The Art of Apologizing: The Key Ingredient for Any Healthy Relationship

Apologizing is an important part of any healthy relationship. You may think that the key to a healthy relationship is avoiding any situation that leads to having to apologize at all, but that isn’t true. Yes, it is important to make conscious decisions regarding how our behavior may impact the other person, but the truth is that it is not realistic to assume we can get through a lifetime without ever making a mistake that merits an apology.

The biggest mistake we can make is to get caught up in the idea that if we don’t apologize, the problem will just go away, or we can pretend that there was never an issue in the first place. The fact of the matter is that, when we inevitably blunder, on any scale, our apology is our way of showing the other person that we respect him/her/them, that we appreciate and want to invest in the relationship that exists, and that we are aware that what we did was upsetting. Denying the need to apologize is denying that there is anything to fix, which can lead to disconnect and distrust in the relationship. Longterm, these small, unsettled incidents will lead to emotional suffering and discontent.

Once we understand why apologies are important and have the tools to apologize, we are able to relax in our relationships and match our intentions to our behavior and our habits. In any relationship with another person, whether it be a family member, a romantic partner, a coworker, a friend, or any other connection, we can often feel instinctively when there is a need for us to apologize. So why can it be so difficult to do so?

Here are 3 reasons why it may be hard for you to apologize:

1 – We have feelings surrounding apologizing:

girl apologizing or sorry to her friend

Why is it so hard to apologize? Because we have feelings about apologizing. Most often, we feel guilty, embarrassed, and disappointed in ourselves when we are in a situation where we have to apologize. We know that our apology is owed because we made a mistake, and we feel guilty about making one. This is normal. Of course, we don’t like making mistakes! For some, apologizing feels like “adding insult to injury”; we are already upset with ourselves, and now we have to announce our error to the other person. It can be very difficult to put ego and pride aside in order to make amends. We might also feel that the mistake we made is “more real” because we have admitted to it. 

On top of our own internal emotions regarding what we are apologizing for, we also know that we will have an emotional response to the other person. What if that person begins to cry? What if that person gets angry? Witnessing the other person’s reaction to an issue we are already feeling negatively about often makes us feel much worse. Our natural instinct is to preserve our sense of wellness by avoiding any action that might make us feel worse than we already do.

2 – Apologizing was never modeled for us:

If you grew up in a family environment or had past peer or romantic relationships where apologizing wasn’t reciprocated, it can seem like a foreign experience. You may have never learned that apologizing is an inevitable part of relationships, whether the apology is for something minor or major, or anything in between. If you didn’t witness, provide and receive apologies as you grew up, you are obviously at a disadvantage when it comes to accumulated experience around apologizing. 

Portrait of mid adult Caucasian woman feeling sorry. Girl standing and apologizing over white background. Excuse concept

Your retrospective analysis of your developmental environment may include incidents and patterns where you did not recognize your own need for an apology until years later. For example, perhaps your privacy wasn’t respected in your childhood home, but it wasn’t until you moved out that you realized it. Or perhaps you always had peers who excluded you from events until you got older, and only then did you realize how badly you had been mistreated. Seeking out an apology now may feel redundant or unnecessary, making it more difficult than it might have been at the time. You may have the mindset that you lived without an apology for this long, so one isn’t necessary. Not having received the amends you needed, whether at the time or later, may devalue your perception of apologizing. It may cause you to categorize infractions into two columns: ‘worth an apology’ or ‘not worth an apology‘. 

Obviously, the less experience we have giving and receiving apologies, the more the act of apologizing becomes stigmatized. An apology may become something we think of as reserved for truly terrible acts or incidents, given that we never witnessed or received apologies for things we may now identify as pain points.

3 – We are so consumed by our own pain that we can’t see that the other is hurting:

This can be a very tricky and difficult barrier to navigate. In a situation where we made a mistake, “I forgot to pick up the laundry detergent”, or “I broke your favorite mug”, there is a clear-cut assignment of who apologizes and who receives the apology. 

But what if each of you is upset? What if you were arguing, and both said hurtful things in the heat of the moment? 

