We all know a faux apology feels awful. Once you understand exactly why, you empower yourself to make true apologies.

Growing up, my family used to play a game called “Sorry!” “Sorry” was simple, but brutal. You rolled the dice, then moved your colored piece forward. If you landed on the same spot as another player, you knocked them back home, while chanting—with gleefully sarcastic sympathy—”Soooorry!”

Of course, you really weren’t sorry at all. Not when you were sending another player back home, anyway. Unfortunately, you lived by the sword, but you died by it too. Your brief moments of triumph would soon be eclipsed by the yucky feeling of someone else lording it over you with their “apology.”

In real life, faux apologies feel even worse. Real hurts have been incurred. When we’re offered an “apology like, “I’m sorry you felt that way,” we still feel the hurt. On top of that, we feel patronized.

We humans have created entire categories of faux apologies, as detailed in a Psychology Today article called 13 Fake Apologies Used by Narcissists. Here are a few examples:

“I’m sorry if something I said offended you.” (Apologizing in a conditional way.)

“I was just kidding.” (Minimizing the incident.)

“I’m sorry, but maybe you are too sensitive.” (Shifting the blame.)

I think the above article is very helpful in defining what a non-apology looks like, but I can’t agree with pinning these examples solely on narcissists. Whom among us has not used one of these lines? I certainly have. For a long time, I didn’t know any better.

Why a faux apology feels awful

If in my apology to you I deflect responsibility, subtly blame you, make excuses without making amends, or minimize the effects on you, you will feel worse, not better. You may also feel confused, wondering why you are feeling worse, when I just apologized to you.

You may even protest. But if I’m in “false apology mode,” you’ll get no relief. I’ll probably reply in injured tones, “I said I’m sorry! What more do you want?!”

Ugh. Let’s look more closely at why my response feels so awful to you.

Moving through the world together, we will sooner or later “bump” each other. Bumps come in all shapes and sizes: a painful remark, a late arrival, a dented fender, a personal betrayal.

When we “bump” someone else, we create what attachment theorists call a rupture. Whether it’s major or minor, if a rupture goes unrepaired, the relationship suffers.

I’ll say it again: we can’t avoid ruptures. They are part of being alive in our feeling bodies. But we can repair them. If we don’t, the damage builds up and festers.

Here we get to the heart of the problem with faux apologies. The “apologizer” has not repaired the rupture. They haven’t even acknowledged its existence. And they certainly haven’t looked into how to prevent such a rupture happening again.

We can’t control other people or make them apologize to us in a genuine way. So this information is primarily for you to use, yourself. Real apologies aren’t easy to make. But they are a gift beyond price. When you succeed in truly repairing a rupture, you will feel that incomparable satisfaction of mending a relationship.

The 4 elements of a genuine apology

A true apology has four elements, as described in this article by Julie Corliss, the executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter:

  • Acknowledge the offense
  • Explain what happened
  • Express remorse
  • Offer to make amends

Here’s an example from the article:

“I’m sorry I lost my temper last night. I’ve been under a lot of pressure at work, but that’s no excuse for my behavior. I love you and will try harder not to take my frustrations out on you.”

You can see all four steps here. The “perpetrator”— let’s call him Sam, and we’ll call his partner Julie—acknowledges the incident. He offers an explanation. He expresses remorse. Finally, he promises to try harder in the future not to let this happen.

No doubt, Sam’s apology is light years better than the faux apologies we looked at above. Is that it, then? Just four simple sentences, and all is well again between Sam and Julie?

Possibly. If Sam and Julie have a deep bank account of goodwill, and this is an isolated incident, then Sam’s apology will be adequate. But what if Sam has been under pressure for the past year, and this is not the first, but the tenth time he has blown up at Julie? Will the rupture be repaired?

To make this even more obvious, imagine Sam has had an affair. If you were Julie, would your trust be restored, hearing Sam say he’ll “try harder next time?”

