“I’m sorry” is not an apology.
Stick with me for a minute.
We are taught as children to say sorry to people when we hurt them. Our elders always tell us “Say you’re sorry” and we say “I’m sorry” and drop it. Just saying “I’m sorry” once we’re older is no longer sufficient. “I’m sorry” doesn’t show understanding of the hurtful behavior, acknowledge the other person’s feelings, or genuinely express remorse.
I’m sorry vs I apologize
One of the most common things I teach my couples is how to APOLOGIZE. The difference between saying you’re sorry and apologizing involves talking about emotions and taking responsibility.
Saying sorry: I’m sorry I said that
Apologizing: I’m sorry I said your opinion was stupid. It was wrong to invalidate you that way
Saying sorry: I’m sorry we fought
Apologizing: I’m sorry for picking a fight with you. I shouldn’t have taken my stress out on you that way, you didn’t deserve that
Saying sorry: I’m sorry I got mad
Apologizing: I’m sorry I made you feel inferior when I yelled at you over the dirty dishes in the sink. I was condescending and I was wrong to speak to you that way
Sorry not sorry
“I’m sorry, but…” are three words that have no business being put together.
When it comes to apologies, we often find ourselves wanting to explain ourselves, defend our actions. We don’t want the other person thinking we were hurtful on purpose so we justify our actions even after saying we’re sorry for them.
Giving an excuse after an apology negates the apology. The message you end up sending is “You shouldn’t feel that way and here’s why”. After a while, “apologies” that end with defensiveness will build distance and resentment in a relationship.
The next time you find yourself needing to apologize try something more like this:
“I’m sorry my behavior/actions made you feel [person’s emotion]. I see why doing that would make you upset and in the future I will be more mindful of that.”
“I apologize for doing xyz, I wasn’t thinking about how it could make you feel [person’s emotion]. I didn’t mean to upset you and I will try not to do that again.”
Why are apologies so hard?
The way our families of origin approach apologies sets the stage for how we apologize to others. Take my partner and I for example.
In his family, no one apologizes. They don’t even say “I’m sorry”. They just ignore whatever happened and act normal after a few minutes or do something nice for that person in place of apologizing. In my family, we were always forced to say “I’m sorry for xyz”. Now, when I need to apologize, I can become stubborn and not want to do it at all.
Apologies can be hard. Stubbornness and pride can get in the way. Shame can get in the way. Most people I know don’t like to admit when they are wrong, myself included.
If apologies are hard for you, I encourage you to explore that.
- What part is hard?
- What feelings are getting in the way?
- Where do those feeling originate?
Apologies are important. They are necessary.
Don’t let your pride wreck your relationship.
Article by Emma Carpenter, MA
Emma is a Marriage and Family Therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She supports individuals and couples develop stronger relationships with themselves and others. Emma has family therapy training and Level 2 Gottman training. You can read more about her here or on her instagram @moderncouplestherapist.