The Art of the Apology

Over the holidays, I said something hurtful to someone I care about.  It got me thinking about how to make a genuine apology, and the emotional obstacles that stand in the way of saying “I’m sorry.”

Nobody likes to admit he or she is wrong, for starters.  Most of us want to believe we’re sensitive and that it’s other people who are the problem.  Also, the guilty feelings that come with recognizing you’ve hurt someone else, along with the blow to your self-esteem when you see yourself behaving badly, are not easy to tolerate.  Typically we’ll try to defend against those painful feelings by justifying ourselves.

In my own case, I noticed I kept telling myself that the hurtful thing I’d said was actually true.  I would focus on the other person’s irritating behavior; although I never told myself so in these exact words, the implication was that he deserved to be told.  Repeated self-justification in the form of mental “arguments” in which you keep trying to convince yourself or somebody else that you’re in the right usually mean just the opposite.  Eventually I recognized my fault.

So how to apologize?  Here is my cardinal rule for how to frame an apology:  genuine apologies never contain the words “if” or “but”.  For example, never say, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” or “I apologize for being insensitive, but such-and-such happened earlier …”  Those words have the effect of watering down the apology by either calling the injury into doubt or assigning true responsibility elsewhere.  I’ve often heard people tell me, “I’m sorry if I came across too strong in what I said to you,” or something similar; those apologies always felt half-hearted.  I notice that once I decide I’ve done something wrong and begin to frame an apology, “if” or “but” always appears in the first draft.

Second, keep it simple and straight-forward then step back. I’ve heard other advice which holds that any genuine apology must include the asking of forgiveness.  I completely disagree.  In those cases where I’ve been hurt and eventually received an apology, even in those rare cases where it did not contain the word “if” or “but”, by the time the person apologized I was too angry to offer genuine forgiveness in the moment.  It takes a while for an apology to sink in; you have to leave the person room to get over feeling angry with you for the hurt.  Besides, asking for forgiveness demands something of the other person — that he or she immediately exonerate you by putting an end to your feelings of guilt and regret.  By asking for forgiveness, you once again shift responsibility off your own shoulders.

An apology should be a completely one-sided communication, an acknowledgement of guilt and regret on your side, asking nothing in return.  You don’t have to grovel.  Just give your apology and accept that it may take time to repair the damage. If we’ve done or said something especially hurtful, we may have permanently scarred the relationship.  I recall one friendship that I permanently damaged by telling the truth in a deliberately hurtful way, although I didn’t recognize it at the time, and then offering an apology that included the word “if”.

Tolerating real, possibly lasting guilt and regret are part of tendering a true apology.

Finding Your Own Way:

Make a genuine apology.  For most of us, it shouldn’t be too difficult to identify bad behavior on our part.  Feel your resistance to owning up, listen for the self-justifications.  Try to isolate the other’s person’s behavior or any contributing factors from your own misdeeds; take full responsibility for the hurt you inflicted.

Frame your apology, beginning with the words “I’m sorry,” then edit it carefully.  Make sure not to include the words “if” or “but”; make no reference to anything the other person did that might qualify your statement of regret.

Then step back and leave the other person alone with your apology.  Don’t demand forgiveness.  Accept that you may have to live with guilt and regret despite having apologized.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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30 Responses to The Art of the Apology

  1. Peggy Harris says:

    I hurt my daughter when I chose to use & thought staying clean again was enough.
    It’s been 4yrs since then & our relationship feels scarred. I know it’ll never be what it once was, but I thought it would be better by now. I just now realized I’ve never said “I’m sorry I’ve hurt you. To this day I regret what I did.” I need to let her know that.
    I sure hope this will help heal our relationship. Thanks for your help.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Peggy, I hope the apology will help, but at the very least, you will feel better about yourself in your relationship with your daughter. I find that whenever I stop defending against guilt or regret and make the apology, I feel relieved afterward. After the fact, I always wonder why it was so hard to get to “I’m sorry.”

  2. Andi says:

    I remember when I was small and hurt a friend, I worked up an apology thinking I could get what I want (to keep playing at their house), that the results of my apology would get me something that I wanted. I was shocked all day when she accepted my apology and still asked me to go home. Up until that point, I thought it was a fix-all, a history-eraser button, and I wondered what good an apology really did then. Learned later that an apology is a mini-gift, and there may be no fix even when there are huge regrets.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I like the idea of an apology as a “mini-gift” … nice way of putting it. And I agree that sometimes there is nothing to be done but feel regret.

  3. freakinme says:

    The ability to have the insight and be introspective when we have hurt another person is a barometer for one’s own mental health. I believe that when we take responsibility for our own behavior, acknowledge our own fault, rather than justifying our behavior, it is the hallmark of true consciousness.

