Do You Know How to Properly Say Sorry?

My daughter was in a pretty nasty car accident this morning. Thankfully, she’s fine. She was returning to our home on the Maine Turnpike when a tractor trailer truck likely didn’t realize she was trying to pass it (it’s a two-lane road) and nudged her to the left. She probably would have recovered had the weather not been freezing rain, coating the untreated road with a thin layer of ice.

Instead, she spun around and smacked into the center guardrail quite hard. My wife and I got the call about 5:20 a.m. and what would usually take 25 minutes to reach her took almost 90 because of other accidents diverting traffic on and off the turnpike. It was not a morning to be driving.

The Maine State Police officer who stayed with her that entire time was wonderful. Despite the fact they were the agency that arrested me back in early 2014, I have no ill will against any law enforcement personnel. We can certainly poke holes in the system, but the foot soldiers didn’t create it. Adapting another old saying is true: It’s better to have a cop and not need him than need a cop and not have him.

On the ride home, she was still slightly in shock and the adrenaline was still coursing through her veins. As she started to come down, she started apologizing. We tried to assure her that we knew it wasn’t her fault, we have insurance and we were just grateful that she wasn’t injured.

It got me thinking about apologies. She was apologizing for creating a difficult situation. Yes, it will be a pain in the ass dealing with adjusters, making decisions based on amount of damage and having to split two cars among three people. But, it wasn’t her fault. She was merely at the center of a storm she could not control. I think her reaction to apologize is a knee-jerk one that many of us have, even in situations that we were simply victims.

One of the things that was actually difficult to learn when I entered recovery was how to give a proper apology. I was taught the skills at one rehab, but don’t think it clicked until a year later when I was part of a monthly support group.

Most people confuse real apologies with an opportunity to explain how they are only “mostly” at fault, or how extenuating circumstances dictated their behavior:

“I hadn’t eaten in two days and I knew the sandwich in the fridge was yours, but I was starving.”

“I know most people call into work when they are sick, but I was sicker than I’ve ever been.”

“I was late picking you up because I got in a conversation with Tina, and you know how she can talk.”

These are three very minor examples because I just don’t want to get too heavy with this and lose the meaning. The reality is, most apologies are just excuses tinged with a tiny bit of responsibility attached. That’s not what apologies are supposed to be.

Here are a few things to think about when you’re ready to make a proper apology:

  • When you’re giving an apology, you are not to expect to be let off the hook for your behavior. In fact, you shouldn’t expect any reaction. They don’t owe you an “I forgive you” or “That’s OK.”
  • Apologies are not about making you feel better or releasing the guilt or shame you may have. Get this…they’re not about you at all other than admitting wrongdoing.
  • Ask yourself why you are apologizing. If the reason is anything other than to acknowledge that you recognize you did something to hurt the other person, you’re overdoing it.
  • A simple statement of regret is not inappropriate, but that should be the most you interject your thoughts into the situation. How you feel is not important, and frankly, it’s not what the other person is looking for or needs.
  • An apology should never make a request, especially to accept the apology. It also shouldn’t ask things like: “But you have to see my side of things…” or “I hope you can understand…” This is you trying exonerate yourself of 100% culpability.
  • Do not accompany the apology with a gift or something cutesy, like a card with a teddy bear holding a balloon. If you want to make reparations, do it at some point after the apology is given. Saying sorry and making things even are two different things for two different moments.
  • Consider writing your apology before giving it. If you have patterns of giving incorrect apologies, you may find it best to be able to review what you’re going to say. It may even make sense to send it to them in writing so you don’t go off script.

Let’s take that first example I gave above of an incorrect apology:

“I hadn’t eaten in two days and I knew the sandwich in the fridge was yours, but I was starving.”

There are three justifications for the wrong choice here. If you ever feel like you’re explaining your actions, you’re giving an improper apology.

Here are more wrong examples:

“Sorry. Despite being very hungry and knowing I shouldn’t, I took the food that was yours.”

Your hunger situation has nothing to do with a proper apology.

“Sorry. My mind was just thinking food and I was going to ask but I didn’t see you anywhere and thought I could make up for it later.”

Rationalizing a solution to make your behavior OK is not an apology, whether you bought a new sandwich or not.

