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6 Ways to Give An Authentic Apology

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

“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


two friends walking together

I don’t know about you, but in my family of origin, authentic apologies were not modeled by the adults. Instead, what my siblings and I got was a masterclass in the good old fauxpology.


The year was 1989, give or take, when the ad that sold my parents on the fauxpology came trumpeting through the Magnavox TV:

Smarmy ad voice: Are you someone who wants to be able to self-righteously proclaim to your kid, “But I already apologized!” without ever giving them an actual apology? Do you want to think of yourself as a good, morally upright parent who holds themselves accountable without doing the whole accountability thing? Have you tried to avoid apologizing to your kid altogether, but people are starting to suspect you’re an asshole? Introducing Fauxpology, the non-apology for folks who want all the perks that come with apologizing without any of the care or empathy of real apologies.”


My parents: Sold!!


Needless to say, since becoming an adult I’ve needed to do some serious continuing ed on apologies. As it turns out, having healthy relationships and not knowing how to give authentic apologies is like trying to write a blog post without including any words. Who knew?


In this blog post, I’m giving you 6 simple dos and don’ts for offering authentic apologies. These are the same 6 dos and don’ts I share with my counseling clients and use (albeit imperfectly) in my own life. I hope they’ll make your road to apology recovery quicker and a heck of a lot smoother than mine was.


1. Drop the “if”


Relationship expert, apology aficionado, and psychotherapist Harriet Lerner knows what she’s talking about when she says, “Almost any apology that begins with “I’m sorry if...” is a non-apology.”


Have you ever received what seemed like a super heartfelt, genuine apology only to flinch when an “if” came rolling out?

  • “I’m sorry if you’re upset.”

  • “I’m sorry if I was offensive.”

  • “I’m sorry if I bothered you.”

I know I sure have. And I also know I’ve been on the flip side of this fauxpology equation, too. [winces]


As hard as it was to admit to myself (“How many decades have I been getting this wrong?”), that little if matters.


Leaving ourselves some wiggle room

When we tack on an if to our apology, what we’re doing is leaving ourselves an out. And this outcomes at the expense of the person we’re apologizing to.


Of course, this obfuscation serves a purpose—it helps us feel more comfy in the hot seat.


“I might have screwed up, but it’s equally true that I might not have screwed up” is a whole heck of a lot easier to sit with than “I for sure screwed up.”


When our goal is to put a stop to all this fauxpology buck-passing we’ve picked up from our parents and families of origin who either didn’t know or didn’t choose to do better, we’re going to have to turn and face the very discomfort they avoided.


A really great way to begin strengthening our authentic apology muscle is to make the conscious decision to leave out the if.


Yep, toss your ifs right into the compost bin. The worms will love ‘em.


Something I’ve learned from my mother wound clients is that it can help to practice dropping the if in our apologies ahead of time rather than waiting until we’re in the thick of a stressful situation. Here’s some examples to help get you started:

  • Swap “I’m sorry if you’re upset” for “I’m sorry for what I did.”

  • Swap “I’m sorry if I was offensive” for “I’m sorry about what I said.”

  • Swap “I’m sorry if I bothered you” for “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

2. Skip the “but”


"But” is the delete button of apologies.


When an apology starts to feel too uncomfortable, too accountable, too real, we press but. Now everything we said before the but is rendered null and void. The thing is, so is our apology.


Here are some examples of the but in action:

  1. “I’m sorry I said that, but I did it because you made me so upset.”

  2. “I’m sorry I hurt you, but what I did wasn't that bad.”

  3. “I’m sorry about being late, but at least I came at all.”

  4. “I’m sorry for my parenting choices, but it's not a big deal. Lots of moms do that.”

In each of these, the but erases whatever apology came before it. As you read the edited statements (the canceled apology part has been deleted), you’ll find they still convey the same thing as the originals:

  1. "I did it because you made me so upset.”

  2. "What I did wasn’t that bad.”

  3. "At least I came at all.”

  4. "It’s not a big deal. Lots of moms do that.”

"It doesn't matter if the statement you make after the but is true—it makes the apology false," Harriet Lerner says. "It says, in effect, "Given the whole situation, my rudeness (or lateness, or sarcastic tone, or what-have-you) is pretty understandable."


