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Are You Apologizing Wrong?

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMarch 12, 2019

A genuine apology can work wonders – it can repair and even strengthen the bonds of a relationship. Unfortunately, the seemingly simple act of saying “I’m sorry” can go wrong in more ways than we might imagine, and a botched apology can be worse than no apology at all.

Here are some common problems that make apologies less effective:

“Apology”

Problem

“I’m sorry, I just don’t do well with surprises.”

 

Rationalizing your behavior  by justifying your actions—which makes you sound like you’re not really sorry.

“I’m sorry that I don’t respond well to being controlled.”

Blaming the other person.  This is a particularly toxic form of rationalization, turning a supposed apology into an accusation.

“I’m sorry you interpreted it that way.”

Apologizing for the other person’s reaction.  You suggest that the real problem isn’t what you did or said, but how the other person took it.

“I’m so sorry—I know how frustrating that is from times you’ve done the same thing to me.”

 

Using the apology to remind the other person of their past faults.  While it sounds like empathy, it’s intended to remind the person that they’re just as guilty.

“I’m sorry I reacted so strongly, but I’d like you to work on the way you ask me to do things.”

 

Including a “but…” after the apology.  Whatever comes after the “but” tends to neutralize the apology. 

 

Usually unstated

Expecting the other person to apologize in return.  When we bring expectations for how the other person will respond, it makes the apology less than sincere.

 

“I’m sorry if I said something to upset you.”

Using an apology to ask a question.  Rather than asking the person directly, you disguise your question as an apology.

 

“I feel so terrible. I was crying on the way home last night because I couldn’t believe I treated you that way. Sometimes I wonder if some of this is related to my upbringing.” 

 

Making it about you.  You focus on your thoughts, feelings, and actions instead of on how your actions affected the other person and what you can do to make it right.

 

“I’m an awful, awful person for forgetting to call on your birthday. I know it will take years to earn your trust again, if that’s even possible.”

 

Going over the top.  By being extremely harsh toward yourself, you invite the other person to tell you it’s not that bad.

 

So what makes for a truly effective apology? The following guidelines tend to be helpful:

Be specific. A shared understanding of what you’re apologizing for is crucial. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry I spoke rudely to you,” or, “I’m sorry I compared you to your mother,” rather than more vague or blanket statements like, “I’m sorry about earlier,” or, “I’m sorry for everything.”  

Be sincere. Don’t say you’re sorry if you’re not. While we’re often coerced as children to say we’re sorry, it needs to be genuine to have a positive effect.

Take responsibility for what you did. While there’s no one right way to apologize, true apologies usually take the form, “I’m sorry I….” Check yourself if you’re about to say, “I’m sorry you…,” as in, “I’m sorry you were offended”—those kinds of statements aren’t likely to repair the relationship like an actual apology.

Provide an explanation (not an excuse). Without justifying your behavior, it’s helpful for the other person to have some understanding of what led to it. For example, a person could explain that she was stressed and hadn’t eaten all day, which contributed to her moodiness—while underscoring that she wants to speak kindly no matter how she’s feeling.

Try to make it right. Restoring a fractured bond requires doing some repair work. For example, if you were distant and distracted when the person was trying to talk with you, plan a time to sit down and give them your full attention.

State your intention to do better. Let the other person know you’ll be working to improve things for the future. Make your intentions realistic—don’t promise, for example, that you’ll “never get impatient again.”

Allow the other person’s reaction to be what it is. Don’t expect instant forgiveness, a heart-melting reconciliation, or a reciprocal apology. It may take time for the other person to receive your apology, and you may need to do additional work to restore trust.

It’s not easy to apologize because it means admitting we’re wrong, and we don’t want to feel like a bad person. But think about how you feel when others apologize to you—most likely it helps rather than hurts your view of them. Apologizing shows that you understand when you’ve hurt someone, and are the kind of person who wants to make it right.

Don’t let these many potential pitfalls fool you—an effective apology is actually quite simple. Just imagine if the roles were reversed, and consider what you would want the other person to say and do. Forgiveness is built into every good relationship, and an authentic apology is the most direct way to get there.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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