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It’s time we all learned the 5 rules for apologizing like an adult

“There’s no ‘but’ after ‘I’m sorry” was my mom’s favorite axiom throughout my childhood. She meant, of course, that atonement should never come with an excuse tacked on the end. My sister and I rolled our eyes each time she recited her mantra, but eventually we learned to say our sorries in three syllables. Mom wasn’t wrong. According to psychologist Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a member of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, that’s how to apologize like an adult.

First, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what constitutes an “I’m sorry.” Psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, says it’s pretty straightforward. “An apology is when you recognize that you’ve done something that hurt someone or caused them trouble. It can be anywhere between something little, like ‘Sorry I forgot to put more paper in the printer,’ to a public apology for actions that hurt a lot of people, like a celebrity or brand doing something culturally insensitive,” she explains. (I don’t know about you, but I can think of a few public figures who could stand to join the latter category.)

“To apologize authentically, we have to take a hard look at who we are in that situation.” —Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Feeling the need to make amends can be sparked by different circumstances, but most of the time, Dr. Daramus says it comes down to putting a Band-Aid on the gaping wound of a hurt relationship. “We apologize to heal relationships that are important, to preserve our own reputation, and to let ourselves and others move on after a mistake or a rupture in a relationship,” she tells me. “It’s really difficult because to apologize authentically, we have to take a hard look at who we are in that situation.” Facing up to what you’ve done, or to go even deeper and consider why you harmed someone, can be a reflective exercise that borders on painful. Apologies are one of those cases where the only way out is through.

How to apologize (and mean it)—according to psychologists

Dr. Irwin tells me that the only thing that should come after “I’m sorry” is a concise account of your wrongdoings. (Yeah, that’s the hard part.) “Use the person’s name and state simply, clearly, and exactly what you are apologizing for,” she says. “Do not assume they know; there may be multiple facets and parties involved. Be clear.”

According to the website of the Association for Psychological Science, two major studies have demonstrated that not all apologies are created equal. When researchers at Ohio State University and Eastern Kentucky University analyzed the research, they found that the most effective admissions hit on six elements:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Using these as a jumping off point, Dr. Daramus says that all apologies should follow five rules.

1. Keep the focus on your own actions

“Be careful not to blame someone else for your behavior,” warns Dr. Daramus. “Is any sentence that starts with ‘I only cheated on you because’ ever going to work?” Her answer is no.

2. Own your emotions

While heightened feelings certainly don’t give you carte blanche to lash out at everyone within three feet of you, Dr. Daramus says that they can (and should) be part of your apology. “Emotions are legit, even when the actions you took aren’t,” she says. So when you address your bestie in the aftermath of a fight, go with something like, “I was feeling really hurt, but I still shouldn’t have ________.”

3. Give the other person the floor—to an extent

“Give the other person (or people) a chance to express how it affected them, within reason. If you forgot to start the dishwasher, fine, take responsibility for it, but maybe don’t listen to a 20-minute rant about everything that’s wrong with you,” says Dr. Daramus.

4. Apologize with your actions, not just your words.

The two words “I’m sorry” don’t wipe away what you’ve done, particularly if it’s a mistake you’ve found yourself making on repeat. “If you’re making the same mistake over and over, fixing the problem is the best apology,” Dr. Daramus says.

5. Make it a dialogue

Don’t forget that you’re working with your friend/partner/coworker/sister-in-law to come up with a solution. So if you feel yourself slipping into a monologue, stop and collaborate on how the relationship can be led forward.

What not to pair with “I’m sorry”

Okay, so there are a few things you do not want to do when you’re trying to apologize.

1. Don’t play the blame game

To reiterate, an apology isn’t an opportunity to pull the rug out from under someone’s feet and make everything their fault. Take ownership of what you did first, then gently ask the other person to take stock of their own. “At the same time that you need to apologize, it’s ok to ask someone else to take responsibility for their own actions, which is different from blaming them for yours,” says Dr. Daramus.

2. Don’t let the conversation stray away from the solution

We’ve all experienced a fight that devolved into ad hominem attack rather than a conversation oriented toward moving forward. When an apology seems to be headed in that direction, Dr. Daramus says to cut it off and point yourself back in the right direction. “Don’t let anyone use a small mistake as a reason to abuse or degrade you instead of staying solution-focused,” she says.

how to apologize
Photo: Getty Images/Martin Novak

The perfect apology script

Here’s a script from Dr. Irwin.

[Name], I want to apologize for the hurt that I caused you last week. I take full responsibility for the words I said/[X] that I did, and I was wrong. I hope in time you can forgive me, but for now I hope that you will accept my apology. Thank you for listening to me.”

For example:

Paula, I want to apologize for the hurt that I caused you last week. I take full responsibility for eating your avocado, and I was wrong. I hope in time you can forgive me, but for now I hope that you will accept my apology. Thank you for listening to me.”

Or, you know, something like that.

How to move forward if someone does (or does not) accept your apology

In the best-case scenario, your apology will be accepted and all will be sunshines and rainbows. You’ll clear the air, hugs will be exchanged, and hopefully, everyone’s crying with relief. Once you’ve checked off the apology, Dr. Irwin adds that you don’t need to repeat how sorry you are over and over again. It’s best to keep your declaration succinct so that the relationship can move forward.

Unfortunately, making reparations doesn’t always go as planned. The person on the other end is responsible for their own reactions and emotions, thus making them beyond your control. Someone might question why you’re apologizing in the first place. They could react dramatically or throw your apology back in your face.

“Apologizing sincerely when you are in the wrong can actually strengthen a relationship. People feel it makes them look weaker, but the opposite it true.” —Nancy Irwin, PsyD

The possibilities are endless, but Dr. Daramus’ advice remains the same. “Listen to their experience and respect what they need from you. If they need some space, let them have it. If they ask you to do something reasonable to make it up to them, do it. It’s never easy to let yourself feel bad about something,” she says. Again, you should always keep one eye on the solution, even when that means walking away from the apology and giving the other person some space to fume or breathe.

“It takes a lot of integrity and courage to be ‘clean’ in your relationships, whether professional or personal or intimate,” says Dr. Irwin. “Apologizing sincerely when you are in the wrong can actually strengthen a relationship. People feel it makes them look weaker, but the opposite it true.” Vulnerability is a strength—not a weakness.

This post was originally published on March 28, 2019. Updated with additional reporting on September 30, 2019. 

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