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41 Lessons About Apologies Your Mom Didn’t Teach You

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

“Mary was determined to be as unlike her mother as possible.” - Harriet Lerner

little girl in glasses

Did your mom skip over the apology part of the parenting syllabus?

Did your other parent maybe miss it, too?

Are you adulting up Conflict Creek without a paddle?

Does the mere thought of saying “I’m sorry” bring up feelings of dread?

If so, you’re 1) definitely not alone, and 2) this blog post was written for you.

In this blog post, I’m giving you 41 lessons on the art of apologies. And we’re not talking about fauxpologies. We’re talking about real deal, authentic, genuine, sincere, and true apologies.

Each of the 41 lessons includes an apology truth and a quote about the apology truth from relationship expert, apology aficionado, and psychotherapist Harriet Lerner.

The adults in charge might’ve dropped the proverbial ball, but thanks to gems like Harriet Lerner and healing tools like self-parenting, it’s never too late to learn how to apologize, what an authentic apology looks like, and how to make sense of the stubborn non-apologizer.

Without further ado, I give you the 41 apology lessons!

1. Choosing not to apologize can end a relationship

“A genuine apology can be deeply healing, while the failure to listen well and apologize can sometimes lead to the loss of a relationship.” - Harriet Lerner

2. Genuine apologies leave out the loopholes

“A good apology includes the words “I’m sorry” without “ifs,” “buts,” or any manner of undoings, obfuscations, and the like.” - Harriet Lerner

3. An authentic apology is a gift

“A heartfelt apology allows the hurt party the space to explore the possibilities of healing instead of just struggling to make sense of it all.” - Harriet Lerner

4. We can’t apologize without self-compassion

“A heartfelt apology for serious wrongdoings can only be offered by those who can see their mistakes as part of being human, and who can hold on to a big picture of their multifaceted, ever-changing self.” - Harriet Lerner

5. Heartfelt apologies focus on the hurt party

“A heartfelt apology is not about you. If your intention is to offer a genuine apology, it’s the hurt party’s anger and pain that matters. Save yours for a different conversation.” - Harriet Lerner

6. To give a good apology, ditch the “if”

“Almost any apology that begins with “I’m sorry if...” is a non-apology.” - Harriet Lerner

7. Accountability is a must for any wholehearted apology

“A wholehearted apology means valuing the relationship, and accepting responsibility for our part without a hint of evasion, excuse-making, or blaming.” - Harriet Lerner

8. Apologies are the beginning, not the end

“An apology isn’t the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction.” - Harriet Lerner

9. Apologizing well means apologizing for what’s ours

“An authentic apology doesn’t mean that we passively accept criticisms that we believe are wrong, unjust, and totally off the mark.” - Harriet Lerner

10. We aren’t owed a return on our apology

“Another fine way to ruin an apology is to view your apology as an automatic ticket to forgiveness and redemption, that is, it’s really about you and your need for reassurance. “I’m sorry” shouldn’t be viewed as a bargaining chip you give to get something back from the injured party, like forgiveness.” - Harriet Lerner

11. Magic wands and apologies are two different things

“Apologies often need their own time and space to take hold.” - Harriet Lerner

12. True apologies don’t demand forgiveness

“But a true apology does not ask the other person to do anything—not even to forgive.” - Harriet Lerner

13. Don’t infantilize the wrongdoer

“While shaming isn’t useful, neither is it useful to allow the wrongdoer to rely on excuses and psychological rationalizations. If we view the offending party as one who has no agency, choice, or will, he loses the opportunity to be truly accountable for his behavior.” - Harriet Lerner

14. Hearing the hurt party’s anger is a good thing

“Words of apology, no matter how sincere, will not heal a broken connection if we haven’t listened well to the hurt party’s anger and pain.” - Harriet Lerner

15. Before you apologize, first remember your worth

“For an individual to look squarely at his or her harmful actions and to become genuinely accountable, that person must have a platform of self-worth to stand on.” - Harriet Lerner

16. Having self-compassion eases our defensiveness

“When we have lost sight of our value and worth, defensiveness is where we live.” - Harriet Lerner

17. An apology doesn’t burden the other person

“If the hurt party starts feeling the need to make you, the offending party, feel better, take it as a signal to tone down the emotionality and dial back your defensiveness.” - Harriet Lerner

18. Childhood trauma makes apologizing harder

“If we’ve been shamed as children, we may have an especially difficult time tolerating the adult experience of being wrong. Simply acknowledging a mistake with the requisite “I’m sorry” can boot us back to the unbearable experience of childhood shame.” - Harriet Lerner

