The Top 15 Myths About Apologies

Common misconceptions that can prevent people from repairing relationships.

Posted May 05, 2020

An apology can be an intimate exchange or an international diplomatic statement. Whatever the scale, a sincere and thorough amends process is enormously powerful.

This blog will explore apologizing from many angles, including the reasons most of us find it challenging to do at all, much less do it well; the remarkable healing effects of an effective apology; examples of good and bad ones; and straightforward steps you can follow to make things right after they’ve gone wrong.                            

Some of the biggest roadblocks to making a good apology are widespread myths. In the common misconceptions listed below, do you recognize your own assumptions or the reasons you tell yourself not to apologize?

1. An apology is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, a sincere and thorough apology can be very hard to make. It requires considerable courage.

2. Saying “I’m sorry” means that you accept blame for the problem. If you weren’t at fault, you shouldn’t apologize. Blame and fault are important notions for a legal proceeding, but they aren't helpful for making good relationships. You can decide to apologize simply because you care about the impact on another person.

3. If you didn’t intend to harm someone, they can’t be hurt. People are often hurt by mistake, sometimes without the awareness of the person who caused the hurt. Your intention toward someone and your impact on them are not a complete match. Whether you meant it or not, it’s your responsibility to address your impact.

4. You’re a nice person, so you couldn’t have done anything that hurts someone. It’s hard to face the news that an impact you’ve had on another person contradicts the way you think of yourself, but thoughtful people do still hurt others’ feelings. Regardless of what kind of person you are, it behooves you to try to heal the harm.

5. Your partner knows you wouldn’t hurt them on purpose, so there’s no need to say anything about it.  Your partner may trust your motives but still be hurt and in need of healing.

6. Good relationships don’t need apologies. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That old movie tagline led us astray. In my experience, it’s the strongest relationships that deserve and can make the best use of the shared learning a good apology produces. In weaker relationships, a thorough repair of a breach can set the pair on a better course going forward.

7. To apologize well, all you have to do is say the words “I’m sorry.” Despite the fact that many of us were taught as children that the way to resolve a problem is to say those two words, they’re not magic and usually aren’t sufficient. They may not even show up in an effective apology.

8. Taking responsibility for harmful mistakes will get you sued. Medical organizations have found that making a sincere apology for harm caused to a patient may reduce the rate of malpractice suits. Perhaps more importantly, patients and families—as well as medical personnel—are more satisfied when the medical institution assumes responsibility for an adverse outcome.

9. The purpose of an apology is to get the other person to forgive you. An apology is not a demand for forgiveness. It’s a request for a conversation, a chance for you to take responsibility.

10. Feeling guilty about mistakes is pointless. What I call “good guilt” can be productive and healthy. It can drive you to fix something that needs fixing.

11. Making an apology doesn’t help you; it benefits only the person who’s been hurt. Making a wrong right takes a spiritual weight off your shoulders. You feel better when you face your mistakes responsibly. Your relationship benefits, too, which also helps you.

12. You’ve been hurt, too, so you don’t have to be the one to apologize. In an ongoing relationship, it’s often the case that both people have felt hurt. You may long for an apology yourself, but you may have a better chance of getting one if you begin by first considering what you could apologize for.

13. “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Raising difficult subjects just makes everyone uncomfortable. Old hurts often don’t really go away; many show up later or lead to chronic resentment. It takes courage to face any initial discomfort, but a sincere approach can lead to relief and a closer relationship.

14. If the harm happened before you were born, you don’t owe anyone anything for it. Historical harms are clearly not the fault of anyone alive today. However, sometimes a person or a group of people have benefitted (and continue to benefit) from inequities that began in the past. It is a moral obligation to take responsibility for changing unfairness that rewards you.

15. You can’t change the past, so there’s no reason to revisit it. Of course the past can’t be altered, but you can change the future—which is a remarkably powerful option.

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