How (and Why) to Effectively Apologize

by Ariela Paulsen
Mighty Well | Apology Languages

After a year of restrictions, quarantine, and everything virtual, life returning to “normal” seems to be drawing closer.  While this news is a source of joy and relief, it is also a source of anxiety for many.  So common, in fact, that it has been named reopening anxiety” or “reentry anxiety.”  Mental health experts worry that our reliance on technologies like video chatting will make it difficult to return to the vulnerability of in-person socializing — making eye contact, showing our full expressions maskless, sitting close to others… we may need some extra courage and patience as we relearn these social skills.  Those of us who have barely ventured outdoors during this time may even notice that our personal quirks have become more eccentric.  Social norms like showering daily, wearing jeans, and using an indoor voice have fallen out of habit.

So, as we begin to venture back into society, through the lens of heightened anxieties and unlearned social habits, it’s important to remember the importance of good communication.  Acknowledging our anxiety will help normalize it for the many others who likely feel the same.  Clearly and honestly sharing our boundaries (as they rapidly change and constantly realign) will help protect our sense of safety and ensure our needs are met, without offending others.  Sharing with trusted friends when things don’t go well will help ease embarrassments before they blossom into shame.

One form of communication that doesn’t often get talked about is apologizing.  When we blunder — and let’s face it, we will — it is important to acknowledge any harm done so that we can move forward together.  As a society, we often fall into unhealthy apology habits: 

  • over-apologizing for things that actually aren’t our fault, like speaking our truths or standing up for our needs
  • backhanded apologies used to prove a point or make someone else feel bad, rather than to acknowledge our own wrongdoing and repair relationships
  • non-apologies like buying someone a gift or complimenting them as a way to say “I’m sorry and want to make you feel better”… but without ever admitting you did anything wrong or actually saying you’re sorry

Why is it so difficult to apologize?  We’re taught how as young children and certainly make enough mistakes to have opportunities to practice.

Truly apologizing, admitting you’ve done harm and that you feel genuinely sorry, requires deep vulnerability.  In a world that celebrates personal strength, being stoic and independent, that vulnerability feels really scary.  

While we’re still in our COVID cocoons, try practicing apologies.  With just the people closest to you, let them know you’re going to work on it, and maybe they’ll join in with you!  Ask them to be supportive and respectful of your vulnerability.  Looking for a little more guidance?  You’re in luck!  The creators of the five love languages have also created apology languages, because it turns out we don’t all seek the same type of apology.  Consider taking their free quiz and asking those you love to share with you what type of apology they prefer.  Below are the five types.  While we all crave some types more than others, remember that some situations may call for a different kind of apology, and combining two or three strategies in one go can help cover your bases:

expressing regret

This means tapping into the feelings of sadness that come from causing harm to someone you care about and letting the other person know you feel it.  It’s helpful to be specific about what the harm was, and not justifying or ending with “but…”

Examples

I’m so sorry I canceled last-minute.  I know how excited you were and I feel awful knowing how sad you must have been!

I’m sorry I lost my temper and said such hurtful things to you.

accepting responsibility

Similar to expressing regret, what sets this one apart is an explicit acknowledgement of responsibility or fault.  It doesn’t necessarily include “I’m sorry” or a statement of feelings, but rather lets the person know that you see how your actions impacted the situation.

Examples:

I was wrong to assume you wouldn’t mind.

I should have managed my time better so that I wouldn’t leave you hanging.

making restitution

People who speak this language need to hear how you’re going to make it better.  Sure, you feel bad.  Great that you understand how your actions caused harm.  But harm was done — how are you going to make it right?  Acknowledge that damage was done and therefore needs some sort of repair before things can go back to normal.  If there’s a clear action that would fix the situation — like physically replacing something that was broken or paying for the ticket of a missed event — you can offer that as a way to recognize and repair what was done.  If it’s not so clear cut, asking them what would help make it better lets them express what they need.

Examples:

How can I make it up to you?

I know I messed up but I do really value our relationship.  Can I take you out to dinner tomorrow so that we can spend some time reconnecting?

genuinely repenting

To show genuine repentance, you need to be willing to change.  How are you going to ensure that you don’t cause this same harm again later?  Setting up a plan for change and sharing it with the other person helps ease their fear of future harm, and it shows that you’re taking it seriously.  There is room here to acknowledge that change takes time, and that they can hold you accountable.  Note: this only works if you actually follow through!

Examples:

I know I’ve been really unreliable.  I’m working on writing things down and following through with what I say I’m going to do.

I’m working on my temper, but sometimes I stop thinking clearly enough to change my behaviors.  If you notice me getting mad, feel free to ask me to take a breather.  It helps me reset and create better patterns.

requesting forgiveness

For some people, apologies don’t sound sincere unless they end with asking for forgiveness.  People who don’t fall into this category often leave it out, and are then confused when their apology isn’t accepted.  In some cases, people may not ask for forgiveness because they actually feel so badly that they don’t believe they deserve forgiveness yet.  Finding out someone you love craves this kind of apology can help you both move on quicker.

Examples:

I can’t believe I just did that.  Can you forgive me?

I don’t even feel like I deserve your forgiveness yet, but I hope to make it up to you.  Do you think you’ll be able to forgive me someday?


If we all practice before things reopen in earnest, we’ll be better prepared when the time comes.  We won’t be adding the anxiety of a new skill (one that requires so much vulnerability) with the anxiety of change and uncertainty.  We’ll be one step closer to getting back to the relationships that make life beautiful!

Want more? Sign up for our newsletter here!

You may also like