We can all think of times, after an argument with a partner, where we pondered (or even stewed) about everything the other person did “wrong”. It can be difficult to recognize our role in a conflict, and it often requires work to do so. Often, we are far too consumed by what we deem to be the other person’s failings to see the part we played in the discord, let alone apologize for it. We may also operate from a place of hurt and feel triggered by acts, comments, or events that are not intended to be harmful. For example, a friend’s joke about our need to people-please may bring up trauma from our past and we may react with hostility. Now, we are in a position of feeling justified for our response, despite the fact that our friend did not mean any harm. 

Being able to set aside our emotions and knee-jerk reactions can take a lot of mental effort, but it is possible. While we may feel we are owed an apology (or at least an explanation) in some of these circumstances, that doesn’t mean that we do not owe one, also.

3 tools to utilize in order to apologize:

1 – Reframe the way you see apologizing:

As we know, one of the most difficult parts of apologizing is coming to terms with the fact that an apology is owed. When we begin to associate apologies with positive communication, building trust, and maintaining healthy relationships, we are able to see that the value in apologizing outweighs any of our negative associations with having to apologize. We begin this process by identifying the unhealthy associations we have about apologizing. 

Do you think apologizing is a sign of weakness? 

Do you think it is a sign of defeat? 

Does having to apologize mean you are a bad person because only bad people who do bad things apologize? 

When we’ve accounted for our associations, we can weigh these ideas against our ideal outcome. 

What are these associations getting in the way of? Trust? Open communication? Closure?

If we are being honest in our reflection, we will probably find that we know whether we value appearing strong more than we value nurturing trust. When we focus on tending to our values and priorities, we are able to endeavor to create a more positive outcome. For me, apologizing is about restoring love and connection. Remind yourself you making a mistake doesn’t make you a mistake, so apologizing doesn’t have to feel so bad.

When applicable, find ways to apologize that nurture and honor the other person. For example, if you were late to your coffee date with your friend, you might be tempted to say, “Sorry I was late”. This puts the onus on the other person to say, “That’s okay”. Try, instead, saying, “Thank you for waiting.” If this isn’t typical behavior of yours, the other person will probably say, “Oh, you’re welcome! Don’t even worry about it!” The exchange of “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” creates far more harmony than “Sorry” and “That’s okay”. If you are consistently tardy, it will probably be beneficial to include a formal apology: “I apologize for being late; thank you for waiting for me. I know this is an issue of mine, and I am working on it.”

2 – Start small:

Begin by apologizing for little things to get comfortable with apologizing. This can feel a little bit awkward at first, especially if you identify that these little behaviors are things that you’ve neglected to apologize for in the past. Take any judgment out of your mind about your new practice. Don’t worry that people will have specific thoughts or opinions about your apologies. Just make them!

Another way to “start small” is to select a method of delivering your apology that helps to ease your anxiety. Maybe you need to start with a text messaging or making phone calls before you transition to apologizing in person. If the incident at hand is relatively harmless, a text message or phone call apology may be more than adequate and there will be no need to apologize in person. Every situation will be a little bit different, depending on who you are apologizing to and that person’s expectations and boundaries.

When it comes to “more serious” incidents, you may even want to text before apologizing in person for the same event! Yes, this will likely mean apologizing twice. There is nothing wrong with that! Maybe you were short with a coworker and you’ve spent the evening feeling unsettled about it. There is a lot to be gained by sending a text message that says, “I am disappointed in myself for the way I responded to you earlier; I want to apologize face to face but I know I won’t see you until tomorrow and I didn’t want to wait until then. For now, please know that I am sorry for my words and tone of voice, and looking forward to apologizing tomorrow.”

It can feel intimidating to apologize face to face, when the person is looking straight into your eyes and can hear your voice shake, and that’s okay. If and when you apologize in person, it is completely acceptable to have a notepad with you and read from it. If it makes you feel self-conscious, or you worry that the recipient of your apology won’t find it sincere, give yourself permission to be honest: “This apology means a lot to me and I didn’t want to forget anything or misspeak.” Or even, “I feel nervous about apologizing, but I believe it’s important, so I wrote some notes to help me.”

