How to Apologize

Person apologizing“I’m sorry you feel that way” is one of those apologies that don’t exactly leave the person falling all over themselves to forgive you.

If you’re looking for forgiveness, or trying to repair a damaged relationship, there are two elements you can’t afford to leave out of your apology.

What and Why?

An effective apology conveys that…

1. You understand what you did, and

2. You know why it was hurtful/inappropriate/downright wrong.

Notice the “why” in the 2nd part isn’t why you said or did the thing you said or did; it’s why it was hurtful or wrong.

Don’t offer explanations for your actions unless you also address the “what” and the “why” above. They’ll be seen as excuses for poor behavior and won’t help your case.

A good apology starts with “I’m sorry I … ”

A poor apology begins with “I’m sorry you … ” (Unless it’s “I’m sorry you had to put up with MY … “)

Good apologies

“I’m sorry my tone was so harsh when I asked you to do the dishes. I was frustrated and I took it out on you. I shouldn’t have.”

“I shouldn’t have borrowed your car without asking. I’m very sorry.”

“I’m sorry for my part in what happened yesterday. I really regret saying you were behaving badly; looking back on it, I was being a terrible listener.”

With these apologies, you’re taking ownership of your words and actions, which helps to melt the other person’s defenses.

You’re not attacking them, you’re offering validation. You can see things from their point of view. And you’re demonstrating remorse.

Poor apologies

“I’m sorry you felt I was being rude”

“I’m sorry your feelings got hurt.”

“I know I’m not perfect and I’m sorry.”

The first two admit no responsibility, and the third is too vague. “I’m not perfect” isn’t very satisfying to the listener; what did you DO that you regret? They need to know you know this.

Asking for Forgiveness

After you’ve apologized, you’re not quite done yet. Tell the person how important the relationship is to you. No need to make anything up or overdo it.

Here are some examples:

Spouse or partner: “I love you, and I hate hurting your feelings. You’re so important to me.”

Friend: “I value our friendship, and I hope I haven’t damaged it beyond repair.”

Colleague: “I hope I haven’t ruined our working relationship; I think you bring a lot to the team.”

UPS guy or gal, hot dog vendor, cab driver, etc.: There’s no need to affirm a very casual relationship. If it’s borderline, you can always say, “I’m glad we were able to clear the air.”

When you sense that the ice has melted, only then is it appropriate to ask, “Can you forgive me?”

Requesting forgiveness is totally optional. If you don’t need that sort of official seal, don’t worry about it.

But if you offer a fabulous apology, don’t be surprised if the other person feels compelled to say, “I totally forgive you!”

PS. Are you a parent who wants to apologize to your grown child? You’ll find more tips, insights and advice in my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child.

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21 thoughts on “How to Apologize”

  1. I think one thing missing is that you don’t get to have expectations of the person to whom you’re apologizing. If you are sincerely apologizing, that sincerity means you acknowledge the other person gets to process everything in their own time.
    And an apology is not a way to go back to where things were before. It’s a way to go forward.

  2. Very good article, although I want to point out that there are times when apologizing to another can backfire because they take it to mean that you are always wrong, now and forever more. The more I have tried to make things right the angrier they have gotten. I have just had to give up altogether on some people because they take advantage of my guilt about the past. So would you agree that there are times when it is counter-productive to apologize, especialy when the other person takes no responsiblity for her part of the problem?

    • Mary, I think it’s a good rule of thumb only to apologize if you genuinely feel sorry. The person you’re describing sounds like somebody it would be very hard to feel bad about not treating well.

  3. I have a sister who was hurt by my mother her entire life up to 18 because my mother threw her out. I was the good daughter, loved by both parents. My sister is 70 and has never forgiven my mother and brings her up at every conversation even though she has been dead 20 years. When we have an argument and I apologize (it’s usually me) she says what is spoken, cannot be undone and that she is a very wise counselor. She is a former Rosicrucian and because of their teachings seems to sit in judgment on me permanently. She takes monetary help from me and my brother, but when you do or say something she doesn’t like, you become the unforgiven forever, just like our mother. What can I do, if anything to lighten her brain?

    • Pat, it’s hard when loved ones make it difficult for us to love them. It sounds like your sister is one of those people who are so wounded that it’s painful to be in a relationship with them sometimes. You can forgive yourself for any negative emotions you may feel in response to her behavior.

      Wanting your sister to lighten her brain is understandable, for her sake as well as yours. And although trying to change another person is often a fool’s errand, there are a couple of things you can do to encourage change from within.

      Paradoxically, offering her validation exactly as she is can help her see her behavior more clearly than if you were to point out how heavy she’s being. Also, modeling forgiveness, respect, compassion and equanimity may help her develop these herself.

      It sounds like you haven’t given up on her, and that’s terrific. I don’t believe that 70-year-olds are incapable of personal growth. The only reason one might think so is that, statistically speaking, if someone hasn’t changed by that time, they’re not likely to. It doesn’t mean they can’t.

      Thanks for writing. If you choose (and it should be a choice, not an obligation) to help your sister, I wish you both happy results.

  4. Do you have suggestions for how to apologize when you don’t know why the other person is angry? They are obviously hurt by something I did/didn’t do but won’t say what is wrong.

