“Sorry!” My toddlers would bark at one another when I’d direct them to apologize.

“Not like that…that’s not apologizing.” I’d respond, followed by further directives on delivering a proper one.

But it’s safe to say that even as adults, we sometimes struggle with saying “I’m sorry.” 

Here’s why.

When you apologize, you’re putting your worst behavior out there in the great wide open. This is why sometimes it can be hard to make it happen. According to psychologist Karina Schumann, transgressors often view an apology as threatening to their self-image and consequently hesitate to offer one.

So simply simple, yet many apologies are often given completely wrong.

We use the wrong tone, we add a condition, we qualify. True apologies are simple, mindful, and contain 3 parts.

Be willing to apologize. Proper apologies have three parts:

1) What I did was wrong.

2) I’m sorry that I hurt you.

3) How do I make it better?

It’s the third part that people tend to forget. Apologize when you screw up and focus on other people, not on yourself. — – Randy Pausch

Let’s start with when you apologize

This isn’t hard. If you feel in your gut that what you did may have hurt someone, go ahead and apologize. 

If that doesn’t seem to be happening, but you still feel a little inkling of ew, maybe it would help to identify if what you did would hurt you in the same situation. 

If it feels yukky when you imagine it happening to you, apologize.

Ah, time to own it

Here we go. Some form of admitting that you were wrong. Owning fault is an unnatural phenomenon for us. Our brains prefer to think we’re always doing the right thing. We prefer the unicorn and rainbows view of ourselves, so when faced with evidence that challenges that, we naturally will have an aversion to that view.

According to social psychologist Elliot Aronson, co-author of the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), our brains believe that we’re always doing “the right thing” despite our behavior showing the contrary.

Take responsibility and own it, genuinely. Disingenuous ownership is easily noticed.

Say it. And only it.

It’s very tempting to apologize with a qualifier. There are many versions of this, here are the greatest hits.

I’m sorry that hurt your feelings. Not cool. You’re not taking responsibility for what you said, only how it was heard. 

I’m sorry, it’s just that…(fill in the blank). No dice. A true apology doesn’t need you to qualify it with some BS reason. Even if there is a reason, this isn’t the time to go there. 

I’m sorry you feel that way. Translation…something is wrong with THEM. That won’t work either. People feel how they feel, and no one gets to judge another’s feelings or emotions about something. 

The road back to good

Commonly forgotten is the “what can I do to fix it/make this better?”. It goes without saying that this needs to be sincere, but this piece of the apology is huge. The answer could be anything, and you need to be willing to do it. 

That completes the circle.

From this point on, a number of things can happen. All is forgiven and forgotten, apology accepted, amends made. 

Obviously the best-case scenario.

You may be forgiven but it may still take some time for it to be forgotten. It quite possibly may never be able to be forgotten, or that the bad feelings will continue to linger. That’s ok too. You did your part.

There may even be a reason to believe you’re also owed an apology for their part. That may be true, but you cannot control others and what they do, so it’s best to do your part and move ahead. 

If the urge strikes them, once they are settled, they may decide to apologize as well.


You must have done something really bad, then. 

Not necessarily. 

Sometimes it takes a while for someone to be open enough to accept an apology. This can be frustrating, but it can’t really be rushed. There isn’t much you can do.

Here are some pointers for this eventuality. 

Don’t take the apology back out of frustration. It may feel appropriate or justified, but it’s not. Plus it’s kind of junior high to do that.

Give the person some time away and some distance from you. Don’t do or say much else after the apology. Just stay calm and do your life. And resist the urge to go back and give more apologies or a new version. 

One is plenty.

Live in the how can I make it up to you? zone. Do nice things, act on the answers you were given on how you can get back on track, and stay the course. Things will settle down.

The main ingredient. No substitutions.

Empathy is needed in order for your apology to land sincerely and demonstrate your true regret. Work on being able to truly imagine how they feel and why it would be hurtful.

Apologies aren’t easy, and they will either be accepted, rejected, or some kind of hybrid. But beyond the apology you give, there is nothing more you can do other than wait for things to smooth out.

The waiting is the hardest part.

?P.S. — Wanna know how to get on track with a daily self-care practice in midlife?

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