When, Why & How Should You Apologize?

It’s annoying being around people who constantly apologize, especially if they don’t even know why they’re sorry. On the other end of the spectrum are those who rarely offer an apology, unconcerned with how their behavior affects others. So I’ve been thinking . . . when, why and how should you apologize?

When to Apologize

If our conscience doesn’t tell us when an apology is in order, other people might. Although it isn’t easy hearing how our behavior harmed another, it is absolutely necessary to hear it. For without honesty, no relationship can survive.

If someone loves us enough to confront us about our hurtful behavior, it means they value the relationship. If we value it as well, or at least value our own character, an apology is definitely in order.  But first we must come to see that we behaved inappropriately and regret doing so. If we lack remorse, our apology is meaningless.

However, being too quick to apologize isn’t good, either. It all depends on the motivation behind the apology.

Why to Apologize

I find myself wanting to extend an apology whenever I haven’t handled something perfectly. Since I am far from perfect, I’ve apologized for a lot over the years. Yet, apologizing for imperfection is like apologizing for being human. If that’s our reason, then we truly will live a sorry life.

Apologizing to avoid discomfort is another habit of mine. When awkward tension and distance arise in a relationship, I find it insufferable. Desperate for resolution, I look for some reason I’m to blame just so I can use my apology to bridge the gap. I mistakenly think if I take on more responsibility for the relationship, I can ensure smooth sailing.

Apologizing to avoid rejection, or ease our own discomfort, might makes us feel better in the moment. But in the long run, all that does is keep us stuck playing the same old games. The only solid reason for apologizing is this: we have become aware of our own wrong-doing and are ready to take responsibility for it. If any other motive is driving us, it deserves questioning.

How to Apologize

“Sorry” is not a real apology.  It’s just a word.  It communicates nothing, except a feeble attempt to placate.

“I’m sorry you were hurt” doesn’t cut it, either. In my experience, all that means is “I’m not planning to change my behavior, but I really wish you’d stop being affected by it.” I’ve heard this so many times I’ve come to abhor it.

“I’m sorry I hurt you” is getting closer to a real apology, but still leaves much unanswered. What behavior of mine do I regret? Why do I regret it? And am I committed to changing that behavior?

Truly genuine apologies contain three important elements:

  1. Acknowledgment of Wrong-Doing. “Talking to you in that tone of voice was rude of me.”
  2. Remorse & Repentance. “I am so sorry I treated you that way. You deserve better, and I’m going to do my best to speak to you in a way that communicates my love and respect.”
  3. Asking for Forgiveness. “Will you please forgive me for my harmful behavior?”

Apologizing isn’t easy. It requires humility, an authentic desire for the health of the relationship, and most importantly – conviction (agreeing what we did was wrong). Another person can point out the harm we are doing, but they can’t bring about our conviction. That’s God’s business. The part we play is deciding whether to live in truth or denial.

One last thing . . . as tempting as it is, never ruin an apology with an excuse. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that earlier, but I had so much on my mind I simply forgot.