What makes the simple act of apology so hard?

Why does a poorly-timed apology make matters worse?

When I explain why the wrong happened, is that a justification to get me off the hook?

Should I apologize when I don’t feel sorry?

Why should I take all the blame by apologizing when the other person is even more to blame?

Why isn’t it enough to just say “I’m sorry”?

When is it not a good idea to apologize?

What’s wrong with demanding an apology?

What needs to be in an apology for it to be complete?

Does love really mean “never having to say you’re sorry”?

Is the first one to apologize showing weakness?

Does apologizing mean you are guilty of an offense?

These are a few of the questions surrounding the touchy and sometimes complicated world of apology. As children we are often taught to say we are sorry when we don’t feel sorry. We learn that if we refuse to apologize, things are going to get worse. We may feel righteous indignation at the idea of apologizing, convinced that the other was at fault, not us. To add to our sense of injury, the adult(s) involved may not even care who was right, who was wrong. They simply want the matter resolved and they see an apology as a public act of contrition that the other party is obliged to accept, thus putting the dispute to rest.

Alas, the world does not always work that way. Sometimes the apology is given in a tone of voice that merely heightens the acrimony. Lack of genuine remorse from the offender is easily felt by the aggrieved person. Sometimes the apology is followed by minimization of the offence, or detailed justification. These kinds of responses erase the value of the apology and can easily create more inter-personal distance. If the apology is given too quickly in an attempt to convince the offended person to “just get over it”, its value is lost.

There are many ways to deliver an incomplete apology and certain expressions or turns of phrase mark it as such. Here are a few examples:

“If I did something to offend you, I am sorry.”

“I am sorry you feel that way”.

“It’s unfortunate that you took it so hard”.

“ I’m sorry you got so upset about it”.

None of these apologies show the speaker taking responsibility. They don’t acknowledge what was done or said that caused offense, they merely show regret that offense may have happened.

Aaron Lazare, MD, head of Psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School, outlines the steps that need to be present to constitute a complete apology in his book, On Apology[1] . Here are the steps in the context of private rather than public apologies.

  1. Acknowledging the offense.

When we acknowledge we were wrong, both we and the offended party are assured we share certain values. Effective acknowledging includes a fair and complete remembering of what happened and how it was offensive to the other person. “This places high demands on our truthfulness”[2], as there is often temptation to distort or to minimize.

  1. Communicating remorse

If we don’t feel genuine remorse or regret about what happened and our part in it, we may not be ready to apologize. As well, this aspect of an apology entails communication of a resolve not to repeat the offending behaviour. Looking back, the apologizer accepts responsibility for the offense; looking forward, s/he undertakes to avoid repeating the offending behaviour (forbearance).

  1. Explanation

An explanation often helps the injured party understand the context and can go a long way toward mending the torn relationship. “…explanations demystify offenses committed against us by telling us whether an offense was a random act, …how much responsibility we share for the offense and whether we should expect similar offenses in the future”.[3] It is critical that the explanation not be given as an excuse or be seen as an attempt to minimize the harm done. When that happens, again, the value of the apology is lost.

  1. Reparations

Apologies often place us in the position of “one-down”. In order to restore balance to the relationship, the offender may need to offer reparations, either symbolic or real. Sometimes this is the most important aspect of an apology – to completely restore the loss. Other times, it is not enough, because the other critical aspects of apology have not been adequately addressed.

One of the most helpful points of Lazare’s book is the idea that an apology is often the beginning of a negotiation, not the end!


  • Forgiveness does not mean condoning. It does not make it all “ok”. It does not change what the other did. It does change the relationship between the forgiver and what the other person did.
  • It only takes one person to change a relationship between people. When one person shifts in how s/he perceives a matter, the whole relationship shifts.
  • You can’t give what you don’t have. This means we have to stop judging ourselves if we want to be able to stop judging (and forgive) another.
  • When we remain unforgiving (in judgment) we expend a lot of energy in withholding, in holding back, in holding onto anger. If we move to forgiveness, we can tap into all that energy and transform it. It is powerful energy!
  • We need to be specific about what we are forgiving. It may go in stages and small pieces in more complicated relationships. We need to be ready and to work with care. This work is not about accommodating.
  • In order to forgive, we have to let go of being “right”. This can be very hard.
  • The work of forgiveness touches on the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of our being. We need to pay attention at all these levels.
  • The body has a memory. It holds emotional pain as well as emotional blessing. Being unable to forgive affects our physical bodies. As one wise person said: “Holding onto old resentments is like drinking poison and waiting for our enemy to die”.

(Some of these ideas on forgiveness are from the Dalai Lama, (The Dalai Lama’s Book of Wisdom, Thorson’s, London: 1999); Barbara Ashley-Phillips; and the work of Edith Stauffer (Unconditional Love and Forgiveness, Triangle Publishers, California: 1987.)


[1] Lazare, Aaron, On Apology, Oxford University Press, New York: 2004.

[2] Ibid, at p.80

[3] Ibid, at p.120