Your Health

'I'm sorry': Embracing the most healing words in language

Let’s face it, because we’re human, the possibilities for screwing up are infinite. These range from everyday hurts to big betrayals. How these mistakes impact you and your important relationships depend on what happens next.

Obviously, an apology is required. And while we are told apologies will heal a rift, who hasn’t had the experience of receiving (or offering) an apology that just makes things worse? This one-two punch of causing hurt followed by apologizing with excuses compounds the initial injury.

With the help of Kansas psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, let’s take a look at what will doom your best attempt to offer an olive branch and what leads to healing. Lerner writes about successful and not-so-effective apologies in her latest book, “Why Won’t You Apologize?” (Touchstone, 2017).

Just offering an apology isn’t enough. Some apologies are ineffective, while others are like pouring kerosene on a fire. Basically, bad or nonapologies are our best attempt to defend ourselves from the consequences of our bad behavior, like ignoring the pain we’ve caused or the shame we feel. If “I’m sorry” are the most healing words in the language, then “I’m wrong” may be the most difficult to utter.

Ineffective apologies

Here are some examples of what bad – or unsuccessful – apologies look like.

One common mistake is using “but,” as in “I’m sorry, but ….” The excuse that follows says that you are not really at fault and therefore you are not really apologizing. And don’t need to.

Then there’s the “if” problem. It goes like this: “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings when I forgot to call you,” even though you were a total jerk when you broke your promise. This is a nonapology and doesn’t respect the other person, making matters worse.

Let’s not forget the “what?” apology: “I’m sorry if what I said (or did) made you upset.” What exactly are you apologizing for? Acknowledging specific hurtful behavior helps.

There are plenty of other examples of how to screw up an apology and miss out on the reconnection that follows when a heartfelt apology is offered and received.

The final pseudo-apology example is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” A genuine mea culpa keeps the focus on your actions – not the other person’s response.

Of course, we can’t overlook the plain old nonapology, wherein the offender just can’t admit to doing something wrong. The failure to acknowledge hurtful behavior allows the wound to fester. Distance and disconnection follow.

Effective apologies

An effective, sincere apology, on the other hand, is an antidote to hurt. There is no one-size-fits all apology, but Lerner says the following elements are essential.

• Take responsibility for your actions.

• Admit in a direct, personal and unambiguous manner what you did wrong.

• Acknowledge the pain and hurt you caused. Allow the other person to share his or her pain. Be patient and try not to defend, deny or dismiss. Validate his or her experience.

• Offer restitution. How can you make up for what you did?

• Promise not to do it again. This won’t work if you’ve broken your word before. Include how you will be able to avoid making this mistake or taking this action again.

• No one and done. Be sure to initiate future conversations, checking in on how the person you hurt is recovering. Do not put the pressure of continuing the reconciliation process on the one who was hurt.

• As stated earlier, the best apologies do not include “but,” “if” and any other words that neutralize an apology.

The power of ‘sorry’

What makes apologizing so powerful? It has an impact on the person apologizing, the one accepting and the relationship between the two. By accepting an apology, we can be freed from our pain, resentment or sense of outrage. Our feelings are validated, and this shifts the focus from trying to understand what happened to moving toward healing.

For the one expressing remorse and regret, an apology is a gift to the self. We may fear loss of respect when we confess our shortcomings, but the opposite usually occurs. We can stand taller when we take responsibility for our actions.

Finally, a good apology is a gift to the relationship. It says to both people, “We can make mistakes and still feel secure in our ability to repair the relationship.”

Nancy Andersen, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, provides counseling for couples and individuals in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit


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