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I wasn’t taught to apologize when I was a kid.
If we screwed up, we were expected to fix it and never make the same mistake again. Changed behavior was all that mattered.
What we didn’t do was share our hurt feelings, so I never learned how to be comfortable in that space.
If I hurt someone, I would fix the problem as fast as I could and hope that if I never did it again, they would forget about it. I thought that would be good enough.
Saying the words I’m sorry matters, also.
Now, years later as a relationship coach, I know how critical apologies are and how they do so much heavy lifting when it comes to relationship problems. Not only do they validate the person who was hurt, but they also liberate the person who did the hurting.
Unfortunately, we sometimes make a mess of them.
Here are 10 of the mistakes I’ve seen people make when it comes to saying I’m sorry:
Mistake #1: They don’t apologize.
There are a few reasons people don’t say I’m sorry. They equate an apology with being wrong and if they don’t feel wrong, they don’t do it. If they didn’t intend to hurt the person, they don’t see it as necessary. They avoid it in hopes that the whole incident will go away. They don’t want to bring it up and create more drama or highlight their failure. What they don’t realize is that an apology is an acknowledgment of hurt feelings and it’s critical for preserving the connection and maintaining emotional intimacy in a relationship.
Mistake #2: They over-apologize.
They apologize about everything. They apologize when it’s clearly not their fault. They apologize because they don’t want to feel bad and they think an apology will make it stop. Not only does the value of all their apologies drop like overprinting money, but it’s also a manipulation behavior. They’re invalidating the other person’s feelings by waving an apology wand and thinking that’s enough to make them disappear.
Mistake #3: They pseudo-apologize.
They use words that sound like an apology but don’t feel like an apology. A famous version is the, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” That ittsy-bittsy if makes the apology conditional. It technically has the right stuff in it, but it puts the responsibility back on the person who was hurt. The apologizer only has to own their behavior if it did, in fact, hurt feelings. If an apology contains the word “but” or any other rationalization for the behavior, it cancels itself. Usually, more damage is done, which further pushes the person away.
Mistake #4: They insincerely apologize.
If you’ve ever been at a playdate with toddlers, you know how they hurt each other’s feelings (and little bodies). When the grown-ups demand they apologize, they do it robotically because they don’t understand what’s going on. Adults sound the same when they apologize for something they’re not sorry for. It’s why it feels so unsatisfying when we ask someone to apologize and they shrug their shoulders and deliver a deadpan “sorry.”
Mistake #5: They don’t change their behavior.
A good apology isn’t just words. It’s so much more. It’s an acknowledgment—we know we hurt the other person. It’s confirmation that we’ve learned something. It’s a promise to not hurt them again. When someone apologizes and makes no attempt to learn and change, then it’s just words. Without aligned action, apologies are worth little.
Mistake #6: They demand apologies.
There’s nothing wrong with telling someone we have hurt feelings because of their actions, but we have to leave it there. If we’re connected and in a healthy relationship, they’ll probably apologize on their own. “I think you owe me an apology” could trigger them though. It sounds like we want to make them wrong, like we want to punish them. Skip the blame step and just ask for the change in behavior. It’s likely to be an unsatisfying apology anyway.
Mistake #7: They dismiss or reject apologies.
Some people do this because they want to see the changed behavior before they believe we mean it. Other times, it’s a punishment. They don’t want to make it too easy on the person who apologized. They’re upset! What are they supposed to do—just let the person apologize and everything be okay?! It doesn’t feel right to let them off the hook like that. That’s a manipulation behavior, though, and one that delays healing for everybody.
Mistake #8: They don’t forgive themselves before they apologize.
We need to do this to take care of ourselves. The other person may reject or dismiss our apology. They may not forgive us. They may walk out of our life altogether. When we’ve first focused on forgiveness of self and then followed that up with an apology, we are in clean alignment with ourselves. No matter what happens. It’s important that we support ourselves above all else.
Mistake #9: They don’t follow the apology with an attempt to reconnect.
Apologies are the right thing to do, but they aren’t magic. I’m sorry isn’t the end of the story. It’s the beginning. What we did is start a process. The next step is making amends by asking them what kind of support they need and what we can do to bring the relationship back into connection.
Mistake #10: They wait for an apology before they forgive.
In this case, we’re giving all our power away. Holding onto hurt feelings and a painful narrative about what happened only punishes the holder. It makes us feel stuck. It makes us feel bad. It makes us feel wronged. The apology is to repair the relationship. The forgiveness is to free ourselves.
I’m passionate about this because I’ve been terrible at it. I’ve also watched how it can completely transform a moment of hurt into a moment of vulnerability and intimacy.
What could be a more compelling reason for us to get better at it?