How to Make an Appropriate Apology

In my work with forgiveness, it is not uncommon for me to talk about the subject of ‘apologies’ with clients. The topic typically comes up in one of three ways:

  1. A client who is suffering receives communication from his or her offender who makes no acknowledgement of any wrongdoing.
  2. A client wishes to apologize for a wrongdoing(s) that he or she has done to offend someone else, typically, although not always, with the hope of reconciliation.
  3. A client who is suffering receives an insincere apology from his or her offender and the client feels a number of different emotions, which he or she also experiences anger or at minimum believes he or she is obligated to reconcile at least, respond.

The reality is that many people know what they don’t want when they hear a bad apology, but many people never take the time to make an appropriate apology when they’ve done wrong. This is usually because we are afraid of what we will lose if we do apologize or because of how others may perceive us. In other words, pride gets in the way.

But, the reality is, we all make mistakes and we all sin. It’s part of the human condition. It takes great humility to admit that we have done wrong and to commit to a life of penance to make amends for the pain that we have caused Our Lord and others.

An appropriate apology does not require a perfect performance, but it does include a few basic parts.

First, be specific about what you have done wrong. A general ‘I’m sorry that you are hurt or IF I hurt you or for hurting you’ is insincere at best. It shows a lack of reflection and empathy, compassion, and remorse on the part of the person making the apology. The word ‘sorry’ or even the expression, ‘I’m sorry’, is overused to the point that it’s lost any real credibility when used by an adult, if the person who is receiving it doesn’t understand ego states.

Whatever you have done wrong, be specific, but concise. Details about the wrongdoing are typically unnecessary and only add to the pain of the injury. If the injured person asks questions because they want more details or clarification, answer honestly.

Second point, make no excuses, rationalizations or even try to explain your behavior. Because while some of this may help a person better understand you and your actions, it’s not necessary for you to offer a sincere apology. If you really take a hard look at what influenced you to do what you did, you would even want to use any of these in an apology and you would realize that it’s nothing more than an unconscious attempt to minimize or avoid responsibility. Think about how you have felt when someone has offered you such an apology. It feels insincere at best.

Third, say that you feel sorrow for the pain that you have caused and really mean it. Sorrow means that you feel the pain for all the hurt that you have caused and that you open your mind and heart to move past your mistakes and toward purification by surrendering your life to God. [1]

Lastly, offer to restore justice. Justice, varies based on the offense and in some cases, tangible goods, criminal penalties or civil remedies are not required, relevant, or even possible. Emotional, psychological and spiritual pain that is relieved through forgiveness is a process and a choice that requires the other person to cooperate in order for healing to occur. In every case, you have an obligation to commit to restore justice by whatever means that you are able and, at a minimum, commit to learning and growing so that you can try to avoid doing it again and doing some form of penance for the greater good. In other words, don’t even attempt to make an appropriate apology until you work on getting yourself right with God. He’s the one you need to apologize to anyway. Do all that you can to live a holy life.

Apologies can be hard, especially when you have hurt someone deeply. But an appropriate apology can help bring healing and reconciliation into the world. It’s a step forward on a journey that is a new life, defined by penance and love.

Original publication date 03.19.2021. Post last updated on 12.23.2023.


[1]  Recommended reading. Richmond, R. (1997-2023). Guilt and Forgiveness. Catholic Psychology in association with A Guide to Psychology and its Practice. Retrieved on February 4, 2023, from https://chastitysf.com/q_guilt.htm

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