Why We’re So Bad at Saying Sorry (and How To Apologize Better)

You know that Elton John song, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”?

When I first heard that song, I didn’t get it. 

“Sorry is easy to say. I’m great at saying sorry!” I thought to myself.

Made a mistake? I’d say I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I was just doing it because of [insert reason here]

Upset someone? I’d apologize, then explain my point of view. 

In an argument? I’d say sorry, but only if they apologized—and if they didn’t, I would get mad at them for not apologizing.

Notice a pattern here?

 

I wasn’t really apologizing to anyone. I was faking it.

I would frame my apologies in a way that made me FEEL I was saying sorry to the other person, while shifting the blame to something else entirely.

Yes, I was sorry. But it actually wasn’t my fault if you thought about it. It was someone or something else’s fault: time, the weather, my friend, the neighbor’s dog, the teacher, my pet rock…you know the drill.

It s a sad, sad situation

We have to apologize all the time. Whether it’s at college, at work, or in our personal lives, we’ll all trip up at some point and have to say sorry to someone. But what makes all the difference is HOW we say it. 

A lot of people (🙋‍♀️) simply aren’t good at apologizing in a way that’s genuine and authentic. They issue faux-pologies or truly terrible apologies, like:

  • I’m sorry you felt that way.
  • I’m sorry but it’s not really my fault because….
  • I only did this because you did that.
  • I guess I have to accept some sort of blame for this.
  • Fine, I’m sorry! Are you happy?!
  • Jeez sorry, I didn’t know you’d take it like that.

Over time, these non-apologies stack up and can chip away at our relationships until they’re damaged beyond repair. 

This is nothing new or groundbreaking. After all, we all know on some level that bad apologies are toxic. 

But that leaves me to wonder:

 

Why are we so bad at saying sorry?

According to psychologist Karina Schumann, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, there are a few reasons why we struggle with how to say sorry.

The first is the magnitude gap.

Think back to any time when someone has accused you of doing something that offended or hurt them. In your mind, it probably didn’t sound like as big a deal as they made it out to be, or you may feel like you’re being judged unfairly because you had your reasons for doing so. 

This gap between how you perceive the offense and how the victim describes the offense? That’s the magnitude gap. As the person being blamed, you’re more likely to try to justify your actions, write them off, or minimize the impacts.

The second is having a fixed mindset. If you’re struggling to see things from someone else’s perspective, you might not realize what actually hurt them—and maybe say to yourself, “Why do I need to apologize when I haven’t done anything wrong?” Another instance is where you think the apology won’t make any difference because “the damage is done already, what’s the point?”

These are both common reasons why it’s so hard for people to say sorry. But here’s the big one…

 

Apologizing is really, really confronting

Most of us like to think we’re good people. If you’re being told that you did something that doesn’t line up with that image of yourself, it’s tough to deal with. It can trigger all the feels, from guilt to shame—and if you apologize for it, it feels like you’re acknowledging that you’re a bad person. 

In other words, your ego kicks in big time.

In fact, a study found that people who don’t apologize experience a rise in self-esteem compared to those who did apologize. It’s not surprising: if you don’t say sorry, you can flip the script and absolve yourself of any blame. Then you don’t have to deal with all those uncomfortable feelings.

Sure, not apologizing may make you feel good in the short term. However, it’s extremely damaging to your relationships in the long run. We need apologies to repair connections with people, build trust, and move forward together.

Here’s the good news though. Becoming aware of how you’re apologizing and why you’re struggling to say sorry is the first step to apologizing effectively.

The next time you need to apologize, try one of these eight strategies to say sorry in a way that’s authentic and genuine.

 

How to say sorry: eight ways to apologize better

Don’t just jump into it

I used to think that every time something went wrong, the first thing I needed to do was say sorry to fix it. 

I was wrong. More often than not, this would just end up making things worse. 

A good apology is meaningful and well thought out. If you’re not entirely sure what you’re apologizing for, how to apologize, or even IF you should apologize, it’s better to not say anything at all rather than issue the begrudging apology:

 

It’s totally okay to take a step back and marinate before saying sorry.

This will give you some much-needed space to empathize with the other person, understand what happened, and plan out your apology. If it helps, rehearse your apology—or even put it in writing so you cover everything you want to say.

It’s not just about whether you’re ready either. Before you apologize, check in with the person you’re apologizing to and see if they’re ready to listen to what you have to say. They might need space to calm down, or need more time before they’re in a place where they’re ready to accept the apology, forgive, and move on.