19. Accepting our imperfection helps

“When we adopt an attitude of terminal seriousness about our mistakes—or we equate mistakes with being unworthy, lesser, or bad—it’s more difficult to admit error and apologize for being wrong.” - Harriet Lerner

20. Apologies given are apologies modeled

“If you don’t offer a heartfelt apology to your child when it’s due, why should your son or daughter apologize to you?” - Harriet Lerner

21. Forced apologies are not authentic apologies

“If you shame someone in a lesser position of power, it can lead that person to conform, obey, and give the obligatory apology. But shame will not inspire reflection, self-observation, and personal growth.” - Harriet Lerner

22. Saying “I’m sorry” is loving

“I’m sorry’ are the two most healing words in the English language. When they are spoken as part of a wholehearted apology, these words are the greatest gift we can give to the person we have offended.” - Harriet Lerner

23. Genuine apologies are often uncomfortable

“I’m sorry” won’t cut it if it’s insincere, a quick way to get out of a difficult conversation, or followed by a justification or excuse.” - Harriet Lerner

24. Don’t apologize for someone else’s feelings

“I’m sorry you feel that way” is another common pseudo-apology. A true apology keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response.” Harriet Lerner

25. Apologizing to our kids is good parenting

“Indeed, the ability to apologize is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to our kids.” - Harriet Lerner

26. “But” is the apology delete button

“When “but” is tagged on to an apology, it undoes the sincerity.” - Harriet Lerner

27. Shame produces the non-apologizer

“It took me a long time to fully appreciate that the person who feels essentially superior is no different than the person who feels essentially inferior. In both cases it will be challenging for the shame-based person to apologize wisely and well.” - Harriet Lerner

28. Some times it’s harder to apologize than others

“We’re all apology-challenged with certain people and in some situations. Some apologies are easier to offer than others.” - Harriet Lerner

29. Accept an apology by saying “Thank you”

“Many of us dismiss apologies that the other person has gathered the courage to make for the same reason my friend did. We want to end an uncomfortable moment as quickly as possible, even if this means telling the person who is apologizing that it’s nothing, no big deal, and he shouldn’t even think about it. Of course he should and did think about it, or else he wouldn’t be offering the apology.” - Harriet Lerner

30. Everyone wants a sincere apology

“More than anything, the hurt party wants to hear an apology that is heartfelt.” - Harriet Lerner

31. Apologies strengthen our relationships

“We strengthen our relationships when others know that we’re capable of reflecting on our behavior, and that we’ll listen to their feelings and do our best to set things right.” - Harriet Lerner

32. The worse the harm, the more absent the apology

“Most people who commit serious harm never get to the point where they can admit to their harmful actions, much less apologize and aim to repair them.” - Harriet Lerner

33. Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t the finale

“To heal a large hurt, a simple and genuine “I’m sorry” is only a good first step. More needs to follow in order to set things right.” - Harriet Lerner

34. Apology languages are just as real as love languages

“One person may need to hear the offender say, “I was wrong,” in order to feel that the apology is genuine. For another person, “I promise to do my best to ensure it won’t happen again” are the magic words that allow the apology to get through.” - Harriet Lerner

35. Not apologizing creates distance

“Only after we can hear our children’s criticism and anger, and are open to apologizing for the inevitable hurts and mistakes that every parent makes, can we expect to be truly heard by them.” - Harriet Lerner

36. Don’t be the non-apologizer

“Perhaps the most painful issue in the apology lexicon is coming to terms with the nonrepentant wrongdoer.” - Harriet Lerner

37. Giving heartfelt apologies is pivotal to healthy relationships

“The courage to apologize, and the wisdom and clarity to do so wisely and well, is at the heart of effective leadership, coupledom, parenting, friendship, personal integrity, and what we call love. It’s hard to imagine what matters more than that.” - Harriet Lerner

38. Defensiveness is part of the apology process

“There is no greater challenge than that of listening without defensiveness, especially when we don’t want to hear what the other person is telling us.” - Harriet Lerner

39. Authentic apologies aren’t one and done

“The words “I want you to know that I’m going to keep thinking about what you’ve told me” are an often neglected and truly important part of a healing apology.” - Harriet Lerner

40. Don’t over-apologize

“Watch out for meaningless over-apologizing. Save your apologies for things that matter.” - Harriet Lerner

41. Never apologize for who you are

“We can apologize for what we do. We cannot apologize for who we are.” - Harriet Lerner

Looking for more Harriet Lerner goodness? Check out these resources:

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