“Sorry. The next time I have anything in the fridge, you can eat it. You don’t even have to ask.”

Encouraging the same behavior toward yourself does not cancel out your poor choice.


Here’s are a few examples of a proper apology:

“I took your sandwich without asking which is stealing. I’m sorry.”

“You were probably hungry because I stole your sandwich. I’m sorry.”

“I apologize for stealing your sandwich. It was the wrong thing to do.”

Usually, the proper apology is the shortest one. It doesn’t preface with situational exceptions nor ask if everything is OK at the conclusion. It is an act of contrition, an admittance of guilt and understanding of wrongdoing. And that’s all it should be.

10 thoughts on “Do You Know How to Properly Say Sorry?

  1. Apologies are always in order when we’ve done somebody/something wrong. Repentance is even better because it’s an attempt on our part to not repeat bad behavior – to change. Thank God your daughter wasn’t seriously injured this morning. What a scare that must’ve been.

    1. Yeah, although the first thing I told my wife was, “If she’s able to text, she can’t be that hurt.” I’m sometimes glad the detached logical side comes out of me in those situations.

  2. I’m glad your daughter is okay. That must have been scary for all of you.

    I think your examples of problematic apologies are all spot on, and your proper apologies are great. I strongly believe that restitution is the often overlooked component of an apology though. In your example, if your theft has deprived someone of their lunch, replacing the lunch isn’t just the right thing to do, it also backs up your words of accepting responsibility with action. If you rob a bank, calling the bank President, saying “I robbed your bank and I am very sorry for stealing from you,” is fine, but unless you try to pay the money back it’s a little shallow. It’s just words.

    While not everything damaged can be made whole in the exact same way (my husband can’t, for example, un-betray me) there are a variety of ways to make meaningful amends. I feel as though this is particularly important where trust is damaged and a verbal apology, even if done correctly, may be hard to believe.

    1. I agree with you that restitution in crucial, but I was taught that it is separate from the apology. Even if you can’t make restitution, a legit apology should come. Yeah, the bank president wants his money back, but you should apologize you took it nonetheless.

      Apologies don’t need to be believed. They don’t need to be accepted. They don’t need to even be acknowledged. I sent written apologies to many people and can only assume they got them. An important part of recovery is learning to make the apology the right way and expect nothing in returning.

      I would be shocked if several of the people I apologized to accepted it. My guess that they mocked it is probably more close to the truth. That’s on them, though, not me. I admitted my wrongdoing, assured I understood why it was wrong and moved on.

      1. Interesting. Fair points. Maybe it matters in some way who one is apologizing too? Or for what? Both my husband’s doc and, completely separately, our CSAT have been harping on Handsome about how words of apology – to me specifically – without effort at restitution/ amends are kind of pointless. Or maybe it’s just more important when you’re trying to rebuild/ repair a relationship (as opposed to apologizing for a wrong but not looking for any particular outcome or resolution)?

      2. Maybe it’s just a case of semantics, but I think it’s the words that do matter. Obviously he needs to earn your trust back, but doesn’t that start and end with words? If he doesn’t mean the words, can he really offer restitutions? Like I said, maybe it’s semantics. The one keeping score here is you and neither his doctors, csat, me or even him can say matters if it doesn’t pass muster with you…as it should be.

      3. I only speak for me, but I think that when you have been lied to on a daily basis – whether it be for days, months, or years – that words lose their meaning. If we look at “proven behavior over time” our most recent reference is that words alone cannot be trusted because very often they have been used to manipulate us. Yes, the words need to be said, but they need to be backed up with actions/ behaviors that demonstrate that the words aren’t meaningless. In my case I know that my husband wants very much for his words to matter, but I need there to be better alignment between his words and his actions to be able to trust his words and take them seriously.

        Happy New Year to you and your family!

      4. But…it starts with the words, and in many situations, all you can offer are words. If you had left him on Day One, hopefully he still would have apologized and meant it eventually, even if he couldn’t fix anything. That’s really my point. In situations where nothing can be fixed, it doesn’t mean that an apology still shouldn’t be offered if it’s genuine.

  3. Joshua, so glad to hear your daughter made it through that accident. It must have terrified her. I love your insights into apologizes. It’s an important subject that many people struggle to understand. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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