How To Apologize When It Matters: Own, Apologize, Repair

What Do You Mean, “How to Apologize”?

A lot of folks are reading this thinking “don’t I just say ‘I’m sorry'”? Actually, it’s not that simple. We were often taught how to apologize as children by being forced to apologize when we weren’t really sorry. So a lot of us default to grudging words mumbled under our breaths. Some of us default to defensive, half-yelling sarcastic words tossed in anger. But neither of those ways of apologizing serves to preserve and improve relationships. And that’s the goal, right? 

“Harm” vs “offend”

Offend is a judgment word, and relates to feelings vs. actions and thoughts. It’s not useful when we think of apologies, because we aren’t apologizing for feelings. We apologize for the things we do and the things we think (that cause us to do harmful things). Feelings are. While they can be a root cause of thoughts and actions, unlike thoughts and actions, feelings are not under our control, so we can’t apologize for them. We can only apologize for things that we can at least partially control. 

So What Do I Do Instead?

First, we need to examine why we apologize. There are two main reasons to apologize to someone else: First, we apologize to avoid a hassle when we don’t actually think we are wrong, even if we are. These are insincere apologies. Second, we apologize when we have harmed someone in some way, using words or actions. Theses are sincere apologies. Let’s look at that first reason to apologize first. 

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insincere apologies:

We sometimes apologize simply to stop a conflict. In these cases, we usually don’t mean it. We are apologizing to keep the boss happy, the spouse happy, the friend happy. We don’t believe we did anything wrong. There are several situations to parse out here: 

  • We really didn’t do anything wrong, and the other person thinks we did.
  • We really didn’t do anything wrong, and the other person is accusing us of wrongdoing to harm us in some way. 
  • While we don’t understand what we did, we did do something wrong.
  • We did do something wrong, but it benefited us in some way so we resent having to apologize. 
  • We did do something wrong, but we have no respect or compassion for the person we wronged, so resent having to apologize.

When we didn’t do anything wrong:

When we didn’t do anything wrong, we first need to look at the accuser’s motives. Are they trying to control our behavior (acting out of a need for power and control)? Or are they trying to set their own boundaries and they think you’ve crossed those boundaries? If you’re not used thinking consciously about setting boundaries and respecting other peoples’ boundaries, this can be a bit of a challenge. Setting and respecting boundaries will be covered elsewhere on this website. Each will be tagged with “boundaries” as they are written. 

Take some time to figure this out. Are they wanting you to apologize for your feelings and emotions? That’s power and control. So is wanting you to apologize for their feelings and emotions. Emotions just are. Neither you nor they are entirely in control of emotions. On the other hand, if they are asking for an apology for something they think you did, that you didn’t do, don’t apologize. Instead, explain what happened and set your own boundary. “I didn’t do X. (Maybe add: ‘I did Y.’) I can see that X hurts you, but I am not the cause of that pain. Please stop blaming me for X.” The same goes if the other person thinks you thought something harmful about them. Simply substitute “thought” for “did” in the highlighted quotation. 

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When we don’t understand what we did: 

Sometimes in the process of explaining we didn’t do The Thing, we realize that we absolutely did do The Thing. At that point, we need to swallow our pride, learn from our mistake, and give a sincere apology. 

when we don’t want to apologize even though we know we harmed the other person:

I really want to say “suck it up, Buttercup” here, but that might be a tad unprofessional. Instead, I want you to look really hard at yourself on this one. Why do you not want to apologize? What is worth harming the other person? Who are you, that you don’t feel that this person doesn’t deserve an apology even though you admit you harmed them. Apologize or not, at least try to become a better person and learn from this moment. 

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sincere apologies:

Ah! Now we come to the meat of this post. A sincere apology always has three parts. First, we want to OWN what we did. Next, we APOLOGIZE for what we did. Finally, we attempt to REPAIR the harm we did. Taking these one at a time:


The first step in a sincere, complete apology is to admit you are in the wrong. Some ways to state this (depending on the situation include:

  • I did X.
  • X was a mistake on my part. 
  • I accept responsibility for X.
  • I accept my part in X. (Only if responsibility is shared with someone else).
  • While I didn’t mean to do X, I did do it. 

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This is the easy part in the process of an apology. Simply say:

  • I’m sorry
  • I apologize
  • I’m truly sorry for my part in X. (Again, only if responsibility is shared with someone else).

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To repair means to fix The Thing you did to harm the other person in such a way that you fix what you broke, and if possible make it is less likely to happen again. The first thing to consider when making a repair is whether or not a repair is possible. 

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Types of repairs you may have to make:
  • The other person is done with you and won’t let you fix the situation, and the situation was a one-time accident that is unlikely to be repeated. 
  • They won’t let you fix the situation, but you can learn something from it so you don’t hurt anyone else. 
  • The other person asks you (or you offer) to make a slight change in the way you interact with them to prevent harm in the future, that barely affects you.
  • You can make a significant change in the way you interact with them that will require additional education on your part. 
  • The other person asks you (or you offer) to spend a bit of time, money, power or influence to fix the situation you caused. 
  • You may need to spend a significant amount of time, money, power or influence to fix the situation you caused. 

The repair is an absolutely necessary part of a sincere apology. Even if you can’t fix it with the person you harmed, you can pay it forward. Or if it causes you hardship or your pride. Even if it damages your reputation because you have to go public, admitting and attempting to repair the harm you caused is the only way to truly demonstrate your sincerity. 

An apology without attempting to change the behavior that made the apology necessary is meaningless. 

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Now That You Know How to Apologize, Teach Others:

Our world is full of folks who don’t know how to apologize, who bumble around and cause further damage by not understanding how to fix what they did wrong. Spend time modeling sincere apologies to your children, partners, co-workers, friends, and family. Modeling means that you make sincere, complete apologies in your interactions with them in such a way that they begin to see them as normal.

Where you have a leadership role over others, teach them how to apologize, and help them shape their behavior to get closer and closer to what you are asking of them. When we shape peoples’ behavior, we accept each step that brings them closer to our goal and celebrate those steps, while at the same time encouraging them to get closer to that goal. Start with “Own, Apologize, Repair”, and gradually add more detail on how to apologize to your lessons. Reward each step toward the goal with a sincere “thank you”. Speaking of which…

Thank you. 

I am sincerely grateful for the support of my family, friends, therapy participants, and Patrons. 

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important notes:

Finally, I donate half of every dollar I make from videos, podcasts, and writing to my best friend, Katherine Malone.  She has a deadly heart condition and needs a heart transplant. Before she can be placed on the transplant list, she must raise $20,000 for anti-rejection drugs. Learn more here and here, and go here to donate directly to her GoFundMe. This will continue until Kathy’s heart is fully funded. After that, I will continue to donate half up to $500 per month to help her pay for her anti-rejection meds. 

A final reminder:  You are each important and have much to teach, and much to learn.

I look forward to learning from and teaching you all. Comment below or at any of the links to start the conversation. 

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Jennifer Liles is the owner and webmistress for Jenni's Space and Responsive Mental Health Services LLC. She is dedicated to mental health and human rights for freaks, geeks, and queer folk. She uses the Jenni's Space label for places where she combines education about, advocacy for, and celebration of mental health and human rights. This information is primarily for neurodiverse people, people with mental health issues, people who are on the queer spectrum, disabled people, and Black and Indigenous and other people of color. There are also discussions for privileged people about privilege and how it intersects with human rights work.