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The Art Of An Apology

Apologizing can be a powerful tool. Some, however, misuse it.

Photo by Alexi Berry

Apologizing can be a powerful tool. Some, however, misuse it. Some have trouble apologizing at all. Those that have trouble are like “the Fonz”, who couldn’t mutter the word “sorry” in the early seasons of “Happy Days”. Others seem to be apologizing for who they are; they say they are sorry so frequently. Others apologize to manipulate; they make another feel bad, they use it as a precursor to defending themselves, or to feel better that they at least apologized (despite an apology not being enough).

A heartfelt apology is powerful. It can mend a relationship. It begins to foster compassion and forgiveness. With the exception of the words “I love you”, “I’m sorry” maybe the most powerful phrase for human connection in our language.

It seems, as a result of misuse, it is losing its power. Too many people apologize for everything. It has almost become an opening expression, such as “How are you?” (Which also rarely carries the intended meaning). Some people apologize anytime there is a near occasion to do so with even a passerby. Often the intended of the apology doesn’t even notice an offense. For those that use it in this way, it is circumventing any conflict before it even begins. Although this sounds fine, there maybe a cost for such frequent apologizing.

Many who apologize too frequently suffer from self-esteem issues, from being people pleasers, or from both. They need the approval of others, or at the least, the absence of conflict. To meet these needs they automatically apologize to gain good grace.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those that can barely mutter the word “sorry.” Many in therapy claim their partners never apologize. It leaves one feeling slighted, and can be very damaging to the relationship, if, as Gottman has found, other repair attempts are not present or activated. Those that never apologize are very frustrating to those around them.

Rarely apologizing may stem from difficulty removing oneself from a personal point of view. He/ She may also have trouble showing weakness or vulnerability, even to those closest. This often stems from a fear they are showing weakness, and then will be taken advantage of.

Perhaps the most damaging misuse of an apology is that of the individual using it to manipulate or otherwise purge responsibility. Too often, likely as a result of it working so well, people use an apology to purge their guilt. This in itself isn’t the problem, it is when change is needed but instead an “I’m sorry” is offered. The individual can feel vindicated in having apologized, and sometimes will even offer that fact when confronted about the behavior (“But I said I was sorry!”). He or She believes their apology alleviates any guilt.

Still others apologize to foster guilt in the other. This often happens in romantic relationships. An individual will apologize, but also self deprecate. The offended individual will often cease to be offended, and will even offer support to the person who somehow wronged them! Although there may be truth in both the apology and in the self-deprecation, often the goal is to bring about forgiveness or at least quell the ill feelings toward the offender right away.

An appropriate apology is a wonderfully powerful intervention. In it an individual takes responsibility for the wrongdoing and / or harm of another. She or He offers sincere regret for the actions; this is an attempt to take responsibility and mend the relationship. Furthermore, no defense is offered after the apology. A good apology doesn’t seek to excuse behavior. When one defends their actions after apologizing, the apology is negated. There is no regret for the actions; the actions are instead justified. It does not appear one is truly sorry if an explanation of why he or she did what was done follows. As someone once told me, “Don’t ruin an apology with an explanation.”

There is benefit in becoming more mindful of the use of apologies. It is as simple as slowing down automatic responses for a period, questioning what the purpose of the apology is, and then determining if it is appropriate to apologize. Then one determines how to appropriately confer regret for the action. Taking an honest look at one’s motives for an apology is a huge step toward personal growth. With these interventions one can better use a powerful tool to mend relationships.


References: Gottman, John; “Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail,” 1994.


Copyright William Berry, 2012.