Episode 38

Published on:

3rd Mar 2023

6 Things Not to Do During An Apology

Apologies are something we all have experience with-- and baggage about-- that probably began from the time we first learned to communicate. But as frequently as the need to apologize comes up in life, it can be a hard thing to get right. And in fact, sometimes our apologies are disastrous and do more harm than good.

On today's show, we're discussing six common things that make apologies worse-- and urging you very strongly (ahem!) to use our tips to avoid them.

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Are you someone who has a tough time with apologies? Or maybe you say “sorry” so much that it’s your default way of starting a sentence? Perhaps you think you’re a pretty good apologizer, but your partner or coworkers don’t seem to think so. Are there times when an apology is worse than no apology?

Today we’re going to talk about all the dysfunctional ways to apologize—and how it can be worse than none at all. We’ll discuss six versions of “I’m sorry” that can be considered road maps on what not to do—and which may cause more problems than they solve. So many of us have a fraught relationship with apologizing—and it might have been that way since we were kids. If you’re interested in hearing what makes an apology solid, and runs the risk of putting you in the doghouse even further, you’ll want to listen to today’s Baggage Check.

Welcome. It is good to have you today! I’m Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel. Incidentally, it is also not a show about whether zebra is white with black stripes or black with white stripes.

So, let’s get to it.

Apologizing is something that we are taught to do from the time that we are very young, and often it's thought of as a pill to be swallowed rather than an opportunity to make meaningful changes in our relationships, or strengthen our connections. As adults, we may carry some of the same negative associations or bad habits with apologizing that we picked up on the playground, and in fact, some of us make a point never to apologize at all. That’s probably not good! We should do an episode sometime on those of us who apologize never, or who apologize just for existing. But that’s not what we’re focused most on today. Today we’re focused on doing apology makeovers. Restructuring apologies that are a little weak, a little problematic, and probably won’t be as helpful as you think they’ll be.

Because many of us end up apologizing in a way that sabotages ourselves, or further hurts the people that we are apologizing to—to the point that we might do more harm than good.

Do you recognize yourself in any of this? Have you been on the receiving end of some of these apologies if so then you know what I’m talking about there are those apologies that you just want to return to sender immediately. And of course apologies alone often aren’t sufficient, especially if there’s no evidence that there will be a change in behavior! Like the folks who just use an apology as a constant “Get out of jail free” card in order to go and commit more crimes against your relationship! We’ll talk about that too, in some of these examples.

But even if you have a best of intentions there are a lot of potential pitfalls with apologies. So, here are six ways that even a good apology can start to turn a little bit dysfunctional. The more you can really think through the process of making amends, and why you’re doing it, and what you want to express, the more meaningful your words can be—and the more difference they can make.

1. Re-trying your case

An apology is not a time to try yet again to make your point or justify your behavior or imply that the other person deserved it. If you still feel the need to do that, it's time for a different type of conversation—one that isn't framed as your apology. And that doesn’t necessarily make you in the wrong—maybe there’s still a lot to sort out. Maybe it’s just not apology time yet. Maybe the conflict is messy and complicated because you are HUMAN BEINGS, and your desire to just slap on an apology that you end up putting a lot of footnotes on because you’re really not ready to apologize, isn’t really going to be the best thing.

Because a genuine apology takes ownership of the negative effect that your behavior had on someone else, full stop. When you say “I’m sorry, but I was just trying to...." to an apology, it sounds like you're not really sorry at all. Your “but” is pretty problematic. Now there’s a sentence I don’t say often. Spelling is very important there, got to check the transcript to make sure I’m not inadvertently body-shaming anyone. But again, when you’ve got that asterisk, that footnote, that just tries to reopen the case and justify your behavior, it makes the apology sound pretty weak and insincere.

If you’re truly ready to apologize, resist the urge to do this of course you have reasons for your behavior. Reasons that were pretty compelling. You probably wouldn’t have done the thing you did otherwise! But that’s not what the apology is about. The apology is about being sorry. And maybe you seem a little less sorry if you’re just trying to convince someone that your “why” made sense. It makes it sound like you are looking to open a discussion to justify what you did. And get another chance in front of the judge. Well, the point of an apology is that you have already been found guilty at least of something! So don’t retry that case right then and there in the same conversation.

2. Promising something you can't deliver

When people feel that they have really dug themselves into a hole with their behavior, they may be willing to say anything in order to get out of that hole. It’s like the cute little kid with their hand in the cookie jar, “Mommy, I will never eat a sweet again!” Well grownups do this too. There’s the grandiose pronouncement about behavior change, and unrealistic promises about what they will or won't do in the future. There’s often a ton of all-or-none thinking that just doesn’t make any sense, isn’t rational, doesn’t include any flexibility, and ends up automatically negating the apology! “I’m sorry, I promise I will never be late to pick you up again.” I mean, what is that? Have you not seen the cluster of the DC Beltway? So much better to be realistic. “I am really sorry. I will build a habit of making a point to leave ten minutes earlier when I need to get you during rush hour.”

The truth is, if you promise something that you'll just go back on, then that is likely more damaging to trust than had you never promised it at all. And you'll be back in the same situation, needing to apologize once more—only with your words meaning even less than they did before. It’s like some sort of economic law gone wild—returns keep diminishing and diminishing and diminishing, and your apology is now worth about as much as that foil wrapper that you put your used gum in and then stuffed in your pocket and now the gum is sort of sticking out of the wrapper and it’s gotten pretty foul.

Avoid this.

Instead, be realistic about what you’re offering to do differently, and put forth the effort to truly try to make progress on that change—even if imperfect.