    When we are able to take the next step, acknowledging the hurt we inflicted, be remorseful for the hurt, and have the desire to make an apology; it is a quantum leap in our own growth. While many may know that they have inflicted hurt; the ability to be cognizant and sincerely apologize for that hurt is where many falter.

    I totally agree once we have made a sincere apology, we should step back. We can not expect immediate forgiveness. Then, part of the process is forgiving ourselves, whether the person we have hurt can forgive our behavior or not. Acknowledging our “humanness” and taking responsibility for our behavior is the first step in acceptance of ourselves.

    Changing our behavior in the future to reflect our sincere remorse validates that we have taken responsibility for our hurtful words and actions.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Well said, Patty. I agree with everything; my only reservation is about the idea of forgiving ourselves. Yes, of course; but let’s not move on too quickly. Given who I am, I’m likely to make the same kind of hurtful mistake in the future, so I need to be honest about who I am and be on the lookout in future.

  4. Marla Estes says:

    Wow, this post really came in handy, just yesterday! Something happened that I wanted/needed to apologize for to one of my sons. As I was thinking about what I was going to say, there they were, the “if” and the “but”!!! I then realized how seldom I had made a real apology. Shame came up for me but I was able to not only tolerate it, but accept myself in that moment as a human who sometimes misses the mark. I was then able to apologize in a “clean” way without any conditions. So thank you SO much for this very helpful awareness!

  5. JD Ledford says:

    Well and thoroughly said. The art of apologizing is indeed a lost one. With my sons, I often have to remind them that a true apology also contains the word *I*. They think muttering “Sorry” with no eye contact is sufficient. (no I or eye! ha!) Nope. You have to own your error and your apology.

  6. Billy says:

    I have to disagree about living with guilt after I have made an effort of apologizing. We are not perfect human beings and to offer our apology to another of whom we have hurt and if they refuse to except it or forgive us then I move on and not living in guilt especailly after I mention my short comings as a human being in my apology to the one I have hurt.

    I take my mistakes and learn from them guilt free if another doesn’t except my sincere apology that is respect for self to grow to being a better person in the process.

    Billy

  7. debbie says:

    Thank you Dr Joseph for this useful article. I have 1 question. I had jealousy towards a fren many years ago. At the point when I realized it, I even apologized, confessed in public. It has then later miraculously gone, but few years later, it came back… and I am indeed very very very exhausted on this struggle. I did not do anything harm to her, or slander on her… I just kept myself away from her.. My question is, should I again apologize to her when I did not directly do any harm to her? I am afraid and will be tired if I apologize to her, the problem still exist… I am not sure if my problem or question is related to your topic.. sorry if it is not. I am just desperately seeking help.. Thanks, Dr. Joseph.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t think you owe someone an apology for your internal thoughts and feelings. We all keep a lot of things to yourself, as we should do; it’s when we let hurtful feelings out that may need to apologize.

  8. kelly says:

    i did something really embarrassing
    i posted on a guy’s fb wall ‘where are you in boston or something? if your in boston i literally hate you’ i wanted to talk to him about the east coast. i love it there and i love boston.

    i haven’t seen him in years, but i REALLY used to like him

    of course its the internet i wasn’t thinking about tone
    well guy i used to know now couldnt tell the difference obviously ignored the comment, and continued posting on his wall.

    why would i use literally in that silly comment online whyy??i feel dumb. tell me if im over-thinking this, i probably am.

  9. kelly says:

    also on the serious side, when it comes to certain topics me and my aunt do not get along. do not know how to stop going there and having “discussions”? well i usually avoid it, but i cant listen to her go on and on without saying something sometimes. how to break down that “frienemy” wall is what i mean. i cannot avoid this relationship. it feels mendable sometimes, but then it doesn’t.

    how do you know when its not mendable. i should apologize anyway right?

  10. Mark says:

    Joseph, I have not only learned many important psychological issues from your writing but have also learned quite a bit about actual examples to improve our relationships with others. And this goes not only in regard to the current post but also to your posts about the lost art of conversation, your responses about your own ways of befriending others, and so on. Thanks!

  11. Gina says:

    Hello. Thank you for this succinct post on the art of apology. I recently had a big blow out with my father who is extremely abusive. For the first time in my life I fought back. In the process I am sure I said hurtful things, believing them to be true. While the things I said were indeed true — I reflected on the effect they would have on such a weak man. So I phrased my apology in a special way where I maintained my self respect. I hope it will still be effective. I said, “Wow. That was our worst fight. I am sorry for the hurtful things I said in reply to the hurtful things you were saying to me.” Maybe that was an imperfect apology — but I feel I can’t let him diminish me anymore. I hope that apology was good enough. I value my relationship with him, after all he is my father, but I just can’t tolerate his abuse anymore. I hope the apology was okay. It is hard to make an apology for abusing an abuser, so to speak. So there must be a grey area in this art of apology making. I don’t believe in abandoning my family, even though that is the commonly recommended trendy solution for dealing with abuse. I didn’t expect to change my dad with those words. I just needed to apologize for me, so that I maintained my integrity even tho I did stoop to his level. I wonder what you think of these thoughts, doctor. Anyway, at least I didn’t use the words but or if. :)

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Under the circumstances, it sounds to me like your apology was just about right. You need to take the responsibility for the hurtful things you said, but that doesn’t exonerate him entirely.

