Apologizing Sincerely and Effectively

Apologizing can be intimidating, but it is the first step to rebuilding trust

Relationships can be wonderful buffers against stress, but relationship conflicts can also cause considerable emotional pain and stress. Knowing how to apologize—and when—can repair damage in a relationship, but if you don't know how to apologize sincerely, you can actually make things worse.

A sincere and effective apology is one that communicates genuine empathy, remorse, and regret as well as a promise to learn from your mistakes. In other words, you need to really believe you did something wrong and feel sorry for the hurt you caused. Here are some easy steps to help you learn how to apologize sincerely and effectively.

Recognize the Reasons to Apologize

When you've made a mistake or hurt another person, there are many good reasons to apologize. By apologizing, you are able to:

  • Acknowledge that you were wrong
  • Discuss what is allowed and not allowed in your relationship
  • Express your regret and remorse
  • Learn from your mistakes and find new ways of dealing with difficult situations
  • Open up a line of communication with the other person

A sincere apology can also bring relief, particularly if you have guilt over your actions. An apology alone doesn't erase the hurt or make it OK, but it does establish that you know your actions or words were wrong and that you will strive harder in the future to prevent it from happening again.

Not apologizing when you are wrong can be damaging to your personal and professional relationships. It can also lead to rumination, anger, resentment, and hostility that may only grow over time.

Research suggests that some of the major reasons why people don't apologize are that they aren't really concerned about the other person, apologizing threatens their own self-image, or they believe that an apology won't do any good anyway.

Know When to Apologize

Knowing when to apologize is as important as knowing how to apologize. Generally speaking, if you suspect that something you did—on purpose or by accident—caused someone else hard feelings, it's a good idea to apologize and clear the air.

If what you did would have bothered you if it was done to you, an apology is in order. If you're not sure, an apology not only offers you the chance to "own" mistakes you made, but re-establish what you think was OK. If you feel the other person is being unreasonable, a discussion may be in order. You can decide where you stand on the apology after that.

While a sincere apology can go a long way toward mending a relationship, people are often unwilling or unable to take this step. Admitting you were wrong can be difficult and humbling.

Researchers have found that people who believe that personality is changeable are more likely to apologize for harmful actions. Because they feel that change is possible, they feel that accepting the blame for their mistakes is an opportunity for learning and growth.

Take Responsibility

Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes you made that hurt the other person, and it's one of the most important and neglected ingredients of most apologies, especially those in the media.

Saying something vague like, "I’m sorry if you were offended by something I said," implies that the hurt feelings were a random reaction on the part of the other person. Saying, "When I said [the hurtful thing], I wasn’t thinking. I realize I hurt your feelings, and I’m sorry," acknowledges that you know what it was you said that hurt the other person, and you take responsibility for it.

Don't make assumptions and don't try to shift the blame. Make it clear that you regret your actions and that you are sincerely sorry.

Express Regret

When learning how to apologize effectively, it’s important to understand the value of expressing regret. Taking responsibility is important, but it’s also helpful for the other person to know that you feel bad about hurting them, and wish you hadn’t. That’s it. They already feel bad, and they’d like to know that you feel bad about them feeling bad.

What to Say When You Want to Apologize

  • "I wish I could take it back."
  • "I wish I had been more thoughtful."
  • "I wish I’d thought of your feelings as well."

These are all expressions of regret that add to the sincerity of your apology and let the other person know you care.

Make Amends

If there’s anything you can do to amend the situation, do it. It’s important to know how to apologize with sincerity, and part of that sincerity is a willingness to act.

What to Say When You Make Amends

  • If you broke something: "How can I replace it?"
  • If you said something hurtful: "I know my words hurt you. I should have never spoken that way to someone I love and respect. I'll do my best to think before I speak in the future."
  • If you broke trust: "Is there anything I can do right now to help build your trust?"

Whatever you can do to make things better, do it. If you’re not sure what would help, ask the other person.

Reaffirm Boundaries

One of the most important parts of an apology and one of the best reasons to apologize is to reaffirm boundaries. Healthy boundaries are important in any relationship. 