  5. What if it is your child that won’t tell you why they are angry with you and barely talk to you anymore? My daughter is almost 19, she lives at home and suffers from some combination of anxiety and depression. We have been close her whole life. I have loved and supported her in every way I can think of, including getting her counseling whenever she was willing to go. She was attending community college and working and going to counseling when suddenly 6 months ago she broke up with her old boyfriend and started going out with a new boyfriend (who is a few years older (21) barely works, doesn’t go to school, lives at home and has no car). She has now dropped out of school, and barely works. She is angry with me but won’t say why. I have told her that I love her and that if she could tell me why she was angry we could work it out, but she just says she’s not ready to talk to me. Meanwhile, she is quite rude, almost never home, easily upset and offended, has a consistent negative outlook on everything, and takes advantage of me whenever she can especially for things that cost money. I am disappointed, angry and very very sad. I am willing to apologize sincerely if she could tell me what it was for, but what can I do now? Also, how do you apologize if she accuses me of something that is completely and utterly untrue, like emotional neglect? She seems to want to be a victim. — I am making an appointment with a counselor but any other advice would be welcome. Thank you.

    • Jennifer: did Tina ever respond to you? I don’t see a response here and I would love to know what she says. I have a client who is having the same issues with her daughter, and it’s just a horrible situation. I hope and pray that your relationship with your daughter has improved and I’d love to hear an update. Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. What about people who say I apologize “IF” I did anything wrong–as if they don’t know what they did. And to add insult to injury (in my opinion), they texted the apology despite many opportunities to apologize face to face or even over the phone. I’m not trying to be petty, but the perceived cowardice and lack of sincerity coupled with continued bad behavior makes it hard for me to forgive and move on. It really hurts though.
    This is an old post, but I’m hoping for feedback.

    • Celeste, you make an excellent point, especially about “I apologize IF…” Perhaps your words will register with someone who wants to do better with this.

      It takes a certain amount of courage and integrity to offer a good apology. We all have “growing edges,” i.e., room for improvement, in relationships. Thank you very much for your helpful comment.

  7. Looking for guidance and found this through AARP – what about a parent that has decided to distance themself from their children? I am a daughter suffering and welcome any advice – will continue this journey and pray for answers and peace.

    • Rose, I am so terribly sorry to hear that you’ve been on the receiving end of distancing behavior from a parent. If you’ve been offered no explanation for this, all I can tell you is that it’s not your fault.

      It’s never the child’s fault if the parent just doesn’t want to — or can’t — make themselves available to have a relationship with their offspring.

      Some parents who don’t love themselves reject their children simply because they can’t see the child as a separate person. The rejection of the child is a projection of the parent’s own self-hatred. It’s unutterably sad when this happens, but there’s little the child can do about it.

      Other parents may want their children around only to meet their own emotional needs, because those needs weren’t met when they themselves were children. In extreme cases, when children of these parents fail to meet their needs, the parents have no further use for the children, and abandon them.

      There may be other reasons for baseless rejection by a parent, but none of them are the child’s fault.

      If you haven’t already done so, I strongly urge you to seek a course of therapy to begin to work through the grief that goes along with being rejected by a parent. Whatever you do, please remember that it’s not your fault!

      You can seek a counselor or therapist by zip code at

      Wishing you much love. You surely deserve it.

      • Thank you so much for your swift response to my issue – I will seek counseling as you suggest. Your kind words make total sense to me and I will continue to work through this and not let this drag me down for the rest of my life and continue to beat myself up for it. Thanks again from the bottom of my heart and bless you Tina.

  8. Hi there – I’ve found many of these comments and responses helpful. However, I’m still struggling with how to apologise to my estranged daughter for several reasons. One is because I’m still not completely clear about what to apologise for and second because I still feel some anger that it should me having to do the apologising! However, I do know that the second issue is one I need to keep working on. Before this most recent estrangement (it’s been like this for a few years) my daughter blew up at me and told me how stupid my life was because she feels I have no base, no community and no friends. This is because I live overseas quite a bit these days partly because of my work but also because my long term partner lives overseas so I move around a lot. However, this has only happened since she’s been in her 20s and I feel quite happy with my own life choices. Nevertheless, I still try to spend 3-4 months each year back in the city/country where my daughter lives. I guess my real dilemma is if i apologise what am i apologising for? Having a different life than she thinks I should have? Also, my life is unlikely to change because for the foreseeable future my work and partner will still be located overseas! I feel I’ve tried to make the best of a complex situation but obviously she doesn’t feel like that. Help!

    • You’re right, Joanne; it’s extremely hard to apologize when you don’t know what to apologize for. When it comes to your own child, things can be quite complicated indeed. I appreciate what you’re saying about struggling with having to apologize at all. There are plenty of reasons to feel that way, and I can assure you, you’re not alone.

      Sometimes adult children just want more time and/or space to live their own lives; in that case, it may be that no apology is needed. Just more time and/or space. This is especially true when they’re in their 20s and/or recently left home.

      But if you sense that an apology is required, you’ll have to do some detective work. It’s usually something about the present dynamic between you, not just something that happened in the past, or anything as benign as your having “a different life.” There’s a discussion in my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child, of many potentially troublesome dynamics between parents and adult children. That might be a place for you to start.

      One more thing… When a child complains that a parent has too little social support around them (which is one interpretation of your daughter’s complaint), it can be an indication that the child feels responsible for the parent’s emotional well-being, and resents it. There isn’t room or time to go into this here, but if you think it might fit for your situation, you can learn what it takes to repair this perception in the Guide.

      Thank you for taking the time to leave your comment, and all my best to you and your daughter.

  9. Tina – what to do if you have already said a heartfelt, face to face apology which was accepted and you were thanked for…..but then your crime is thrown at you again as if the apology never happened?
    I wonder if this will be seen….


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