 

Accept responsibility

When you start an apology by trying to explain it rather than acknowledging your wrongdoing, you’re downplaying what happened and not really validating the other person’s feelings. A classic example of this is the “I was just trying to…” apology.

If you want your apology to come across as genuine, you need to take responsibility for your actions—not suggest that they were caused by outside influences or were completely out of your control.

Rather than jumping straight into justifying what you did and why you did it, it’s important to start out by owning what you did wrong. Saying something like “I’m sorry I was late” or “I apologize. It was wrong of me to say that” shows that you acknowledge you caused hurt or pain and that you’re remorseful for it.

It’s a similar story with saying things like “I’m sorry you misunderstood” or “I’m sorry you feel like that.” Apologizing for other people’s feelings, rather than your own actions, might make it seem like you’re shifting the blame onto them for feeling a certain way.

 

Show that you understand what the problem is

The most powerful apologies demonstrate that you know WHAT you’re saying sorry for. 

Nobody sums it up as well as Madonna, who said this about 50 Cent’s apology: 

An apology is not valid if you don’t know what you’re apologizing for.

When you include details of what happened in your apology, it shows that you’ve actually listened to the other person and grasp what it is that they’re upset about. They feel heard, and you know exactly what went wrong so you do your best to avoid making the same mistake next time.

 

Actually say the words “I’m sorry”

I know—it seems incredibly straightforward. But you’ll be surprised how many people try to apologize without actually…well, apologizing.

One of the most famous faux-pologies out there is the “We missed the mark” apology. High profile companies like Dove have been guilty of using this type of language to apologize for making a mistake. But there’s a catch: They haven’t actually said they’re sorry.

“The art of a sincere and heartfelt apology is one of the greatest skills you will ever learn.” —Jeanette LeBlancThe very words “I’m sorry” carry a lot of weight. When used well, this simple phrase conveys that you did something wrong, that you acknowledge the other person’s feelings, and that you mean what you say. Anything less than this—like “I missed the mark” or “I may have overstepped”—can feel like a cop-out in comparison.

 

Don’t add any qualifiers to your apology

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” —Benjamin Franklin

Any sorry that comes with a “but” attached to it may come across as insincere or take away ownership from your apology. Although it’s tempting to add an explanation about why you did what you did, others might see it as deflecting responsibility from your actions.

This can be tough, particularly if you feel like the other person also did something to upset you or to escalate the situation. In this case, make your apology with no catches or caveats, then find a future time to sit down and calmly discuss any other issues you want to address.

 

Show that you’re sorry

Sometimes, an apology is enough. In other scenarios, you have to work a little bit harder to rebuild that trust or repair what was broken. 

For example, if you’ve blown off a friend for an important meet-up, offering to meet up with them separately shows that you still value the relationship. The same goes for work or other commitments: if you’ve missed a deadline, it may help to provide a solution to show your manager or teammates that it won’t happen again.

This isn’t always appropriate, but where it is, providing a solution shows that you’re not just paying lip service—you’re willing to do the work to right the wrong and prevent it from occurring again in the future.

 

If it’s a smaller breach, say “thank you”

In some settings, such as service-based businesses or workplaces, including a “thank you” can actually strengthen your apology. 

A recent study found that leading with a phrase like “Thank you for bringing this to my attention” or “Thank you for your patience” helps repair self-esteem in the person you’re apologizing to and makes them feel valued.

 

Don’t beat yourself up!

Apologizing is tough. It can take a big swing at your self-esteem and leave you feeling pretty down. That’s why it’s equally as important to ensure that you’re not being too hard on yourself for making a mistake.

 

Mistakes happen. None of us are perfect, and we all mess up from time to time. It’s part of being human and having relationships.

Before and after you apologize, practice self-affirmation: think about your good traits, your successes, or positive things you’ve done in the past. This will give you a self-confidence boost before you have to set your ego aside and say sorry.

Practicing self-affirmation may also make it easier to apologize in a genuine and sincere way, because it reminds you that you’re not a bad person. You just made a mistake, and that one mistake doesn’t change who you are at heart.

 

Sorry doesn’t have to be the hardest word

“The art of a sincere and heartfelt apology is one of the greatest skills you will ever learn.” —Jeanette LeBlanc

It takes a lot of courage to admit when we’ve made a mistake and to say sorry to the people we’ve wronged. But apologizing is a fundamental part of life, regardless of whether it’s with friends, family, or coworkers. 

When you learn how to say sorry in a way that makes the other person feel valued and validated, you’ll build stronger relationships with everyone around you. And I promise you: if you can get this life skill right, you’ll have a much more fulfilling relationship with yourself as well.