Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What’s so Tough About Apologizing?

An apology IS a good way to have the last word.

Step on someone’s toe in a crowded elevator, or bump up against them standing in line, and as easily as taking the next breath we say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” So why is it so tough to apologize when it really matters? Why is apologizing so emotionally fraught in personal and public life – between intimates at one end and between nations at the other?

Politicians and religious leaders are known for their non-apology apologies. My own favorite in this category is “If I hurt anyone, I am truly sorry.” Notice the “If” – the person doesn’t know whether s/he’s hurt anyone, but wants to cover his bets and express an all-purpose apology. Vague, far-reaching and nebulous, this apology acknowledges no wrong action, nor any particular victim of the (unknown and unacknowledged) wrongdoing, no regret (for what?) and no intention to change his/her behavior in any way in the future.

A variation on this non-apology theme is “If I hurt you, I’m sorry.” This non-apology is addressed to a specific individual, but the speaker doesn’t say or know what he (she) did to cause the hurt and, consequently, does not, indeed cannot offer to avoid doing it again.

Some non-apologies are even worse! There’s the “I’m sorry you feel that way” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying, “screw you!” There are apologies that blame the victim, like Matt Lauer’s famous tweet to an intern: “ Always tried to be nice, Mark. Sorry you didn’t think so.”

The poison at the heart of many statements that appear to be apologies is the deadly “but”, followed by excuses or worse, e.g., “I’m sorry I hurt you, but you said those things that just made me so mad…” Sorry folks, that’s no apology.

A sincere apology acknowledges a specific action that caused harm. It takes full responsibility for that action. It demonstrates and expresses regret for the action and its effects. When possible, it offers compensation or redress, correction. And, this part’s important: a sincere apology promises (and even takes steps to insure) that it won’t happen again. Why is that so tough?

Apologizing is difficult because it requires humility.

Apologizing temporarily reduces one’s self-esteem. The offender who apologizes yields some power, some control. Having announced their imperfection and error, the offender is now vulnerable. It takes humility to make a sincere apology, and for some people humility is just too uncomfortably close to humiliation.

True narcissists never apologize.

More from Psychology Today

More from Renee Garfinkel Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today