3 – Practice complete apologies:

As with any communication tool, apologizing has its own components, which, when properly utilized, make the apology effective. If you don’t do it the right way, the impact and sincerity of the apology will be greatly reduced. Apologizing is all about taking ownership. It is taking responsibility for the words you used, the tone of your voice, your body language, all of it. It is acknowledging the impact of your actions on the other person, including their experience and feeling. 

Saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” is not acknowledging that the other person was hurt by your action. “I know that I hurt you, and I am sorry,” is a far stronger statement.

Also, apologizing is more than saying, “I am sorry.” It is being able to identify your actions, such as “I know I disconnected our call in the middle of your sentence.” It is acknowledging your wrongdoing, such as “that wasn’t okay” or “that was out of line, you don’t deserve to be treated like that.” This is the key to a sincere and effective apology: use I statements.

“I know this happened. I noticed I handled it poorly, and I want to apologize.”

“What I said was hurtful, and I know I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry.”

“I’m so sorry, I bumped into your car when I was reversing.”

“I regret being rude to you earlier, and I apologize.”

Practice also means pushing yourself to apologize when the moment has passed. This can be one of the most intimidating times to apologize but can do wonders for a guilty conscience and for establishing trust. There are always moments in our lives when we walk away from a setting and it begins to gnaw away at us. Whether this is because we realized after a few minutes that we’d been unfair, or whether something that happened subsequent to the moment changed our opinion, it can be persistently unsettling to let ourselves marinate in our faux pas. Sometimes, we may have said something that would have normally been alright, but some variable in the context is now making us feel bad. We may try to convince ourselves that it’s fine: “Oh, Carol and I always joke about each other’s fashion sense, she knows we’re friends and I love her.” But that may not work, and it may cause more damage to say nothing than whatever it was we did that we’re delaying apologizing for. “Earlier, when I made that joke about your skirt, I didn’t see that Bob was also in the room until I was leaving. I feel awful that I said something like that in front of someone else; I hope you know that I would never try to embarrass you in front of our other coworkers. I apologize.”

Apologies are a two-way street

While you are implementing apologizing into your routine, make sure to ask for an apology from others as well. You may be recoiling at the thought of asking for an apology. But the truth is that we must be willing to ask for amends in order to normalize the concept of apologizing in our minds. Think about it: how can you possibly comprehend the importance of apologizing if you don’t value receiving apologies when you are wronged or hurt in some way? And how can you truly know the value of receiving apologies if you don’t feel that they are worth asking for?

Requesting apologies can start in steps, just like implementing apologies can. When someone apologizes of their own volition, we can begin to request “the rest of the apology”. For example, if someone apologizes to you, but doesn’t say what for, you might say, “Thank you for your apology. It would help me to hear you say what you’re specifically apologizing for.” Or if someone says, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that”, but doesn’t apologize, you might respond with, “I agree. Thank you for acknowledging that. It would benefit me if you could say that you are sorry, as well.” Some people might not like this and they might refuse your request. This may be less about their regard for you and more about their own personal struggle to apologize. Regardless, establish your boundaries and expectations and do not apologize for them. All you can do is communicate your needs.

You can also bring “I-statements” into your requests for an apology. “When you ignored my request for space earlier, it made me feel disrespected. I feel a deserve an apology.”

There may be times where the request for an apology feels simpler in the heat of the moment. Imagine you are having an argument with a loved one. We can all remember times when one person has said something that “went too far”; the argument often pauses as both people absorb what just happened. This is a great moment to say, “Please apologize for that.”

Always remember that giving and receiving apologies are not a total solution for mishaps, miscommunications, errors in judgment, or just plain hurtful actions, but that the willingness to communicate about the need for an apology is a great indicator of a respectful relationship. This is why apologizing for accidentally bumping into a stranger is easier: it was an honest mistake, and the stakes are low, as you’ll probably never see that person again. 

Apologizing can feel much more intimidating when we feel there could be love, friendship, our working environment, or family harmony on the line. But that is all the more reason to be consistent in our attitude surrounding apologies. In giving them with grace and receiving them with gratitude, we foster trust and respect in our relationships and normalize the idea that amends sometimes need to be made.

Embracing You Therapy Group Practice

Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.

At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety.

Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way.

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