When I first read this in Why Won't You Apologize, I re-read it several times. For so long the all too common "but" in an apology felt ick to me, but (pun intended) I didn't know why.


What I've come to learn is that the ick feeling I'd been experiencing stemmed directly from the incompatibility that's inherent to a statement like "I'm sorry but." It wasn't my feeling that was the problem. It was the crappy fauxpology that was the problem.


It was like someone had forced two mismatched puzzle pieces together, and all my brain was doing was noticing the problem. Of course, I didn't know this back then, so I'd end up doing what many of us do.


I'd start second-guessing myself: "She said she's sorry, so there's no good reason for me to still feel bothered about this. I'm being too sensitive."


The pressure to let a but fauxpology slide is not just in our heads, either. It's also an expectation in our broader culture, too, especially when the person doing so-called apologizing is a mom. For example, just imagine calling this mom out on her fauxpology:


Fauxpology mom: I’m sorry I shamed you, but you needed to be shamed to fix your bad behavior.


You: That’s not a real apology.


Fauxpology mom: [clutches pearls] But I said I’m sorry!


You: No, not really. You said “but” afterward. The “but” cancels out the apology part.


Fauxpology mom: I said I’m sorry! Wowwww. What more do you want? Do you want me to read a script? Grovel at your feet? That’s what you expect me to do, isn’t it? If I don’t apologize exactly your way using exactly the right words then it’s not good enough for you. You’re so demanding and unreasonable! Nothing is ever good enough for you! You’ll never forgive!!! [proceeds to tell everyone she apologized to you and you, the baddie, refused to graciously accept her olive branch]


Butting out the “but”


The next time you’re offering an apology, and you feel that familiar “but” queuing up, try leaving the but left unsaid. This might feel really uncomfortable at first, but I promise if you stick with it your apologies (and the people you give them to) will be better for it.


3. Acknowledge what you did wrong


If we don’t know what it is we’re apologizing for, there’s no way for our apology to be an authentic apology.


An apology for an unknown mistake is always a fauxpology.


It would be like me telling my husband Jake I’m running to the store to grab what he needs without taking the time to figure out what he needs.


Me: Hi, honey! I’m back. So I ran to the store where the things you need are. Then I didn’t buy anything you need because I don’t know what you need. And then after that, I turned around and ran back home.


Jake: [stares blankly]


How to know where we messed up


The single best way to figure out why someone feels hurt by us is to listen. This might sound easy, but not so fast.


Being able to actually listen to someone when they’re feeling upset with us often means putting an end to our deeply ingrained pattern of what I call “listening to respond.” Listening to respond looks like this:


Them: [explains in detail why they feel hurt by me]


Me while they’re talking: [lips not moving, appears to be listening, but actually paying zero attention to what’s being said because way too busy getting defensive and having an internal dialogue about how to “make my case” as soon as they quit yammering]


You’ve done this before, too, haven’t you? Good news: We all have.


The social science research on this is clear: Getting defensive when someone lets us know they feel hurt by us is a normal part of being a human.


But you wouldn’t be reading this article if we could stop there. You already knew trauma would complicate this, didn’t you?


For those of us who learned as children that defending ourselves from our own caregivers—the very people who were supposed to love, support, and care for us—was necessary, it’s going to be that much harder for us to put down our defensiveness.


For us, defensiveness isn't just some instinctual remnant left over from our evolutionary past because it helped our cave-dwelling ancestors. For us, it's a tool we've had to use for our own survival, whether it be our physical survival, our emotional survival, or both.


To down-shift our defensiveness, we can use something Harriet Lerner calls "non-defensive listening." When we listen in this way, we recognize our defensiveness without overreacting to it or attempting to banish it (remember: feeling a feeling doesn't mean we need to try to not feel the feeling). This compassion towards our defensiveness eases the tension and thus creates space for us to really listen to the other person.


Owning our mistake

After we've allowed ourselves to hear and know why someone feels hurt by us, now we're ready to offer an apology. I love this one quote that says, "The first step in an apology is not just saying sorry, but acknowledging the hurt you caused."


It has helped me to think of the acknowledgment part of an authentic apology as a sort of ripping off a bandaid. Whether I drag the tacky bandaid across my skin slowly or yank it off in one sharp tug, it's going to hurt my ego on some level no matter what, so I figure I might as well do it quickly.