3. Ignoring the reason the problem happened in the first place

As many couples therapists will tell you, and as I just alluded to, the best apology is a true change in behavior. If your apology doesn't make room for an understanding of what led to the problematic action in the first place, and makes zero attempt to address it, then it is just words. Why not just sing some Modest Mouse lyrics instead? A good apology has insight into what happened, and acknowledges that—because that’s the whole key to how things will be different.

This is where it’s important we distinguish ourselves from the person just seeking the get-out-of-jail card. So many of us have been conditioned to use “I’m sorry” as a means to just go on our merry way and do the same thing once more, having learned nothing. In fact, some frequent apologizers do this. Now there are mini brands of frequent apologizer’s – some of them really do have a Gill complex or it’s a verbal tick or a response that’s been ingrained culturally, perhaps having some gendered expectations built in. But there are others who say it perfunctorily. Not because of guilt or timidness but rather the opposite—oh, I’ll just say I’m sorry, and that will take care of it. Who cares what I’m even apologizing for, this ought to do the trick. Like bribing a maitre’d in some movie cliché—I’ll just hand out these apologies left and right and get what I want.

Nope. If you're truly sorry, it means that you're reckoning with the fact that you need to not make the same mistake again—and you understand and acknowledge what to put into place to help prevent that from happening.

4. Adding conditions that negate the apology

So here’s the “but” again, but in a slightly different way. Here maybe you’re not attempting to retry your case or justify your behavior, but maybe deflect things and start a new trial where it’s the person you’re apologizing to who has to justify themselves. “I’m sorry, but it just really angers me when you do that.” “I’m sorry, but you also did that same thing!” “I’m sorry, but I told you that this could happen.” Okay, that may be a legitimate conversation that needs to happen, but it shouldn’t be super-glued to the apology.

It's become almost a cliche, how "I'm sorry, but" that practically presses an "undo" button on what you were trying to say. Or the infamous “I’m sorry if.” Where it almost seems like you are apologizing on behalf of the other person for their behavior! "I'm sorry if you took my words wrong," which immediately implies that the other person is to blame for their reaction. “I’m sorry if you didn’t realize that this was what was going to happen.” You can see that glaring asterisk a mile away, like the neon lights of Vegas approaching in the desert.

Again, it's realistic that apologies sometimes warrant further discussion, and they may feel like they need to have an asterisk. I’m all about the asterisk here, because I’m all about nuance and complexity and shades of gray. But go ahead and have that more nuanced discussion. If you’re approaching an apology as a one-off thing where it’s YOUR APOLOGY, then attaching all those asterisks just muddies the waters. Or having a premature apology that spouts off so many conditions that it doesn't feel real just shuts down the conversation—and will make your apology go unheard.

5. Expecting something in return

If you've spent any time around kids, you've probably seen it: "Okay, I'm sorry. NOW can I get my ice cream?" Or the grownup version—“Okay, I’m sorry. Can we just move on now and not talk about it anymore?”

Checking the box of the apology with a clear agenda in order to get what you want—or, similarly, to force the other person to apologize, or to accept your apology—makes your own apology ring hollow. This is an important part. An apology doesn’t always have to be accepted, and certainly doesn’t have to be accepted right away. Apologies are not “If I say this, then you do that.” Apologies have to be rendered because they feel authentic in their own right, not that they are supposed to start this chain reaction where you end up getting what you want.

Again, this isn’t the courtroom where we use an admission of guilt as a bargaining chip. This is real life, and real feelings. Apologize because you believe that you erred and you want to make amends to the person you hurt. Not because it’s supposed to put a sequence of events into motion where you receive a prize.

Of course, in many conflicts, it's natural for you to be hoping to receive an apology as well. But try as much as possible to separate your own apology from that condition. If you're truly sorry, it shouldn't be contingent on what you will receive in the future.

6. Ignoring the other person's feelings

As we’ve really established, some people are very quick to apologize, because they hope that they can just move on from the discomfort of someone being upset with them. But sometimes, the person on the receiving end doesn't yet want to move on, or may not be ready to hear an apology. Keep in mind that an apology needs to work first and foremost for the person who is receiving it. If you ignore the fact that the person doesn't want to hear from you yet, or isn't yet ready to talk about what happened, or may not be ready to forgive you, then you are making your apology about only yourself.

Your apology is about the effect it has on the person receiving it. Your atoning for your behavior for yourself—that can happen in many ways. You can journal about it. You can wreckon with your own battle of self-forgiveness. You may have spiritual beliefs that come into play. You may dedicate yourself to doing something good for the world. So remember, there are all kinds of ways of reckoning with mistakes that you have made that you can do in your own right. And of course, an apology can be an important symbol of all of that. But ultimately, an apology toward another person—and I guess we are limiting things here in this particular situation, talking about it being toward one person, certainly plenty of people need to make public apologies, and the rest of those conditions we talked about apply there, but here we’re talking about whether that other individual is actually in a place to hear your apology and how you take into account their feelings. And if they’d rather still get some space from you, but you so NEED to apologize and get it off your chest that you are being intrusive and difficult and upsetting them further, that is not good.

You should always make sure that your apology incorporates an understanding of the emotional effects that the other person experienced—which will help them feel understood and validated. So, don't apologize simply for your actions, but because you understand—fully and empathetically—the effects of them. Remember, this is different than “I’m sorry if you were upset.” It’s also not “Please pelase please just let me apologize.” It can be “I’m sorry I upset you. If you aren’t ready to talk about this yet I understand. But I imagine it was really disheartening to go through that when I did that, and I’m ready to talk further about it when you are up for it.”

So, hopefully you have some things to think about here if you ever have an apology to make. And of course, my listeners have nothing to apologize for in the first place, right? Oh, if only. Speaking of which, I have to go now, because I ate the last can of dolmas when I was supposed to be saving them for a family member. Apologies, here we come.

Thank you for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check. With new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, covered art by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time, take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every other Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.