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How to not suck at apologizing

stress ball with guilty emoji and faded background

Humans are social beings. Relationship connections are crucial to our survival and well-being. And also in these connections…we hurt each other all the time.

If you’ve been in a relationship where there was never a moment of misunderstanding or disagreement or hurt, I would really like to meet you. (Mostly to take a peek at your robotic parts.)

So why does this happen?

1. We can’t read each other’s minds to know what will offend or disappoint someone at any given moment. We can’t perceive all the subtle mood shifts that make a gentle ribbing land differently today than it did last week.

2. We have the emotional capacity of humans. We get stressed and tired. We can’t be constantly full of patience & energy & grace & generosity and all the things it takes to meet the needs/wants/demands of those around us. We are gonna mess things up. We are gonna hurt people we care about.

Let’s just agree on these basic truths about humanity.

  • Other people will hurt you.

  • You will hurt other people.

  • Mistakes and pain are inevitable when dealing with humans.

  • Solid repairs make human relationships thrive and even deepen.

Why apologies matter.

Hurts are going to happen, whether intentional or unintentional.

The way to get through life with this reality is to get good at making repairs when ruptures happen.

Apologies stop the bleeding.

While apologies can’t undo the actual thing that caused the hurt, apologies limit the lingering negative sentiments between you and the other person. Apologies help to rebuild trust.

Apologies physically calm the recipient.

When someone you care about is upset, the act of receiving a sincere apology will literally decrease their heart rate and calm their nervous system. The part of their brain that feels threatened will simmer down and pull back from the default fight/flight/freeze modes. They will start to feel safe with you again.

Why apologies are hard.

We are not taught how to repair a hurt.

If you’re like most people, your “lesson” in apologies was a stern instruction from some disappointed adult to “Go ahead, say you’re sorry.” This is a fine first step but it leaves out some important elements.

We feel like crap.

Apologies are a moment of deep shame for the offender. Acknowledging a wrongdoing can make us feel small and powerless. So of course it sets the stage for trying to avoid apologizing. None of us wants to feel like we are a piece of crap. So it's more common to avoid taking responsibility and to instead blame others.

We don't like to lose.

Our brains default to binary thinking about winner vs. loser or right vs. wrong. So the formula goes: if I apologize, then I'm wrong and the other person is right and then they are the winner and I'm a loser. Winning and losing is for games, not relationships. Apologizing is an investment in the connection. It's about acknowledging and valuing another person’s feelings, something we can actually feel proud to be doing.

Elements of a True Apology

Let’s look at how to do a thorough repair that can heal a hurt while also building up the connection and even boosting your own sense of integrity. We can use the acronym SORRY to help remember the pieces to include:

S – Say a sincere “sorry”

O – Own your error

R – Recognize the other person’s feelings

R – Repair the rupture

Y – Your prevention plan

S - Say a sincere ‘sorry’

  • Specifically state that you are sorry.

  • Apologize with genuine words and use a calm & sincere voice tone and a gentle facial expression. It's ideal if this is in person, via video, or live audio rather than via text or email.

  • Use open body language. Face yourself towards the person, try to make eye contact, and avoid crossed arms.

What to avoid:

  • The use of conditionals, such as:

    • “I’m sorry IF you felt upset.” or “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.” Or “I’m sorry that you felt bothered.”

  • Instead, focus on your role.

    • Simply say “I’m sorry that I did _______.” Or “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

O - Own your error

  • Acknowledge specifically what you did that was hurtful, disappointing, mindless, unfair, etc., to the other person.

  • Take ownership for how you are at fault (even if it was a mistake).

    • I was late... I wasn’t fully honest.... I didn’t think about how you would feel... I wasn’t listening... I forgot about the ___....

What to avoid:

  • In this step, it’s very tempting to explain your intentions, justifications, or the causes behind your actions. DON’T.

  • Stick to taking ownership for your actions themselves, unless the other person specifically asks for justifications. Even then, wait for that part until you deliver the rest of the full apology.

  • Your goal in a true apology is to fully focus on the impact of your actions, rather than your intentions.

R - Recognize the other person’s feelings

  • Do your best to accurately name the emotion(s) they are likely feeling as a result of your action.

  • Empathize with what it must be like from their perspective.

  • Express genuine care for how they are feeling, even if you don’t quite understand. This can be hard to do. If you need help with this step, refer to this article on Validation.

  • Keep the focus on the other person’s emotions, rather than your own.

What to avoid:

  • Don’t let your own emotions of remorse or anxiety about the situation overshadow their feelings.

  • If you think your own emotions might overwhelm you, write out your apology in advance and practice it aloud. Nerdy, I know. But if you really care about delivering it in a way that works, sometimes the extra effort is called for.

  • It's not an effective apology if the hurt person feels worse afterwards or like they have to take care of your emotions.

R - Repair the rupture

  • Offer a specific remedy to fix the situation or make it up to the other person.

  • Think in advance about possible reparations and come to the apology conversation with concrete ideas. Careful forethought sends a message to the other person that you really do care about making it right.

