“Almost any apology that begins with “I’m sorry if...” is a non-apology.” - Harriet Lerner
A few quick words before we begin: I know this article can’t possibly be for everyone because if the past six years specializing in mother-adult child relationships have taught me anything I know not everyone will hear the words “I’m sorry” from their mom. If you don’t know what it’s like to hear these two powerful words from your mom, please know you aren’t alone and that your pain from your relationship with your mom is not invalidated or erased by your mom’s refusal to hold herself accountable for it.
Who is this article for?
This article is for anyone who has ever had a mother and wants to know how to tell if her apology - assuming she ever uttered one - is either a) fake or b) the real deal. Think of it sort of like the Antiques Roadshow, but for mom apologies. And if you’re someone like me who loves all things vintage that show up on the Roadshow, the Mom Apology Roadshow is admittedly a little less - okay a lot less - exciting. But hey, I’m going to go ahead and be my uniquely oddball self so this one should at the very least be interesting.
This article is for you if:
You hope your mom will apologize someday to you and you’re here to get an idea about what to look for when/if she does.
Your mom gave an apology recently and now you’re trying to figure out if she’s being genuine about it or just saying what she thinks you want her to say.
You mom claims she has apologized already but you haven’t FELT that apology and now you’re trying to understand why.
Or maybe your mom has never apologized and you know better than to ever in a million years expect her to, but you’re a good person and you want to learn for yourself all about the various parts of healthy apologies because your mom certainly didn’t teach em’ to you.
Whatever brings you here today, welcome! I’m glad you made it to our little corner of the internet here at the MWP, and I’m beyond grateful for this opportunity to share with you what I have learned as someone who’s entire career focuses entirely on complicated mother-adult child relationships. My sincerest hope is that my words here will be of use to you in your healing journey, whether it includes an authentic apology from your mom or not.
What’s in this article?
In this article I’m giving you the four key themes I work through with my mother wound clients when they want to know if their mom is offering a genuine apology too. To save you a bunch of time, I’ve turned these four themes into four simple questions that you can ask yourself today so you can confidently know whether that apology from your mom is genuine or if it’s just a bunch of empty words she’s parroting from something she read (and probably misinterpreted) on Pinterest. Each of the four questions is followed by the explanations and relevant examples you’ll need to decode your mom’s apology so can make any decisions you to need to make and most importantly so you can get back to living your life!
Everything you'll find in this article comes from my training to be a therapist, from my years in private practice specializing in mother-adult child relationships, and from my work as the founder and director of the Mother Wound Project. While the examples I give are drawn from the lived experiences of real people, any and all identifying information has been changed to assure privacy.
1. Is your mom's apology for her actions or for your feelings?
Chances are you’ve experienced the good old “I’m sorry you feel that way, ma’am” from an actually-not-sorry-at-all AirBnB host or an unsympathetic airline who lost your luggage. But since you’re here reading this particular article I’m going to go ahead and guess you’ve probably had the very unfortunate experience of hearing this poor excuse of an apology from your very own mom too. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. And FWIW the t-shirt never feels good on but it does make for excellent cleaning rags.
Here’s the thing. You were right in your qualms all along. An apology from someone as close and important to you as your mom that focuses on your feelings rather than on her actions (or inactions) isn’t an apology at all. Instead it’s what I have come to refer to in both my private practice and in my work as the founder and director of the Mother Wound Project as a non-apology.
Unlike an authentic apology, the non-apology doesn’t bring with it a sense of relief. In fact, one of it’s all too common hallmarks is actually making you feel even worse than you did beforehand. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times a mother wound client has said to me, “I wish my mom wouldn’t have even bothered to apologize at all,” after receiving a non-apology from their mom.
You’ll know an apology by your mom for your feelings is a non-apology rather than a genuine apology because she’s apologizing FOR you (in this case for your feelings) rather than TO you. Your feelings about the problem are not and never were the problem. The problem is and always was the hurtful thing your mom did. And as for the exhausting but ever present “But she’s your mom!” trope some folks like to throw out, her role of mom in your life isn’t the free pass many would like to think it is. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should accept her non-apology. If anything we should have higher standards for our most important relationships, not lower ones!
In her groundbreaking book Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts psychologist and apology expert Harriet Lerner puts it brilliantly when she says, “A wholehearted apology means valuing the relationship, and accepting responsibility for our part without a hint of evasion, excuse-making, or blaming.”