      • Gina says:

        Oh thank goodness. Thank you. I think I’m learning how to fully step out of the abuse with grace! I appreciate your insights.

  12. Regina says:

    What a great article! I found it while trying to find *something* on Google to make myself feel better after my roommate hurt my feelings. I wish he could read this but I doubt it would help – it’s rare that he gets past the self-justification part. I try to be assertive and calmly say “this hurt my feelings” but it just ends up backfiring and he reacts badly toward me for “getting upset.” Then I end up feeling even worse, because not only were my feelings hurt (which probably wasn’t intentional) but now I’ve told you, and you don’t even care!

    Anyway, I’m glad I found your site and I’m sure I’ll be visiting more!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Hi Regina, I know what you mean. Some people are like that — no matter what you say, that are always right and you are wrong. Ugh.

  13. albert says:

    dr.burgo i am apologizing to my friend so many times but he didnt accept it all the time,
    im having this problems for couple of weeks
    and i dont know what to do ?
    Can you help me ?

  14. Ellen says:

    Hi Dr. Burgo,

    First I want to thank you for this wondeful website. It helps me tremendoulsy.

    I come from a disfunctional and abusive family and suffer from C-PTSD. I’ve been in psychotherapy with a wonderful therapist for many years but my symptoms even if not as intense do not seem to go away. I’ve also been seing a psychiatrist for many years also.

    Something unexpected this week-end. My parents apologized! I couldn’t believe it. The problem is that for some reason, I do not feel better at all. In fact, it seems worst! I feel like I forgive them so why I’m not feeling better?

    Is my case hopeless? What will make me feel better if that doesn’t! Why am I feeling worst? I don’t understand what is happening.

  15. Melissa says:

    Thank you for your article. I really need some advice. I was upset with my friend Tina and made a comment to my other friend Matt. He didn’t know the whole situation but thought how Tina treated me was wrong and attacked her by posting a message to her on Facebook. This was without my knowledge. Tina is upset and rightfully so and has asked me to not contact her. I want to apologize for what I said and that he took it out of context but she has asked for me to leave her alone. I feel so horrible. Do I apologize in a letter or leave her along like she asked?

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      You might leave her alone for a time and then follow-up later with a letter, maybe at a point when it might otherwise be natural for you to reach out — say, on her birthday or around Christmas.

  16. Faye says:

    Thank you for the incite , it helps to separate the true apology and the condition “what can I get out of this” apology.

    I said something very hurtful to my daughter when we were shopping. After what was blurted out, I realized what I had done and saw pain in my daughter’s eyes. I felt terrible and try to find courage to apologize asap. later that evening I wrote down what I wanted to say in my short apology, but when I spoke, my voice sound bland and unemotional, when I am hurting because the words hurt my daughter.. maybe I wasn’t ready to say anything at the time, so, do I apologize again and also add what I’ll do to not make the same mistake.
    I took full responsibility and am on guard not to do this again and think before i speak.
    My daughter is still giving me the cold shoulder, never answers me, & still is angry.
    I wish I can take words back or go to couple minutes before the words blurted out of my mouth.
    We had a good mother/daughter relationship until this happened.

  17. Alison says:

    I hurt my roommate today. I got angry for really stupid reasons that i know now were useless to be angry about. Nevertheless, when i thought no one was in the room, i got on the phone and voiced my very hurtful opinions about my roommates family to my family. Of course someone overheard, and my roommate then came in and quickly yelled at me for what i had said, then left. When i got the chance to apologize to the family member before she left, i did.
    I know my apology was pretty simple like you said but i also know that i may have used “but” in my apology to justify my actions. I don’t think i will ever see her relative again, and i am planning on apologizing to my roommate as well, but when i was giving the initial apology my roommate was present even though she wasn’t the direct receiver of the apology. I’m not sure when the best time to do it. I want to apologize to her privately, but her boyfriend or others are always around. I don’t really know what i should do…… we aren’t exactly friends but i do have to live with her…… any advice?

  18. Alison says:

    Hi me again, well i trie to apologize to my roommate, since she was somewhat alone and with her mom, which the relative is related to both of them. So i was wanted to apologize to both of them. However, when i went to apologize, she refused to listen to me, and now she is moving out. is there anymore that i can do?

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