Begrudgingly, desperately, softly, sincerely – however you go about it, we all have to make up for the things we’ve done every now and then. But how can we ensure that our apologies have real meaning? With help from psychotherapist Ruth Parchment, we explore what makes a real apology, and the tips you can use to make amends, for good
The importance of apologies is something that’s drilled into us from when we’re young children. Think back – can you remember parents and teachers instructing you to apologise to a friend or sibling following a quarrel? The simple phrase, “I’m sorry,” becomes part of our vocabulary very early on, but how many of us go on to learn how to apologise with real depth?
A study commissioned by PiCKUP! found that the average adult in the UK apologises eight times a day, adding up to 4,380 times a year. Now, not every one of those apologies will be over the big stuff – they’re more likely to be for those accidentally bumps when you’re out and about, being a couple of minutes late for a meeting, or even just saying sorry too many times – but the sheer number of apologies we get through does tell us something about the slight flippancy of the word ‘sorry’.
Ruptures are an inevitable part of connections; we come from different backgrounds, life experiences, values, and perspectives
Think about it: have you ever received an apology from someone else that feels slightly surface-level? Or have you found yourself uttering those words obediently at the end of an argument, without really considering the weight of what you’re saying? The truth is, there’s an art to apologising that a lot of us aren’t taught. But we’re about to change that.
“Unhelpful apologies can happen both intentionally and unintentionally,” explains Ruth Parchment, a psychotherapist with a special interest in forgiveness and authenticity. “They may form patterns of behaviour that are developed over time – an instantaneous reaction to feeling accused of doing something wrong.”
Ruth points to the wise words of Dr Karina Schumann, who has studied apologies and suggests that: “Apologies disrupt our self-image of being a ‘good person’ who is moral, decent, fair, and caring.” When we apologise, we’re faced with feelings of shame and vulnerability – things we might want to mask with shallow words.
But it’s worth working through those uncomfortable feelings. An authentic apology shows that you acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused, which helps build trust and respect – two cornerstones to a healthy relationship.
“Ruptures are an inevitable part of connections; we come from different backgrounds, life experiences, values, and perspectives,” adds Ruth. “Genuine apologies can have a positive impact on your self-esteem and self-confidence.
There’s a sense of relief and integrity that apologies provide.”
So what are the tips and techniques that we can use to start apologising from the heart? Ruth explains:
Common mistakes to avoid
You will have heard these phrases countless times, and may have even fallen back on some yourself. But what exactly is wrong with them, and what are the implications of our words?
Giving a grudging apology.
For example: “OK, just move on, I’m sorry,” or “Fine, I’m sorry.
There I’ve 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 sends a message of not really caring about the harm caused to the person owed 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 verbalising wrongdoing acknowledges the impact of hurtful actions.
Not accepting responsibility.
Words such as “I’m sorry but…” or “It wouldn’t have happened if...” deflect responsibility for the hurt caused and are excuses. Instead of remorse, there’s blame – and a justification for our actions is prioritised.
Giving an in-direct apology.
“I’m sorry that you feel that way,” is another non-apology. There’s an implicit message of the hurt person being hypersensitive or irrational. Instead of admitting to any wrongdoing, it implies that the person’s emotions are the problem, rather than the actions.
Genuine apologies can have a positive impact on your self-esteem and self-confidence
How to apologise constructively
To apologise in a constructive way, Ruth suggests four tips from When Sorry Isn’t Enough, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.
Express regret. This means showing that you are genuinely sorry for your actions. The words “I am sorry” are crucial, alongside acknowledging what you have done.
Accept responsibility. Instead of making excuses, or trying to justify your actions, show that you are owning your mistake or wrongdoing. Instead of “I’m sorry I have upset you,” you might say: “I’m sorry that I shouted at you, it was my fault.”
Make restitutions. Restitutions open communication with the person hurt and show that you care. By asking: “What can I do to make it right?” there is a chance to recompense for the hurt caused, and what may have been lost as a result.
Genuine repentance. Genuinely repenting shows that you will make endeavours to not repeat your actions. Because words alone can be hollow, empty, and meaningless, it helps to exemplify the ways in which you plan to change and not repeat your wrongdoing. An apology becomes more sincere when you can provide assurance that you do not intend to repeat your mistake.
Request forgiveness. What’s key is an 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.
Building bridges, making amends, putting it behind us – isn’t it funny how all the phrases we use around apologies involve an action? When we ask for forgiveness and admit our wrongdoings with purpose and insight, we’re actively making a move towards a kinder, more sympathetic, and honest connection. We won’t say it’ll always be easy, but when it comes to nurturing relationships it’s worth putting the effort into the small things, because it’s better safe than sorry.
Ruth Parchment is a psychotherapist who specialises in CBT and helping people connect with their value.