A non-apology by your mom centered around your feelings about your mom’s hurtful choices can include evasion, excuse-making, blaming, or even a combination of all three. What it’s sure not to include is her taking any responsibility.
If your mom is taking responsibility for her actions and offering an authentic apology rather than attempting to shift the focus onto your feelings with a non-apology that can sound like one or more of the examples below. Notice how the focus is on her part in the problem and not in any way on your feelings/response to it.
Green Flag Apology Statements
“I’m sorry I hurt you.”
“I’m sorry I said that to you.”
“That was wrong of me, and I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t deserve that, and I’m sorry for how I treated you.”
“I never should have done that, and I want you to know I’m very sorry.”
On the flip side watch out for any of these statements, as they are big screeching alarm bells warning you that your mom’s apology is a phony rather than the authentic apology you deserve. Notice how each example presents your feelings/response as the problem rather than her actions.
Red Flag Apology Statements
“I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset.”
“I didn’t realize how sensitive you’d be about this.”
“I’m sorry if you’re mad at me.”
“I’m sorry you took it personally.”
“I’m sorry what I said made you upset.
2. Is a “but” tagging along with your mom's apology?
If you grew up hearing the adults around you saying, “I’m sorry but…” chances are you spent a good chunk of your life thinking that was a normal and healthy way to apologize. I know younger me sure did. But when you really stop and think about it, that little “but” added on in there has never really sat quite right. And it makes total sense. A “but” after an “I’m sorry” signifies to the brain that some sort of an excuse is on the way to cancel out the apology that was said before. That whole “I’m sorry” part? Yeah, it was just for the apologizer’s ego - “I said I’m sorry though! What more do you want?!” - and ultimately meant nothing.
I love how my hero Harriet Lerner puts it when she says, “When “but” is tagged on to an apology it undoes the sincerity.” She even goes so far as to say that when confronted with an “I’m sorry but” we would be wise to directly translate it to, “Given the whole situation what I did is understandable,” and that’s not an apology at all. The “I’m sorry but” non-apology really is the wolf in sheep’s clothing of apologies.
Thinking back to your mom, look out for those “buts.”Abusive parents of all genders and passive aggressive moms in particular are among the most likely to opt for this apology dodge. Unfortunately they can pop up anywhere in an apology, but once you know how to look for them it gets easier. To help get you started here’s some of the more common ones I hear about from my mother wound clients.
Red Flag Apology Statements
“I’m sorry, but I only said that because of what you said”
“I’m sorry, but I was really tired”
“I’m sorry, but lots of mothers do that”
“I’m sorry, but it was just a joke”
“I’m sorry, but why is this such a deal?”
Although it’s not a perfect 1:1 correlation, there are some phrases you can listen for in your mom’s apology that I’ve found decrease the likelihood that a mom is thinking of going for the “but” to get out of taking responsibility and being sincere with her apology. Here’s several examples.
Green Flag Apology Statements
“I’m sorry I said that, and I’m going to be taking steps to not say that in the future.”
“I’m sorry, and I want you to know that was wrong of me.”
“I’m sorry, and even though I was trying to be funny what I did wasn’t in any way okay.”
“I’m so sorry. What do you need from me to help you heal from what I did?”
“I’m sorry. Yes, I was drinking when I said that and that’s still not an excuse for my actions.”
3. If repair is possible is your mom offering it?
Not all apologies can include repair as not all mistakes can be repaired. No mom can go back in time and unsay those harsh words she said. No mom can rewind the clock and choose not to use “spanking” (aka hitting) instead of gentle support and guidance. No mom can un-miss the big moments she wasn’t there for.
Time doesn’t heal wounds, but there is still something it can do for you on your mother wound healing journey if you would like it to. When repair can’t be part of an apology from your mom but it is important to you to see how genuine her apology is (or is not) time is there to offer critically important opportunities. On the one hand your mom, the apologizer, gets opportunities to demonstrate to you the sincerity of her apology with sustained changed behavior and on the other hand you, the hurt party, get opportunities to verify whether or not your mom’s apology is in fact sincere by noting the presence or absence of sustained changed behavior on her part.
So what about all those times in mother-adult child relationships when repair is possible? What can you do then? When repair is possible, this is your cue to pay very close attention. If your mom is genuinely sorry for her mistake(s) in her relationship with you then she will take the necessary steps to offer repair to you to whatever extent she possibly can.
When I share this with my mother wound clients they very often ask, “What sorts of apology situations can include repair?” Here are several examples of some common mother-adult child relationship situations where repair is possible.
