A genuine, heartfelt apology is a powerful step toward mending hurt feelings and finding a resolution. A half-assed apology, on the other hand, can be worse than none at all.
The difference between a sincere apology and cheap one has a lot to do with how it’s phrased. Word to the wise: If you say “sorry” and then immediately follow it with a conditional word like “but” or “if,” you’re headed in the wrong direction.
We asked therapists to share the phrases you should avoid when trying to apologize to a friend, family member, significant other or pretty much anyone, for that matter. Here’s what they had to say.
1. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“Even though this phrase begins with the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ it is not a real apology. It does not take ownership of any wrongdoing. It does not communicate remorse for your actions, and it does not express any empathy towards the other person’s feelings. Instead, it may imply that you think the other person is being irrational or overly sensitive. Try to understand and take responsibility for how your actions or words hurt the other person, saying something like, ‘I’m sorry that I canceled our plans at the last minute. It was inconsiderate of your time and I understand why you are angry at me.’” ― Gina Delucca, clinical psychologist at Wellspace SF
2. “I’m sorry I said that, but I never would have if you hadn’t behaved the way you did.”
“Again, we are hearing blame. ‘Look what you made me do.’ This is not an apology for one’s behavior but actually a maneuver to hold the other person responsible for one’s behavior. In other words, ‘You caused me to say this to you.’ We are all responsible for our behavior, no matter what the other person says or does. A heartfelt apology is to recognize the pain we cause and own our behavior: ‘I’m sorry that I reacted the way I did and upset you.’” ― Carol A. Lambert, psychotherapist and author of Women with Controlling Partners
3. “I was stressed out!” (or tired…or hungry…)
“This makes a recurrence of the offense almost inevitable. Always connect the apology to the future. For example, ‘The next time I feel that way (whatever triggered the offense), I will remember that I love you and that our bond is so important to me,’ or, ‘I’ll make sure I get centered in my values so I don’t act on impulse.’ The subtext should always be: ‘I’m sorry that I hurt you and harmed the bond between us.’” ― Steven Stosny, psychologist and author of Love Without Hurt
4. “I said I’m sorry already, why can’t you just let it go?”
“Blaming your partner for not immediately accepting your apology, forgiving you and moving on is unrealistic and unfair. For an apology to be effective, it must be clear that: 1) You accept full responsibility for your actions and inactions; 2) You are sincerely sorry for anything you’ve done to cause pain and 3) That you want to remedy the situation by giving your partner what they need to feel safe in order to move on and forgive you. Not all apologies lead to immediate forgiveness. It may take time. And it may take apologizing more than once. Start by asking what your partner needs in order to trust you and feel safe and then do it.” ― Sheri Meyers, marriage and family therapist and author of Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love and Affair-Proof Your Relationship
5. “I was reacting to…”
“This is an excuse, not an apology.” ― Stosny
6. “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“This is an example of a conditional apology that doesn’t truly acknowledge any remorse or personal responsibility. By using the word ‘if,’ you are communicating that the problem isn’t really about what you did, but is about how the person reacted to what you did instead. Essentially, this type of ‘non-apology’ places the blame back onto the person it’s directed at. Simply remove the word ‘if,’ and your apology can take on a whole new meaning: ‘I’m sorry I offended you. I will make sure to be more considerate and careful with my words in the future.’” ― Tara Griffith, marriage and family therapist and the founder of Wellspace SF
7. “I may have done this, but you did that!”
“Try to avoid keeping score and bringing up times when the other person was in the wrong. An apology is about you acknowledging the wrongfulness of your own actions and making amends; it is not about pointing fingers at other people as a way to justify your actions.” ― Delucca