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How Do I Say “I’m Sorry?”

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified

Now you’ve done it. You’ve made a mistake that negatively impacted someone, and it’s time to apologize. For example, perhaps you yelled obscenities at your partner when they failed to do the dishes. Now, your partner is hurt. You know that you shouldn’t have yelled and cursed, and you believe that you need to express sincere remorse and accountability. There are many ways to apologize, and some are more productive than others. 

Here are a few common mistakes to avoid when saying you’re sorry: 

Denying or Avoiding Responsibility for Your Actions. 

When you’re feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty, it’s tempting to deny or avoid taking responsibility for your actions. Yet, a genuine apology requires acknowledgment of your actions and accountability. For example, avoid saying, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt.” This does not focus on your actions. Similarly, avoid saying “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” for this conditional way of phrasing an apology downplays or deflects from the fact you did, indeed, hurt someone. 

Justifying Your Actions.

You might want to explain why you acted the way that you did. Be careful about expressing unsolicited explanations or focusing too much on explaining why you did what you did, which can easily come across as justification or rationalization. For example, avoid saying, “I yelled at you because I am stressed and that’s how I  vent.” 

Focusing on the Actions of the Person Whom You’ve Wronged. 

You’ve actions might have been impacted by the person whom you wronged. Yet, it’s not the right time to focus on the other person’s actions while you are apologizing. Avoid saying, “I yelled because you weren’t listening to me,” or  “You should have done the dishes,” or  “You’ve yelled at me before.” 

If you are able to avoid these common mistakes when apologizing, you are closer to giving a genuine apology. When saying you are sorry, try using the Everett L. Worthington (2006) CONFESS model. 

C = Confess without excuse. Confess to your specific actions without making excuses. You can say, “I yelled obscenities at you and I shouldn’t have.” 

0 = Offer an apology. This is more than simply saying that you are sorry. When you apologize, you should take accountability for the offense and express how you feel about your actions. For example, “I’m sorry for what I said and also for how I said it. I’m disappointed in myself and feel guilty for having hurt you.” 

N = Note the person’s pain. This is where you express empathy to the person that you wronged. You can say, “I understand your feelings of shock and sadness. If I were you and someone yelled that way at me, I’d also feel hurt.”

F = Forever value the other person. This is your chance to communicate your perception of the value of your relationship with the person you’ve wronged. You can do this verbally, such as saying, “I love you,” “I care about you,” or “Our friendship means a lot to me.” You can also communicate nonverbally by providing, for example, an affectionate touch. 

E = Equalize. Offer to make restitution for the wrong you’ve committed, such as asking, “ How can I make it up to you?”, or “What do you need from me going forward?” Remember that every person may have different needs in regards to restitution, and it’s acceptable to compromise. Never agree to anything that you do not intend to do. You must follow through in order for your apology to be genuine.  

S = Say “never again.” Tell them that you intend to never repeat your action or one like it in the future. You can say, “I commit to not yelling or cursing at you.” Make sure that you agree to this commitment before you make it. 

S = Seek forgiveness. Ask the person directly for their forgiveness. You can ask, “Can you forgive me?” Allow the person to take time to respond to this question if they need it. 

If you need help apologizing in your relationships, consider participating in family counseling or couples therapy at Symmetry Counseling. Contact us today to get paired with a Chicago counselor to start your journey. 

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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