Some apologies sting—instead of providing reconciliation, they add insult to our injury.
A non-apology has the capacity to brood resentment, inflame anger, and leave its receiver feeling invalidated, misunderstood, and manipulated.
Even when well-intentioned, non-apologies are an obstacle in the path of repairing and rebuilding a fractured relationship.
We may have received an apology that conveyed the message that we’ve overreacted or an apology that shifts blame on us. When that happens, any possibility of restitution or repair is seized in an instant. Maybe we’ve realized that we need to say sorry and end up rendering a statement that shows we are anything but sorry.
If this sounds familiar, we are most likely giving or receiving a non-apology—another term for it is “faux apology.”
Not all apologies are authentic and sincere. Apologies that don’t impart any remorse, regret, or care tend to be more harmful than helpful.
Here are some of the common mistakes that people make when apologising:
Giving a grudging apology. For example, “Okay, just move on; I’m sorry,” or “Fine, I’m sorry—there, I said it!” A grudging apology is made reluctantly and with resentment. It’s not about the person who has been hurt, but rather about alleviating discomfort at being accused of wrongdoing. It shows that we don’t care about the harm that we caused the person whom we owe an apology.
Not expressing any genuine regret. “I was just joking,” and “I guess I should say sorry” are examples of non-apologies that do not show genuine regret. A sincere apology demonstrates remorse for our actions. In non-apologies, there’s an absence of keywords and actions that signal regret. Directly verbalizing wrongdoing acknowledges the impact of hurtful actions. Without regret, an apology is half-hearted.
Not accepting responsibility. Words such as “I’m sorry, but…” or “It wouldn’t have happened if…” deflect responsibility for the hurt that was caused, and they are just excuses. Instead of remorse, there’s blame and justifications for actions, and they are positioned as being a priority. The person owed an apology feels as if their feelings are minimized and the harm caused is negated.
Giving an indirect apology. “I’m sorry that you feel that way” is another non-apology. There’s an implicit message of the person who’s hurt being hypersensitive or irrational. Instead of admitting any wrongdoing, it implies that the person’s emotions are the problem, rather than the actions that led to the hurtful emotions.
Why do we tend to apologize in less effective ways?
Unhelpful apologies can happen both intentionally and unintentionally. They may form patterns of behavior that have developed over time—an instantaneous reaction to feeling accused of doing something wrong.
Apologizing isn’t always easy. There can be a misalignment between how we feel, how we think, and how we act when an apology is required. The ego takes a huge knock, causing the need for humility and sincerity. This can make an apology feel monumental.
Dr. Karina Schumann, who has extensively studied apologies, suggests that, “Apologies disrupt our self-image as being a ‘good person’ who is moral, decent, fair, and caring.”
Apologies bring up feelings of shame—a powerful unpleasant emotion that tells us we are wrong, inadequate, have failed, or have been bad. Non-apologies are an elixir that momentarily deflect shame—it feels much better to evade shame rather than experience it through an apology.
Working with clients, I often hear about memories from childhood that are evoked through apologies. For example, resentment at having to apologize for something they didn’t do, or feeling humiliated and guilty for making a mistake and being forced to say sorry.
A study by Okimoto and colleagues found that when people refused to apologize, they experienced greater self-esteem alongside feelings of power and control. There’s vulnerability in giving a sincere and genuine apology, which can create avoidance.
Why is it so important that we learn to apologize the right way?
A sincere apology shows that we are aware of our wrongdoing and acknowledge the hurt that we have caused—we take responsibility for our actions rather than deflecting blame elsewhere.
Sincere apologies open dialogue and help build and rebuild trust. I see them as a cornerstone of healthy relationships. When we give genuine apologies, rather than non-apologies, we communicate respect, dignity, and self-awareness.
What benefits can apologizing authentically have for both the giver and the receiver?
Genuine apologies are crucial in healthy relationships and connections. They show care, empathy, understanding, and they create the building blocks of reconciliation.
Ruptures are an inevitable part of relationships and connections—we come from different backgrounds, life experiences, values, and perspectives. We are constantly learning about one another and defining how to coexist.
Apologies allow us to communicate in a way that is characterized by self-awareness, and they can help both sides work on how to treat each other better. Without a genuine apology, feelings of resentment fester. Instead of working together and healing, relationships become a turbulent battleground.
Genuine apologies also can have a positive impact on our own self-esteem and self-confidence. Instead of getting stuck carrying stifling feelings of resentment and shame, emotions move freely—there’s a sense of relief and integrity that apologies provide.
After a client I worked with apologized to their partner, they experienced clarity and feelings like “A weight has been lifted.”
Here are some tips for apologizing in a constructive way:
Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thompson, the authors of The Five Love Languages, describe four tips for apologizing in a constructive way. In When Sorry Isn’t Enough, they outline five apology languages as:
1. Express regret. This means showing we are genuinely sorry for our actions. The words “I am sorry” are crucial, alongside acknowledging what we have done.
2. Accept responsibility. Instead of making excuses or trying to justify our actions, we should show that we own our mistake or wrongdoing. Instead of “I’m sorry, I have upset you,” we might say, “I’m sorry that I shouted at you; it was my fault.”
3. Making restitutions. Restitutions open communication with the person who is hurt and show that we care. By asking, “What can I do to make it right?” there is a chance to recompense for the hurt that was caused and what may have been lost as a result.
4. Genuinely repenting. Genuinely repenting shows that we will make endeavors to not repeat our actions. Because words alone can be hollow, empty, and meaningless, it helps to exemplify the ways in which we plan to change and not repeat our wrongdoing. An apology becomes more sincere when we provide assurance that we do not intend to repeat our mistake.
5. Requesting forgiveness. I have previously written about forgiveness. What’s key is the awareness that it is a choice that lies with the person who has been hurt. Rather than demanding forgiveness and expecting it, it’s crucial to impart an apology with humility and openness. There’s a good chance that the other person may not want to forgive or feel ready to do so.