When you come into conflict with someone, often a boundary is crossed. If a social rule is violated or trust is broken, an apology helps to affirm what kind of future behavior is preferred.

Discussing what type of rules you both will adhere to in the future will rebuild trust, boundaries, and positive feelings. It provides a natural segue out of the conflict and into a happier future in the relationship.

For example, you and your partner, friend, or family member can discuss things you won't tolerate, including:

In addition, you can work together to set expectations about how you should treat each other emotionally, physically, and sexually. If you're having trouble agreeing on these boundaries, you and your loved one may benefit from seeing a family therapist or couples counselor.

Own Up to Your Part, Not Theirs

Remember that when you apologize, you're taking responsibility for your part of the conflict. That doesn't mean that you're admitting that the entire conflict was your fault. People are often afraid to apologize first because they think whoever apologizes first is "more wrong" or the "loser" of the conflict.

Giving an apology even when only a small part of the conflict was your responsibility is OK and often healthy. It allows you to establish what you regret about your own actions but confirms your own boundaries as well.

It's important to be fair in your apology, both to the other person and to yourself. Don't accept all the blame if it isn't all your fault.

Apologize for the Right Reasons 

When you apologize for just what you did, you can more easily move forward and put the conflict behind you, regardless of the other person's actions. When we apologize, we're able to more easily maintain our integrity and forgive ourselves.

The other person may be moved to apologize for their actions as well. While getting an apology is often nice, it's important to remember that this doesn't always happen. Trying to evoke an apology from the other person is a manipulative tactic that sometimes backfires.

Apologize for your own peace of mind and the other person may be inspired to do the same. But be sure not to apologize just because you expect an apology in return.

Let Go of Results...to an Extent

Although apologizing can be a way to maintain integrity and move on from actions we're not proud of, most of us also want to repair the relationship and be forgiven. Sometimes this doesn't happen.

If the apology was sincere and included the necessary ingredients, your chances of forgiveness are greater, but sometimes the other person just isn't ready or able to forgive and move on. Or they may forgive you but remain guarded. Or they may not realize their own role in the conflict. You can't control their response, and if you've done everything you can, let it go for now.

Press Play for Advice On Making an Apology

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares ways to apologize effectively and sincerely.

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Choose Your Method

Verbal apologies are appropriate under most circumstances, but making amends in writing can also have its benefits. Many people experience discomfort with a face-to-face apology, and while this discomfort alone isn't a good reason for a written apology, it can be a factor—especially if your discomfort affects your ability to express yourself.

Writing out your apology in a letter, email, or even text can give you the time to thoughtfully craft your apology, making sure to accept responsibility, express remorse, and reaffirm boundaries.

On the other hand, written apologies may be too formal for some mistakes and not personal enough for others. And if the written apology isn't followed by a response, you may be left with an unresolved conflict.

Keep your apology simple and direct. If you overdo it, you'll make it about yourself instead of the person you wronged. This can create resentment and erode trust.

How to Know If Your Apology Was Accepted

In general, you'll be able to tell if your apology was accepted if the person took the following steps:

  • Listened to your apology or acknowledged reading your apology
  • Thanked you or showed appreciation for your apology
  • Responded to your apology, saying "It's OK," or "Please don't ever do that again," or even, "Thanks; but I still need more time to think."

It's important to remind yourself that even if someone accepts your apology, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're ready to forgive you. True forgiveness may take some time, so stay calm and be patient.

A Word From Verywell

Genuine apologies aren't always easy, but that can be an important part of mending or maintaining important relationships. With empathy, an open heart, and a dose of courage, you can take the steps you need to make a sincere and honest apology.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Schumann K. The psychology of offering an apology: Understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome themCurr Dir Psychol Sci. 2018;27(2):74-78. doi:10.1177/0963721417741709

  2. Schumann K, Dweck CS. Who accepts responsibility for their transgressions?. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014;40(12):1598-1610. doi:10.1177/0146167214552789

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.