Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a bad apology?
- “Sorry, geez. I didn’t know it was going to be such a big deal.”
- “I’m sorry, but you really shouldn’t be so sensitive.”
- “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I was just messing around.”
- “I’m sorry that happened, but, you know, it really wasn’t my fault.”
More than likely, you’ve probably made a subpar apology yourself a time or two.
That’s absolutely normal. Apologizing can be tough, even when you genuinely regret making a mistake or causing someone pain.
Admitting a wrongdoing generally isn’t easy — especially when doing so means acknowledging that you hurt someone you care about.
You want to make amends, but you might feel unsure about how. You might also worry about saying the wrong thing and making matters worse.
Here’s the good news: Learning to make a sincere apology isn’t as difficult as it might sound, and we’re here to guide you through the process. The 8 tips below will help you craft a natural, heartfelt apology to anyone in your life.
To make a good apology, you’ll want to first have a good understanding of where you went wrong.
Regret is a key element of effective apologies, but you’ll probably find it difficult to express sincere regret when you don’t know what you regret doing.
“I’m sorry for whatever I did wrong,” and similarly generic apologies usually fall pretty flat — but they can also lead to more conflict.
Recalling your mistake may not feel all that pleasant, especially when you know you hurt someone. If you already feel guilty or disappointed in yourself, you might even avoid thinking about it entirely.
Remember, though: No matter how bad you feel, the other person likely feels worse. Failing to acknowledge their pain does them further injustice.
Here’s an example:
Your roommate seems irritated, but you aren’t sure why they’d be mad. After giving it some thought, you notice a large box in the doorway and suddenly remember you promised to help rearrange their bedroom furniture to make room for a new bookshelf. You immediately go to their room to apologize.
“I just realized I forgot about helping you move your furniture. I’m so sorry. Work has been a little overwhelming lately, and it completely slipped my mind. I know you wanted to get that done as soon as possible. Can I help you with it right now?”
Not sure exactly how you messed up? It happens, especially when you don’t know someone all that well. It’s OK to ask how you gave offense. Just know that some ways of asking are better than others.
- “All right, what did I do this time?”
- “What’s wrong with you today?”
- “I’ve noticed our interactions have been a little different lately. Did I do something to cause that?”
- “Things seem a little off between us, and I’d like to fix that. I’m wondering if I did anything to cause that distance?”
Then, really listen to what they have to say.
Apologies that contain qualifiers or justifications typically won’t get the job done.
Hint: Following “I’m sorry” with “but” is never the way to go.
When you rationalize your actions, you’re essentially passing the blame to another person. This sends the message that you don’t think you did anything wrong and gives your apology a ring of superficiality.
Even honest justifications can negate the sincerity of an apology you really mean.
Say you’re apologizing to a co-worker for failing to complete a group assignment: “I’m sorry I didn’t finish my share of the project by the deadline, but I just can’t keep up with this workload.”
That might be completely true. Still, the elements missing from your apology may leave your co-worker with some lingering hurt feelings.
Instead, you might say:
“I’m sorry I didn’t finish my share of the project by the deadline. I know that makes you look bad, too, so I’ll explain what happened and let everyone know it was entirely on me. My workload last month completely buried me, but I’ll ask for help sooner next time.”
Acknowledging your mistake can go a long way toward helping you convey remorse, but don’t stop there. A sincere apology also involves empathy for the person you hurt, and it’s important to acknowledge the pain your actions caused. (Here’s where a good understanding of your actions will come in handy.)
Consider this apology:
“I shouldn’t have commented on your hijab. I was curious about your religion, but that’s no excuse for making a disrespectful comment. I didn’t consider how that remark might make you feel, and I’m sorry for hurting you and making you uncomfortable.”
You’ll notice it contains an explanation: “I was curious about your religion.”
Recognizing the difference between explanations and justifications can help you make a much more sincere and effective apology.
To contrast, here’s a justification to avoid:
“I’m sorry for asking about your hijab, but I was just curious. I didn’t realize it would bother you so much.”
