Apologizing can renew trust, soothe hurt feelings and return the lifeblood to a damaged relationship. But when someone hurts you and gives you a fake apology, it can make things worse, not better.
How can you recognize when someone is not authentically apologizing? Here are the 12 most common non-apology apologies:
“I am sorry if . . .”
This is a conditional apology. It falls short of a full apology by suggesting only that something might have happened.
• I am sorry if I did anything wrong
• I am sorry if you were offended
“I am sorry that you . . .”
This is a blame-shifting apology. It is no apology at all. Rather, it puts the onus on you as the problem.
• I am sorry you felt hurt
• I am sorry you think I did something wrong
• I am sorry you feel I am so bad
“I am sorry but . . .”
This excuse-making apology does nothing to heal the wounds caused.
• I am sorry, but most other people wouldn’t have overreacted like you did
• I am sorry, but other people thought it was funny
• I am sorry, but you started it
• I am sorry, but I couldn’t help it
• I am sorry, but there was truth to what I said
• I am sorry but, you can’t expect perfection
“I was just . . .”
This is a justifying apology. It seeks to argue that hurtful behavior was okay because it was harmless or for a good cause.
• I was just kidding
• I was just trying to help
• I was only trying to calm you down
• I was trying to get you see the other side
• I was just playing devil’s advocate
“I have already . . .”
This deja-vu apology cheapens whatever is said by implying that there is nothing left to apologize for.
• I already said I was sorry
• I have apologized for that a million times
“I regret . . .”
This sidestepping apology equates regret with apologizing. There is no ownership.
• I regret you felt upset
• I regret that mistakes were made
“I know I . . .”
This whitewashing apology is an effort to minimize what happened without owning any hurtful effects on you or others. The whitewash may seem self-effacing but on its own it contains no apology.
• I know I shouldn’t have done that
• I know I probably should have asked you first
• I know I can sometimes be a bull in a china shop
“You know I . . .”
This nothing-to-apologize-for apology tries to talk you out of your feelings or imply that you shouldn’t be upset.
• You know I am sorry
• You know I didn’t mean that
• You know I would never hurt you
“I will apologize if . . .”
This pay-to-play apology is not a clean, freely offered apology. Rather, you have to pay to get it.
• I will only apologize if you apologize
• I will apologize if you agree never to bring it up again
• I will say I am sorry if you will just stop talking about it
“I guess I . . .”
This is a phantom apology. It hints at the need for an apology, but never gives one.
• I guess I owe you an apology
• I guess I should say I am sorry
“X told me to apologize . . .”
This is a not-my-apology apology. The person is saying he or she is apologizing only because someone else suggested it. The implication is that it would have never happened otherwise.
• Your mother told me to come apologize to you
• My friend said I should tell you I was sorry
“Fine! I’m sorry, okay!”
This is a bullying apology. Either in words or tone you are given a grudging “I’m sorry” but it doesn’t feel like an apology. It may even feel like a threat.
• Okay, enough already, I am sorry for chrissakes
• Give me a break, I am sorry, alright?
Faux apologies such as these 12 seek to avoid responsibility, make excuses, shift blame, downplay what was done, invalidate or confuse the hurt or offended person, or move on prematurely.
A true apology, by contrast, has most or all of the following characteristics:
- Is freely offered without conditions or minimizing what was done
- Conveys that the person apologizing understands and cares about the hurt person’s experience and feelings
- Conveys remorse
- Offers a commitment to avoid repeating the hurtful behavior
- Offers to make amends or provide restitution if appropriate
An authentic apology starts with listening. If you seek to apologize, you first need to hear what happened from the other person’s point of view and how it affected them.
As therapist and author Harriet Lerner wrote in the Psychotherapy Networker, “No apology will have meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain. More than anything, the hurt party needs to know that we really ‘get it,’ that our empathy and remorse are genuine, that their feelings make sense, that we will carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and that we will do our best to make sure there’s no repeat performance.”
People issue faux apologies for several reasons. They may not believe they did anything wrong or just want to keep the peace. They may feel embarrassed and want to avoid the feelings. They may feel shame about their actions but feel unable or unwilling to confront their shame.
People who consistently fail to apologize may lack empathy or have low self-esteem or a personality disorder. As Lerner wrote, “Some people stand on a small, rickety platform of self-worth. They’re unable to own up to the hurt they’ve caused because doing so threatens to flip them into an identity of worthlessness and shame. The non-apologizer walks on a tightrope of defensiveness above a huge canyon of low self-esteem.”