Your mom lost something of yours. To provide you with repair she can:
a) Find the item of yours she lost.
b) Buy you a replacement of the item she lost.
Your mom broke something of yours. To provide you with repair she can:
a) Fix the broken item.
b) Buy you a replacement of the item she broke.
You suffered trauma or mental illness due to your mom’s parenting choices, neglect and/or abuse. To provide you with repair she can:
a) Offer to cover your therapy/treatment costs upfront in full.*
b) Offer to cover your therapy/treatment costs upfront in part.*
c) Offer to cover your therapy/treatment costs either in full* or in part* spread out over time (think of it sort of like a paid subscription, Affirm, or a loan).
d) Offer to account for the cost of your therapy/treatment in her will and/or your inheritance.*
*Every mom’s financial status is different. Some moms are very poor while some moms are very wealthy. What a wealthy mom can financially provide for repair will obviously be very different from what a poor mom can provide. The key here is not to compare what one mom can give versus what another mom can give but to compare what your mom is willing to give with her own financial reality. The billionaire mom who won’t give a penny over $1000 towards her child’s healing is VERY different from the $40k a year mom who contributes $10 to her child’s healing whenever she possibly can. Unfortunately moms like the stingy billionaire mom are a whole lot more common than most people think (the stinginess part not the extreme wealth part). If you’re mom is being selfish simply for the sake of being selfish, pay attention to that. Obviously adult children cannot force their mom to contribute to their efforts to heal from the pain she caused them, but they can recognize her character for what it really is when she chooses to buy something fun for herself instead of making amends for her mistakes. If you’re confused on all this or just looking for a quick guide, try this. If your mom can afford a new TV, get her hair and nails done, or go on vacation she can afford to put money towards your therapy/treatment costs at least in part. If she can do all three, then she should be helping you a whole lot more.
4. Does your mom express genuine remorse with her apology?
For this one there are general rules of thumb rather than hard and fast rules. This is because what communicates remorse or regret to one person might seem forced, fake or even insincere to another. And if you read this question and said, “What remorse??” do not pass go but do send your mom to apology jail. Her apology is actually a non-apology.
As you already know, there is nothing intrinsically magical when a mom or anyone else for that matter says the words “I’m sorry.” What makes these two little words meaningful (or sometimes better off left unsaid) is HOW they are expressed.
And before you listen to any likely well-intentioned friend or family member who comes rushing in to say, “Well she sounds genuine to me!” keep in mind that their opinion on this is not the opinion that matters. Yours is. After all, they aren’t the person wronged by and now receiving the apology from your mom. YOU are.
When I talk about this in counseling sessions with my mother wound clients, with the MWP community on Instagram, or over in The MWP Academy, I have found that many find it helpful to think of it like "The Five Love Languages." This isn’t surprising given that Gary Chapman, author of the original bestselling book The Five Love Languages, wrote The Five Languages of Apology, too.
If you’re new to Chapman’s work or to the idea, here’s how it works: Just like what communicates love to one person can be very different from what communicates love to another - say physical touch versus quality time - the same can be said of apologies. For example, a sibling might need to hear your mom say “I never should have done that to you when you were little,” to experience her apology as genuine whereas you might need your mom to really empathize with your feelings about the past to know her apology is sincere.
Regardless of individual preferences, the bottom line is this: Nobody wants an apology that comes without a heartfelt expression of genuine remorse. So go ahead and trust yourself on this. You already know deep down if your mom seems genuinely sorry about what she did and truly remorseful about it.
Although the sincerity of someone’s remorse is often communicated by tone of voice and/or by body language, sometimes it can be expressed just as well in words too. For an apology offered over text to be authentic it will need to include words and perhaps even emojis to express remorse, as obviously tone and body gestures don’t come through over text. If your mom is offering you an authentic apology her words might sound like one or more of the examples below.
Green Flag Apology Statements
“Thank you for telling me how my actions impacted you.”
“I know I can’t undo the past and change what I did, but I still wish I could”
“If I could go back in time and do things differently I would”
“Your feelings about this are valid”
“I’m so incredibly sorry to you for what I did. You deserved so much better”
Just like with the Green Flag Apology Statements above, a lack of remorse can often be communicated through tone of voice and/or body language, too. When it is conveyed with words by a non-apologizer mom it might sound like these next examples.
Red Flag Apology Statements
“You aren’t still upset about that are you?”
“Lots of people have it so much worse!”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing”
“Here we go again”
“I guess I’m just an awful mom then!"