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The Art of Apologizing

Apologizing is hard. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a halfhearted apology, you know how demoralizing that feels. In stark contrast, a good apology is elixir for relationship wounds.

Mara and Jack had been living together for a year. While dusting, Mara accidentally knocked over a glass figurine and it shattered against the tile floor. Unfortunately, it was the cherished award Jack received as an honor for his fine work in advertising.

Mara’s first impulse was to hide the evidence. She was panicked about how Jack would react. She entertained fantasies of running away to avoid his anger and upset.

Mara’s second impulse was to posture up and convince both Jack and her guilty conscience that this mishap was not such a big deal. “Objects are just objects,” she told herself. “It is not as if I killed someone!” Of course, that is true but that kind of an attitude might not serve her relationship with Jack.

Mara was deeply sorry. So, her third impulse was to gather her strength and her courage to look Jack right in his eyes and say, “I broke your glass award. I know how much it meant to you. I know it’s irreplaceable. I’m deeply sorry for breaking it. I understand how upsetting it must be to lose a cherished possession. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you, please tell me. In the meantime, I understand if you are angry and I am deeply sorry.”

Admitting we did something “wrong” is a humbling experience. It takes strength to withstand the assault to our egos. Many of us pride ourselves on not making mistakes.

Some of us were harshly berated for making mistakes when we were young. Now we berate ourselves for mishaps much like our parents did. Even though most of us intellectually understand that perfection is not a realistic standard for living creatures — everyone of us has flaws and makes mistakes — “owning” that truth can be hard. Yet, we must be accountable for our actions.

The skill of knowing when and how to apologize is one that will greatly serve you and the relationships you value.

So, what makes a good apology? The late Randy Pausch, in his beautiful book, The Last Lecture, teaches us how to apologize. I read his instructions in 2008 and have incorporated them into my apologies ever since. Pausch writes:

A proper apology has three parts:
1) What I did wrong.
2) I feel badly that I hurt you.
3) How do I make this better?

This got me thinking: What makes a bad apology?

  • Blaming the person to whom you are apologizing for having hard feelings.
    “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt or I’m sorry you’re angry.” This actually blames the person for the feelings they have.
  • Getting defensive.
    Getting defensive only deepens a rift and is not an apology.
  • Apologizing but then immediately asking for an apology back.
    This is not giving an apology. It is asking for one. It’s a game of tit-for-tat.

Here’s another story to illustrate a good apology:

Nick invited Ruby to a large family party in honor of his grandparents’ 65th anniversary. Nick knew many people at the party and spent much of his time socializing with others, leaving Ruby to fend for herself. She felt awkward and abandoned. When she agreed to attend the party, Ruby imagined something different and was annoyed with Nick for not taking better care of her. Nick understood and followed the recipe for a great apology.

Nick:

  • Stated what he did wrong. “I’m sorry I let you down by not spending more time with you at my grandparents’ anniversary party.”
  • Showed Ruby he understood how he hurt her. “I know you felt alone and awkward. I also know you felt I should have known better and that you wanted me by your side the whole evening. Did I get that right?”
  • Made amends. “Next time we go to a party, we’ll talk about a plan first. I will stay closer when you need it. In the meantime, is there anything I can do to make amends?”

Learning to apologize well is one of the best things you can do for your valued relationships. Being accountable for when your actions cause hurt goes a long way to repairing damage. Most important, caring about hurt feelings fosters love and trust.

Im Sorry Image via Shutterstock.

The Art of Apologizing


Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, takes the complex world of emotions and makes them easy to understand for all. She is author of the award-winning self-help book, “It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self” (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018). She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. Hilary’s blog on emotions and how to use them for wellbeing is read worldwide.For more FREE resources on emotions and emotional health, visit: Hilaryjacobshendel.com.


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APA Reference
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). The Art of Apologizing. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-art-of-apologizing/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.