it may feel minimizing for the harm caused.

2. Keep the focus on what you did.
This is the classic example of making an I statement rather than a you statement.

Instead of:

“I’m sorry if you felt hurt that I didn’t invite you to the party.”


 “I’m sorry that I did not invite you to the party. It was insensitive and a lack of foresight on my part.”

That way, you are taking accountability for what you did and reflecting on what was hurtful. It shows remorse rather than burdening the recipient in addition to already feeling bad.

One thing to remember with apologies is that everyone has their own perception of a situation. You don’t have to see yourself as wrong to make things right with another person. If they heard you say something hurtful to them, apologize.

Eventually, you can evaluate whether you would rather be right or happy. Let things go as you are able to do so.

3. Be concise.
You do not need to make the apology about you even though you are part of the apology. If you did something that caused harm, you don’t need to say what a terrible person you are or how you are so stupid for never getting it right.

It is not the job of your recipient to comfort you during the apology.

It’s okay that you made a mistake. I’m sorry can be enough.

4. Avoid blame or identifying who started it.
When you focus on who started the argument or disagreement, you lose the value in the apology. It doesn’t really matter who started the problem.

Read More: “5 Ways To Resolve Conflict With A Healthy Approach”

With that, you can take the time to validate your feelings if this feels uncomfortable to you. Show up for yourself. Acknowledge that you were hurt too. Then, take the high road anyway.

This isn’t a time to apologize now and resent later, like a payment plan. There is no need to tally points on who did the most wrong  and using that against the person later.

An apology means that you are freeing yourself up from the issue moving forward. If you still have an issue, go back to yourself and figure out why.

5. Take corrective action.
There is an age-old adage that actions speak louder than words. If you are apologizing profusely and then doing the same thing again the next day, it makes it harder to believe you in the future.

You may lose healthy relationships if you aren’t able to take necessary, kind steps to fix harm. If your best friend mentions that they have paid for the last few meals together, apologize and let them know you will pay for the next few. Come to a place of acceptance with the harm caused and take action on lessening it going forward.

6. Make a pattern change.
Similarly, to correcting your actions; make a goal of stopping the pattern all together. A pattern change is a collection of corrective actions. If you have grand gestures and flowery language to apologize but you keep doing the same thing repetitively; you are playing out insanity for yourself and others.

If you are trusting people who continue to say the right things without stopping harm, check in with yourself about your expectations. If you are hoping for a change in another person instead of yourself, you may be waiting awhile. The power is in your hands to take different steps to learn a pattern that is most beneficial for you.

7. Use an apology as a conversation starter, not a finisher.
If you have apologized more than once for the same action, it may not have felt sincere to the person. Check in about whether you followed the other tips for a genuine apology. Silencing with an apology is harmful to you and damaging in relationships. If you hear yourself say, I’ve already apologized for this 10 times, so stop bringing up the affair. You may be using an apology as a finisher, rather than a conversation starter. Instead, try some of these:

Read More: “5 Secrets To Healthy Relationships”

“I can hear that I have caused harm. I am sorry that I was unfaithful and not considerate of you. I know I can’t go back and fix this, but I want to help with some of the pain I have caused. What can I do for you right now?”

“I am sorry about what I did. I know I caused pain. I want to move forward with you. How can I help right now?”

“I am sorry. I know I was unfaithful and caused pain. Is there something I can do for you right now?”

By apologizing, acknowledging harm, and asking a question of what you can do now; you can start a conversation rather than shut down more feelings. The more feelings get stuffed; the more they are likely to come up later. It’s also okay if the recipient doesn’t have a next step for you. By truly listening and respecting their choice, you are building up trust again. You get to weigh the pros and cons of the relationship. If you’re feeling stuck, a therapist can help with an objective point of view.

8. Be considerate.
If you are apologizing to unload a burden from you but it will hurt others even more, try another method for healing yourself. Not everyone is ready to hear an apology, especially if something you did was incredibly painful. If you are making an apology to feel better and there is a possibility that someone else will feel worse, skip it.

Consider other options for healing and closure if an apology is not welcomed. Therapists offer support and tools to help you sift through what makes sense and what doesn’t when it comes to apologizing.

9. Evaluate whether sorry is enough.
There are times when we commit serious hurts or betrayals, and when that happens, an apology may not be enough for a person. This is an opportunity to take next steps with a relationship. It may require more work and continuous evidence of a pattern change to repair what was harmed.

Restoring relationships can help you to learn, grow, and become stronger. It can also mean a relationship is severed. There are choices when it comes to how a relationship gets repaired, and that may mean independence from one another.

True apologies can help resolve hurt, acknowledge accountability, and move forward in relationships with yourself and others.

There is freedom in the acceptance of pain caused. It is not always easy to admit a wrong, but it is a simple task that can be greatly beneficial. When apologizing becomes difficult, there is help. 

Making an amends is not always acceptance of harm caused; it is freedom for both people to live your life and let go. This can be one of the best investments you make in yourself and relationships.

A therapist can help facilitate conversations that seem overwhelming to have by yourself. Whether that is through individual therapy to help you come to terms with the hurt you have caused and what to do next or in family therapy which can be two or more family members (or a couple) meeting together with a therapist to talk through the hurts in a facilitated, productive way.

You can even try therapy with a friend if you have a relationship that is  struggling and want to figure out a way to mend your friendship together with outside support.

Want Help? We've Got You.

Written by: Randi Thackeray, MA & Julie Reichenberger, MA, LPC, ACS, ACC
Clinically Reviewed and Edited by: Julie Reichenberger, MA, LPC, ACS, ACC

Denver Metro Counseling is a group of clinicians who provide therapeutic support for teens, adults, parents, and families. We help people learn to heal relationships and provide individual, family and yes, even friend counseling. Having healthy relationships can take some work and learning how to apologize and make amends is a beautiful part of of the journey together. 
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