How to Fix It When I'm Sorry Doesn’t Works

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I’m sorry doesn’t always work. In fact, sometimes, it make matters worse. When you’ve made a mistake, you might not know what to say - or whether you should say anything at all.

This blog shows why I’m sorry doesn't work and how to repair things the right way. But first let’s go back a bit. There is a lot to learn from our own history.

Identifying Old Childhood Messages

When you grow up not hearing people say “I’m sorry” you don't learn the value of an apology. Getting the message that it’s a sign of weakness doesn’t help. Admitting mistakes can trigger shame if you were made to feel bad or wrong as a child. So mistakes get a negative rap, instead of being thought of as an opportunity to learn and be human!

Think about how your family influenced your ability to apologize.

  • Were they able to acknowledge their own behavior when they made a mistake?

  • Did people in your family avoid admitting fault?

  • Did they talk things out or just blame each other?

  • Did anyone give each other the silent treatment as punishment?

  • Were they able to own their mistakes and actually say “I’m sorry”?

When adults don’t model healthy accountability, you, as their child, probably learned to avoid it. How could you do anything else? Hoping that the problem will go away on its own may seem like the easier, softer way until it comes back to bite you.

When you can’t acknowledge the impact of your behavior, people can’t trust you. This becomes a major sticking point in intimate relationships. Being accountable is the best predictor of a healthy relationship because you are willing to look at yourself, not just blame the other person.

How an Apology Works

I’m sorry doesn’t work because it gets overused. These words have become an easy out when you mess up. The problem is that the words I’m sorry don’t really mean anything. It’s a quick fix, not a solution.

What we really want is a sincere acknowledgement of the wrongdoing. I’m sorry simply doesn’t address that. Being accountable also takes a sincerity that’s hard to fake. Making an amends can never be forced. If your partner keeps asking for an apology and you give one, it still doesn't work.

Demanding an apology doesn’t hold the same weight as one that’s voluntarily given. But you can set the example by being accountable the next time you make an oops. You don’t have to make it a big deal - simply say “I could have said that a different way, let me start over.”

This type of comment is considered a repair according to The Gottman Couples Institute. It’s a quick way to handle something before you get too off track. To read more on this click Relationship Repairs.

The Steps of an Effective Apology

When the behavior is more serious, you’ll need to make a formal apology. Here are the steps to show you how. The first two are critical, the last one shows a sincere desire to go above and beyond which can help to rebuild trust.

1. Be Sure You’re Ready Emotionally

Making an effective apology requires patience and a positive attitude. Avoid doing this when you’re feeling rushed or frustrated. Giving someone your full attention during an amends shows that you care. It’s not a two minute thing. By asking them to hear you out, you are showing remorse and compassion for their feelings.

2. Name the Behavior Specifically

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Because “I’m sorry” is a general statement, it falls flat. The other person doubts that you get what you did wrong. Instead, name exactly what you did. This lets the other person know two things: first, that you know the behavior was hurtful; and second, by naming it, you avoid minimizing what happened.

Any type of downplaying the behavior will end up erasing the apology. The same is true with jokes. When you first start apologizing in this new way, avoid making a joke out if it.

A common concern is whether you should repeat profanity and intense name-calling. If that was part of your behavior then absolutely YES. It’s humbling to repeat those words, but they can be a motivator for avoiding it next time.

3. Ask for Feedback

This one takes courage because you are opening yourself up to possibly hear some anger or intense hurt. Asking for feedback could be something like:

“What do you need from me right now?” or “How can I make this right for you?”

Both questions show a willingness to be vulnerable but this doesn’t mean you should be a doormat. There is no need to grovel. You have acknowledged your behavior. When the offense is more serious, like any form of verbal or physical abuse, being able to hear and tolerate their upset ( as long as it’s not abusive ) becomes a part of the amends.

When Should You Apologize?

First, an apology is necessary when it’s clear that you’ve said or done something to upset someone. You’ll feel it in your gut. Make the amends as soon as possible. Waiting makes the other person feel like you don’t care.

Second, an apology is a good idea when you think you may have said or done something wrong but you’re not sure. You may feel a little guilty that you’ve overstepped in some way - but you’re not sure. In this case, you can make a general amends.

Say something like this:

”I’m sorry, I think I might have offended you in some way. Can you help me understand what happened?”

What If You Don’t Think You Should Say Sorry?

Saying I’m sorry when you don’t mean it causes more problems than the original offense. That’s because an insincere apology makes the other person feel defeated, like their feelings don’t count. When you’re in doubt, it’s better to wait.

Sometimes, you’ll want to make the apology anyway. I don’t recommend it but if you’re making an apology when you don't want to, you are trying to:

  • Avoid a potential conflict

  • Keep the peace to make others happy

  • Want to avoid getting into a deep discussion

  • Hope this makes your partner be quiet

When you’re not sure, do some journal writing to get clarity. Write out what happened and when the other person started to get upset. Trace it back to what you said or did to find the perceived error. That can help you see where you went wrong.

If You’re Having Trouble You’re Probably:

  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed of the behavior

  • Assuming that apologizing will create more problems

  • Fearing others will take advantage of you

  • Expecting the other person to make amends instead

  • Fearing that the other person will never let you forget it

  • Thinking, as a parent, that you don’t owe your kids an amends ( yep, you do! )

Think of mistakes as lessons to be learned. Every situation contains a lesson if you’re willing to examine your own behavior. Over time, this makes you a more emotionally available partner, parent and friend.

Final Thoughts

Making an effective apology builds integrity. It’s amazing when you can take full responsibility for your actions. A healthy sense of pride develops. Confidence grows as you acknowledge your mistakes which helps you to move on. Everyone makes mistakes but few have the courage to admit them. Those who can create healthier relationships in the long run. Who wouldn’t want that?


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