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4 Minutes Read

How NOT to apologize

It can be hard to admit when we’ve said or done something that negatively impacted or harmed someone else. Acknowledging what you did, apologizing, and making amends can bring up uncomfortable feelings like guilt and shame.

Additionally, if you are part of a culture where people of your gender role or other type of social role are automatically labeled “strong” or “smart”, apologizing can feel like a threat to your sense of who you are – because you fear others may see it as weakness or a loss of social prestige.

However, apologizing for wrongdoing when it occurs is key for sustaining healthy, meaningful, authentic relationships. To ensure you communicate the sincerity of your apology, take care to avoid these three mistakes people often make.

1. Avoiding accountability

To apologize, you need to confront the reality that something you did got you to the place you are now. That’s fundamentally what the conversation is about – not the emotions the person felt or expressed because they were hurt. Similarly, an apology is not the time to defend your well-meaning motives; it’s the time to focus on the negative outcome that actually happened.

So as an example, “I’m sorry if you felt insulted by my comments, I was trying to give you a compliment” is not an apology. 

Be clear that you understand that your words were insensitive by saying “I’m sorry that I insulted you with my rude comments”. This spells out what you did and how it impacted the other person, and you further dignify that by declining to defend your behavior.

2. Over-apologizing

Many queer people have had an experience like this – imagine you and your girlfriend decide to meet up at a fancy restaurant to celebrate Valentine’s Day. You get there first and she’s a little late, so you go ahead and take a seat at your table. The waitress bringing your menus comments on how beautiful your dress is and then says “your boyfriend is going to love it!”

You correct her that you’re waiting for your girlfriend, not your boyfriend, and immediately she apologizes profusely, scolding herself for making such a heteronormative assumption, and assuring you that she is a huge supporter of LGBTQ equality. If that wasn’t awkward enough, she apologizes again once your girlfriend arrives for dinner… and again when your meal is served… and again when you get the check…

Going extreme with your apology takes the focus off the person you’re apologizing to and puts it back on you. The person might start to feel bad that asking for an apology upset you so much, which is not fair. They also could feel forced into the position of having to calm you down because you’re more worked up about apologizing than they were annoyed by what you did in the first place.

3. A gift in lieu of a conversation

If you know you’ve done something that negatively impacted someone you care about, it might be tempting to try to repair the hurt through gift giving instead of talking about what happened.

You might not want to revisit the embarrassment of having had a little too much to drink when you visited your partner’s parents, and think about just sending them some flowers the next day.

You could know that your words got too harsh in an argument between you and your roommate, and try to see if bringing home some cupcakes as a surprise can make things right.

While the random acts of kindness may (or may not) be appreciated, they are not enough to make up an apology. By avoiding having a conversation, you take away the person’s opportunity to express their hurt feelings and talk through what they would like to happen next.

Ultimately, giving a gift instead of an apology is most beneficial to you, not the person you hurt. It’s not mending your relationship because you get to avoid uncomfortable feelings while the person does not get the full support and resolution they need.

Predictors of a good apology

The three qualities that indicate you’re well-equipped to give a good apology are:

  1. empathy 
  2. humility 
  3. vulnerability 

If you know you’re damaging relationships that are important for you through not apologizing well, increasing your capacity to connect to those three qualities could make a big difference. In my therapy practice, I frequently work with clients looking to expand their emotional capacities in these ways.

Set up a free phone consultation with me by clicking the button below, I’d love to chat with you more about how therapy can help you build the skills to be the partner, friend, or family member you want to be.


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