How to say sorry in a sincere way that makes a difference

  • A sincere and effective apology is one that communicates remorse and regret
  • Here are some steps to help you learn how to apologise sincerely and effectively
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Genuine apologies aren’t always easy, but they are an important to mending and maintaining relationships. Photo: Shutterstock

We’ve all been there. We’ve all hurt someone we love – to varying degrees. I am always impressed when someone recognises their role and wants to take responsibility. That is the first step. But, apologising is not always easy.

Here are several things to keep in mind:

You probably hold powerful beliefs about apologising. Explore any hesitations or fears you may have. It can be helpful to reflect on how your family has handled mistakes and forgiveness while you were growing up. Has your family modelled what an apology sounds like? If apologising is new to you, validate how scary and uncomfortable it may feel to admit you were wrong.

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Your intention matters. Why do you want to apologise? Is it sincere or manipulative? Did you do something that actually warrants an apology or are you trying to keep peace? Before apologising, pause and reflect on why you are saying sorry.

You need to choose your timing wisely. When someone is hurt, they may not want to hear your apology right away. There may not be a “perfect” time, but forcing someone to speak to you or hear you out before they are ready can feel less like an apology and more like an ambush. Sometimes our urgency is driven by guilt or fear of losing someone, misaligning our timing with the person’s need for some space to process.

Your words matter. There are so many apology-sounding phrases that are truly not an apology. For example:

  • “I am sorry you feel this way”

  • “I am sorry IF …”

  • “You are taking this the wrong way”

  • “You’re being too sensitive”

  • “Let’s forget it ever happened”

  • “I only said that because of the way you acted”

  • “I am sorry BUT …”

  • “I love you”

  • “Let’s just move on”

  • *a hug, kiss, or gift is also not an apology*

Apologising isn’t easy, and many people do it insincerely, or not at all. Photo: Shutterstock

A true apology is not about constructed random words that sound like taking responsibility, rather it actually entails:

  • Admitting that we made a mistake

  • Acknowledging the hurt we caused

  • Expressing remorse

  • Making amends

  • Changing our future behaviours

Make sure not to make it about you. Although you might regret your actions and feel all the feelings, this is not a time or place when they should be comforting you. It’s not about you right now. It’s about them and their hurt. It’s about you showing them that you understand how you hurt them, taking responsibility, and changing your behaviour from now on. If you feel like there is a reason as to why you acted the way you did – an issue that needs to be discussed – an apology is not the right time. It needs to be a separate conversation.

An apology is not a magic cure. Just because you apologised, it doesn’t mean everything will go back to normal. It will take time for the relationship to repair and perhaps shift into its new dynamic. An apology can strengthen a relationship, but it may also just allow you to part ways in an amicable way. Have realistic expectations and make sure not to pressure someone to “go back to normal” right away.

I’m always worried and jealous – what can I do to get over these negative feelings?

No one owes you forgiveness. Just because you apologised, it doesn’t mean that the person has to forgive you or continue the relationship (regardless of the dynamic). We all hope that they will, but we are not entitled to someone’s forgiveness. We should apologise because we want to take responsibility and because it represents who we are as people. An apology can’t come with a set of expectations.

Sara Kuburic is a therapist who specialises in identity, relationships and moral trauma. Every week she shares her advice with our readers. Find her on Instagram @millennial.therapist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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