Unlike justifications, explanations provide some context around your actions. This context lets the other person know you didn’t intend to hurt them. It can also emphasize how you intend to prevent the situation in the future.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you when you asked me about work. My mom was giving me a hard time earlier about looking for a new job, so I was already stressed. But that’s no excuse to take it out on you, and I’ll work on managing my stress better.”
Keeping explanations brief and to the point can help you avoid taking them too far and turning them into excuses.
Sure, you didn’t intend to hurt anyone.
Still, at the end of the day, your intent often matters less than the impact of your actions.
You lied to your best friend about their partner’s cheating because you wanted to protect them. But, by holding back this information, you denied them the chance to make an informed decision about the relationship. You also betrayed their trust, which caused them even more pain.
When you apologize, you might mention you only wanted to protect them, but you’ll want to follow up this explanation by acknowledging that your dishonesty ended up doing the exact opposite. Your apology should center on the pain you caused them, not the good intentions behind your actions.
The person you wronged deserves the chance to share their own feelings, so recognizing the impact of your mistake often involves some empathic listening. This may feel uncomfortable, but it’s an important step toward showing remorse.
Effective apologies involve an effort to begin repairing the situation.
Sometimes, reparative behavior is pretty clear. Such as:
- If you borrowed your sister’s car without asking and got it filthy inside and out, your apology might involve paying to have it cleaned and detailed.
- If you rushed through a work assignment and gave your supervisor a report containing incorrect information, you might commit to staying late to fix your mistakes.
Other times, you might need to ask, “What can I do to make things right?” Then, show them you truly regret your actions by doing what they ask.
Generally speaking, the apology should fit the mistake. Excessive reparations or behavior that goes above and beyond what they asked of you might help ease your guilt, but it won’t necessarily have any benefits for the person you wronged.
It might even lead them to doubt your sincerity — after all, you didn’t listen to their request.
Say someone stole your friend’s bike when you borrowed it and left it unlocked. They send you a link to a secondhand version of the same bike and ask you to purchase it as a replacement.
Instead, you choose an entirely different (and much more expensive) new model in an effort to convey how truly sorry you are. When you give them the new bike, they don’t attempt to hide their disappointment and annoyance.
While you might imagine a lavish gesture, or an apology you repeat every time you see them, shows your extreme contriteness, it can actually have a negative effect. Over-the-top apologies can seem mocking and insincere. They also tend to convey more of your feelings than any recognition of the other person’s pain.
Remember: The apology is for them, not for you.
Requesting forgiveness is an important part of the apology, because it gives the person you wronged some agency in the situation. In other words, asking for forgiveness tells them you don’t assume they’ll automatically forgive you.
The process of forgiveness can take time, and you may need to do some work, like making amends and addressing problematic behaviors, in order to earn it. (Don’t forget the importance of self-forgiveness along the way.)
Keep in mind that forgiveness isn’t guaranteed, no matter how sincere your apology. That said, you’re more likely to earn it by making it clear you’ve truly repented your actions and made a serious effort to change.
Apologies can heal damage in relationships after mistakes or thoughtless behavior. But apologizing when you did nothing wrong, simply to prevent conflict, can affect your sense of self-worth and ultimately damage you.
Here’s something to consider: If a friend, partner, or family member regularly expects you to take the blame for things you didn’t do, they aren’t accepting responsibility for their mistakes or making amends for their wrongs.
You might think offering the first apology will encourage them to do the same, but it’s still best to avoid accepting blame when you aren’t at fault.
One situation where you have nothing to apologize for? Rejecting someone romantically. In fact,
A better option? Be open and kind:
“You’re sweet and funny, and I’ve enjoyed our dates. But we’re at different places in our lives, and I just don’t see this working out long-term. Moving on now gives us both the chance to find who we’re looking for.”
Your apology might begin with words, but it doesn’t end with them.
Once you’ve spoken your apology, you have the opportunity to live it by reaffirming boundaries, working to re-establish trust, and examining your behavior for other opportunities to grow.
These changes, when made with sincerity, can help you earn forgiveness — but they can also help you avoid making the same mistakes again.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.