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


Acknowledging our part can sound like:

  • "What I said to you about your sister was wrong."

  • "My failure to arrive on time to the party is my fault."

  • "I never should have yelled at you."

  • "How I treated you the other day was offensive and rude."


4. Don’t expect a one-time conversation

Contrary to popular belief in the abusive parent crowd, an apology, when it’s the real deal, doesn’t come with a “We’re never talking about this ever again” clause.


The idea that an apology should serve to silence the hurt party from the moment of the “apology" is nothing more than fauxpology rhetoric.


When our intention is to offer a true apology, we won’t use our apology as a bargaining chip to manipulate the person we’ve hurt into shutting up about their hurt.


Instead, we’ll recognize that something as complex as pain between two people might take many conversations to work through, and we’ll make space for that. As Harriet Lerner says, demonstrating to the hurt party that we're willing to revisit the issue says a lot about the sincerity of our apology.


5. Express genuine empathy and remorse


Harriet Lerner writes, "Part of a true apology involves showing empathy and remorse. Without authentic feeling behind your apology, it may sound robotic and insincere." If we don’t feel empathy for the person we’re apologizing to and if we don’t have remorse about our actions (or inactions), we aren't ready to apologize.


I say this not to say we shouldn’t apologize, but because without these all our apologies can be false.


In order for our apology to be experienced by the hurt party as heartfelt and genuine, we need to communicate 1) that their pain matters to us (the empathy part), and 2) that if we could go back in time we’d do it differently (the remorse part).


Offering an authentic apology is not just about the words we choose to say, but about how we’re feeling when we say them.


6. Don’t pressure them to forgive you


Hang on to your butt. We’re about to get extra counterculture. I mean, this is the Mother Wound Project so you already expected it, right?


So I’ll just come right out and say it: An authentic apology does not seek to receive anything from the hurt party, and this includes forgiveness.


I can hear the comment sections already:


“But Stephi, when I give the apology the other person is supposed to give me forgiveness. The Mother Wound Project wants people to hang on to their anger and never move on!”


Look, I get it. I used to think I’d like to live in that transactional “I do this then you owe me this” world, too, minus the clinging to anger and the past bit, of course.


But like I say to my clients, my kid, and myself, the truth is the most loving thing there is, and that’s why I’m sharing it here with you.


Contrary to popular belief that stems in large part from misunderstood religious texts (long story short, my bachelor's degree involved reading the New Testament in the original Greek), authentic apologies aren’t like capitalism. Yay, clergy and capitalism confuse us once again!


“I’ll take forgiveness for one apology, please”


When we give someone an apology, as much as it might feel like it, we actually aren’t owed anything back in return. This isn’t a trip to the store where we hand over cash and walk out with something useful for us.


Cashier: “I see you want forgiveness. That’ll cost you one fauxpology.”


Does it feel good to be forgiven? Absolutely.


Is it okay to want to be forgiven? Also yes.


Are we now the ones who are owed an apology if we aren’t forgiven by the person we’ve apologized to? Solid nope.


Forgiveness means different things to different people


In order to wrap our heads around this whole non-mandatory forgiveness thing, we need to start by recognizing the simple fact that we don’t all define forgiveness the same way.


Sure, one could argue, “But the dictionary says forgiveness means…” but there’s the world we would like to live in, and then there’s the world we actually live in.


Out here in the world we actually live in, we can ask 100 people what forgiveness means and we’ll get 100 different answers.


In her book Why Won’t You Apologize, Harriet Lerner says it like this, “If you believe that forgiveness, like gratitude, is a universally healing emotion, you may be inclined to encourage other people to forgive someone who hurt them. Your intentions may be good, but you run the risk of victimizing the hurt party all over again.”


Conclusion


Whether it's healing our relationship with apologies or healing our relationship with ourselves, healing inherently means allowing ourselves to feel pain. When we’re not facing our pain, what we’re doing is handing it off to the next guy—most often our children, our partners, our closest friends.


As Jeff Foster says, "True healing nearly always involves the reopening of old wounds, the death of illusion, and a courageous confrontation with our pain.


I can’t speak for you, but what I can tell you is that I had a front-row seat to watching my parents opt for option B for the first 29 years of my life, and watching that whole thing crash and burn is enough reason to go out on a limb and try something different.

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