  • Also be willing to accept or ask for suggestions about ways to make amends. The goal is to help the other person feel better and to smooth over the breech in trust. They might know the most effective way to achieve that.

What to avoid:

  • Coming underprepared to the conversation and saying “Let me know how I can make it up to you.”

  • Your goal is to relieve emotional weight on them, not add additional pressure.

Y - Your prevention plan

  • Specifically explain what you will do to keep the behavior from happening again.

  • Share how you will commit your time, effort, and/or resources to make any necessary changes to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

  • Clearly identify the causes of the situation and where things went wrong. This is where you may include your blundered intentions, in a non-defensive manner. Continue taking responsibility.

What to avoid:

  • Know that if the same offense occurs repeatedly, your apology will feel hollow and future apologies will not be trusted easily.

  • So only commit to something you know you can pull off. Be ready to follow through on your promises of change.

Apology examples

I’m sorry I was late. I imagine you were disappointed and also worried when I didn’t get home at 6:30 like I promised.

I would like to make it up to you by taking over the kiddo care for Saturday morning so you can have some free time back.

I don’t want this to happen again, so I set a new alert on my phone that will go off at 5:45pm every day with a message to start packing up my work things and turning off my computer.

I’m sorry I poked fun at your outfit. I know you have been feeling sensitive about how you look lately and I could have been more thoughtful with my words. I’m ashamed I didn’t think before speaking.

To make it up to you, I was thinking that we could look at my old photos and you can make all the jokes you’d like. But if there’s a better way I can repair things, I’d love to know.

So that I don’t hurt you like this again, I’m going to practice asking if you are in the mood for a joke before I get playful about personal traits.

I’m sorry I haven’t been more attentive to the house chores. I feel guilty that I’ve left a lot of things undone and I know these have fallen onto your plate. I can bet you are feeling annoyed and disappointed and maybe even bitter about it, which I definitely understand.

To make it right, I'd like to use my birthday money to hire a house cleaner this month if you're okay with it.

Going forward, I thought we could make a task list on the fridge with our names next to the items. This will help me see it frequently and be reminded of my commitment.

After the Apology

  • Ready yourself if the other person’s upset feelings don’t shift right away. Some people just feel their emotions for a longer amount of time and need a little more to down-regulate. Give some space.

  • Depending on the severity of the situation, you may need to make your genuine apology several times in order for the other person to emotionally regulate and truly hear what you are saying.

  • Be prepared if the hurt person is not willing or able to forgive yet. They may need to see some proof of change in order to trust again, which is fair. An apology is step towards healing a rupture, but it’s not the full cure.

Tending to yourself

Assess the need for a reciprocal apology.

If you were also wronged in the situation, think carefully about your possible needs for an apology too.

  • If you need/want an apology and realize that you'll need to ask for it, be thoughtful about restating your own role in the issue while requesting for them to acknowledge theirs.

"Honey, I was thinking back about the fight we had. Like we discussed, I'm truly sorry that I got so loud & snarky and didn't give you a chance to talk. Like I promised, I'm going to start walking outside for air when I feel like that. I feel like things are a little unfinished though...I was hoping you'd be willing to acknowledge your role in how our fight went too?"

  • Sometimes a hurt person is more able to offer a reciprocal apology once they fully feel like they received an unconditional repair. Consider the person and what you know of their emotions & capability. Be strategic about the timing if you decide to ask for an apology.

Only own what's yours.

  • Be careful about apologizing or taking ownership for something that is not yours to own. It may be your fault that you left the office late, but it's not your fault that there was also accident traffic and the kids threw a tantrum because it was raining and they had to stay indoors.

  • It’s a quick path to resentment & disconnection if you habitually apologize when you are not at fault, just because you want the other person to stop being upset. I see this happen in many relationship dynamics and it doesn’t work well in the long-term.

Have some self-compassion.

  • We all make mistakes and hurt each other. And we have guilt as an emotion to alert us to take action about this.

  • We are meant to respond to the emotion of guilt --> repair the situation and earmark it as one not to repeat.

  • So once you apologize, have some self-compassion and move forward. Berating yourself will only create a wedge in the relationship.

Your next steps.

  • If you are reading this and thinking about who in your life you’ll send it to so maybe they will finally apologize the right way, that’s cool. I hope they will learn something helpful!

  • But I also hope you are reflecting on ways you can improve your repair approach when something goes sideways in your relationships. Because like we said – we all hurt people even when we try not to.

  • Know that people you care about will be more willing to make solid apologies if you're offering sincere ones too!

Can you think of anyone you’d like to try out SORRY on?


SORRY acronym adapted from I’M SORRY: A New DBT Skill for Effective Apology by Alexis A. Adams-Clark, Xi Yang, Monika N. Lind, Christina Gamache Martin, and Maureen Zalewski, University of Oregon

Photo credit: Alexa from Pixabay


If high anxiety and other strong emotions get in the way of building and sustaining relationships, take a look at my 8-week online emotion regulation course to see if it's a fit for you.


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