Experts share how to successfully apologize.
You’re stressed. You’re angry. Your nerves are shot. You can feel your blood boiling. But instead of stepping back and away (and cooling down), you blow up or speak up. You say something you don’t mean. No worries—it happens. From life stressors and work concerns to domestic disputes and parental problems, there have probably been instances where you weren’t your best self. That’s where a really good apology comes in.
“To really apologize can mean different things to different people, but generally refers to a real sense of remorse and not coming from a place of coercion or self-preservation,” Sarah Hubbell, a relationship therapist based in Phoenix, Arizona, tells Parade. A "good" apology, she adds, includes three parts.
“The first thing you should do is acknowledge the infraction,” Hubbell explains. “It can be as basic as ‘I did XYZ.’ This shows there is no denial or minimization of what happened. You acknowledge the wrongdoing without any ambiguity. Secondly, acknowledge the impact to the person you wronged. For instance, say, ‘I see how that hurt/humiliated/dismissed you.’ Let them know they are heard and that you understand their pain. And finally, apologize and acknowledge what you will do differently going forward.”
How To Apologize
Here are seven other things to keep in mind when you apologize and want to let the person know you mean it.
Don’t make excuses
It might be tempting to defend yourself and explain why you did something, but do your best not to go there.
“Don’t try to explain away why you said or did something wrong,” Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist and the author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, tells Parade. “If you cheated, don’t say, ‘I was drunk and that’s why it happened.’ Instead, be direct.”
Own up to your mistakes. You should also omit words and phrases like “but” and/or “if only” from your vocabulary, as these expressions minimize the hurt. They are invalidating, at best.
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If you sincerely regret doing something, you’ll feel it. Remorse is a powerful emotion. But it is imperative that you convey said regret to the person(s) you’ve harmed. “A real apology needs to include empathy and genuine regret,” Denise Myers, the national director of behavioral health services for Marathon Health, says. “Simply saying ‘I’m sorry’ can seem empty and meaningless without a true feeling of remorse behind them.” But how can you express remorse? Say things like “I wish I could take it back/had been more thoughtful” or “I wish I’d thought of your feelings as well.”
Keep it simple
Many individuals overthink apologies. They offer unnecessary explanations and justifications for their actions or words and for their behaviors and misgivings. But doing so is pointless—this filler and fluff dilute the meaning of your apology. But what should you do? What can you say instead? “Keeping your apology simple and owning the mistake, recognizing how you hurt the other person and genuinely apologizing for your behavior is the best way forward,” Myers explains.
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While the words “I’m sorry” are powerful, sometimes they aren’t enough. Some hurts run deep, and these wounds may take a long time (and a lot of work) to heal. As such, it is imperative you identify what it is you are apologizing for. “Saying ‘I am sorry for making the comment about you being messy’ is clear and direct,” Alpert says. “This goes much further than saying, ‘I’m sorry that you were upset.’” It also holds you accountable for your words, actions and behavior.
Make it heartfelt
The simplest and sincerest way to apologize is to speak from the heart. After all, when you speak in this manner you are vulnerable, candid and true. “Don’t be afraid to show emotion,” Alpert says. “This is your first step in repentance and will go a long way in humanizing you and showing sincerity, both of which are critical in winning back trust and respect.” Heartfelt apologies are also genuine. They convey purpose and intention. What’s more, when individuals apologize from the heart, they naturally express sentiments like remorse and regret.
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An apology is an opportunity to validate what the other person is feeling. You recognize their hurt and pain. When we validate one another, we also affirm that their thoughts and feelings are valid. They are worthwhile. But how can you offer validation? The best way to do so is with empathy. Say things like “That must have been difficult. I’m sorry my words or actions caused you pain.”
While apologies are great, words without action are meaningless. If you change your actions or behaviors, your apology will carry weight. It can (and will) take on a life of its own. “Indicate what’s next, what actions are you taking to try to improve things,” Alpert tells Parade. “If you have a tendency to blow up at your spouse then perhaps therapy that addresses anger and communication is in order.” If you’ve broken trust, you need to take tangible steps to rebuild it. Ask the person you’ve harmed how you can make amends. And if you’ve physically destroyed an item, repair or replace it. The point isn’t what you do, it is that you do something.