Mental Health

How to Apologise When You Have Hurt Someone You Love

Saying sorry isn’t easy, but offering a sincere apology to someone we have hurt is even harder. An apology can jump-start the process of reconciliation with a person we have offended much more effectively than any material gift. Here is how you should go about it.

By Shreya Maji
17 Aug 2021

“As adults we have two problems with apologising,” says criminal defence lawyer Jahan Kalantar in his TEDx Talk. “One, we never learn how to say sorry properly, and two, we never say sorry because it makes us anxious to do so.” An apology is an explanation with the expression of regret. We grow up equating saying “sorry” to a genuine apology, and believe that it would lead to forgiveness for all our offences. A sincere apology needs to have honesty, accountability, and express the desire for reconciliation.

Mistakes and conflicts are a common part of any relationship, be it romantic, platonic, familial or even professional. We may often say or do things that we don’t mean, or even when we do something with intention, we may end up hurting someone. An apology validates the hurt feelings of the offended person, and makes them feel heard and respected. This increases the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. Wrongdoings can also make the offending person feel humiliated and remorseful—an apology with full understanding of their own mistakes leads to self-forgiveness.


Why is it So Hard to Say Sorry?

According to a study published in 2018 by psychologist Karina Schumann in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, the biggest reason behind our hesitation to apologise is the “magnitude gap”—that is, the difference between our understanding of what we did wrong, and that of whom we hurt. We often try to justify our mistake by describing it as inadvertent, or minimising the hurt that we might have caused. It can be a lack of empathy, and our inability to understand things from the other person’s perspective. Apart from this, writes Schumann, the more serious the mistake, the harder it is to apologise. If what we did threatens our self-image, draws attention to our flaws, or reflects poorly on our moral character, then it can be hard to offer an apology. For example, it might be easy to say “I am sorry” if you forget to text someone back, but it can be much harder to apologise if you forget to show up for pre-decided plans.

Regardless of the magnitude of your error, if you expect forgiveness, a genuine apology is the only way to go. The key to any healthy relationship is open communication, affection and empathy, and this means putting aside your pride in order to understand where you went wrong.

What Does a Sincere Apology Sound Like?

Geeta Magesh, consultant clinical psychologist based in Hyderabad, breaks down the perfect apology into four easy steps.


1. Acknowledge that you have done something wrong.

“Start out by recognising what exactly your mistake was, without getting defensive or trying to protect yourself,” advises Magesh. This means coming to terms with the fact that you made an error, and you need to accept responsibility for it. Nobody is perfect, and mistakes are completely human. Owning up to a mistake can be tough as it comes hand-in-hand with guilt and shame, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Recognising your own errors will also help you to not repeat them in the future.

2. Accept the hurt that you have caused.

We are often guilty of offering non-apologies. These sound something like “I’m sorry, but I didn’t think you’d feel that way”, or “I’m sorry you were offended.” This puts the responsibility of the error on the other person, as it invalidates their genuine feelings of hurt or anger, and it can cause resentment or lead to an escalation of the conflict. What you should say instead are statements where you are fully accepting of your fault in the matter, says Magesh, and this should sound like “I understand that I hurt you when I said that,” or “I know it was me who made you feel that way.”

3. Apologise genuinely, with an explanation if necessary.

“We often say sorry without really meaning it,” Magesh points out. “This reduces the impact of the apology.” The most important thing about saying sorry is sincerity, and a truthful explanation for your actions can be key to working your way towards forgiveness. This means accepting your faults without making excuses for your behaviour, or deflecting blame onto the other person. Avoid saying things like “I know I hurt you, but I only did this because of something you did in the past.” Instead, use personal statements such as “I am sorry I hurt you when I did that.” The person you have hurt would like to know that you understand what exactly was hurtful to them. Make sure you express genuine remorse and make it clear that you would like to rectify the mistake, in order to progress.

4. Make reparations for the damage.

An apology might end with a ‘sorry’, but real repairs take time and effort. “These reparations do not have to be material”, says Magesh. While apology cards or gifts might be all the rage now, doing something emotionally sensitive to compensate for the hurt you have caused would actually be much more effective. For example, if your partner feels hurt because you neglect your children due to stressful work hours, you can promise to spend time during the weekend with them. Or if you forget a friend’s birthday because you were busy elsewhere, offer to take them out for dinner where you can give them your complete attention. These compensations should rectify your mistake, while also being sensitive to the other person’s needs.


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