Unfortunately, Sam’s apology is still missing several elements you must include if you want to thoroughly heal a rupture.

Nonviolent Communication® to the rescue

I learned the art of the “giraffe apology” from Marshall Rosenberg in his Nonviolent Communication® (NVC) trainings. The giraffe is the mascot for NVC because giraffes have the biggest heart of any land mammal.

NVC has been called “a language of the heart” because it teaches us to speak in terms of our feelings and needs. When we make a giraffe apology, we empathize with the other person’s feelings and needs first. Then we express our own feelings and needs. Once we establish this deeper connection, we can truly repair a rupture.

The Harvard Health Letter article above got us started by defining the four elements of a true apology. But how exactly do you accomplish those steps? Few of us have ever heard a true apology, let alone been taught how to offer one. NVC shows you exactly how.

Making a true apology

Let’s look again at Sam’s original apology:

“I’m sorry I lost my temper last night. I’ve been under a lot of pressure at work, but that’s no excuse for my behavior. I love you and will try harder not to take my frustrations out on you.”

To repair the rupture with Julie, Sam also needs to—

1—Listen to Julie while she describes the effect his behavior had on her, empathizing with the feelings and needs of Julie’s that were not met by his actions
2—Share with Julie the needs he was trying to meet at the time, and mourn the effect his choices had on her
3—Identify and commit to ways he could meet his needs in the future that would not have such a negative effect on Julie

Do you see where the above rupture repair steps are missing in Sam’s apology? Sam says he’s sorry. That’s a start. However, he doesn’t take time to hear from Julie how his behavior affected her. This empathy step is essential for repair.

To see this more clearly, imagine again that Sam has had an affair. How will he and Julie recover, if he doesn’t give her a chance to share the consequences on her of his actions?

Nor does Sam share with Julie the needs that were at play in him, when he did what he did. That means he can’t do the third repair step either—to identify better ways he could meet those needs in the future. You can’t realistically promise to do better, if you don’t know why you did what you did.

A genuine apology requires effort. It also requires courage, especially to hear the painful effects of your actions on the other person. Is it really worth the trouble?

Why true apologies matter so much to HSPs

Highly sensitive people are particularly sensitive to criticism. This means we get “bumped” all the time. We’ve also received faux apologies like “I’m sorry it made you feel that way,” with its implication that it wouldn’t have made you feel that way if you weren’t too sensitive.

In other words, we know better than most people that a faux apology feels awful. This doesn’t mean we know what a real one feels like though: we may rarely if ever have received one. When you know what a true apology sounds and feels like, you empower yourself in three ways:

  • In situations where it matters deeply enough to you to give another person a chance to apologize fully, you know what to ask for. If the hurt was big enough that you aren’t sure you can continue in the relationship otherwise, it’s worth trying.
  • You can imagine what it would be like to receive a true apology. This is a powerful form of self-empathy, and much better than just “sucking it up.” In fact, once you have this self-care tool in your toolbox, you will become less afraid of “bumps.”
  • You can offer genuine apologies to others. As we’ve seen, true apologies require effort and commitment. When you succeed in offering one, though, you will experience the profound satisfaction of a deep reconnection and a renewal of trust.

Apologies make room for our humanity

We all screw up. It’s inevitable. If you know how to apologize well, it takes the pressure off of being human. Few things feel better than having your sincere apology be received by someone you have “bumped.” Being on the receiving end of a true apology is one of those things. It is a rare gift.

My partner offered me such a gift recently. I had knocked on his office door earlier in the day, wanting to give him a good-luck hug before a difficult meeting. He was too stressed to take it in, and I beat a hasty retreat. Imagine how I felt when I walked into the kitchen later and found this note from him on the counter:

Sorry Em!
I was in an intense state when you came in; not fully prepared but not sure about start time.
I imagine it was painful to be received as you were when you were just coming to offer welcome, support, encouragement.
I regret that moment I was not available fully, and regret the consequences on you.
Love, Duke

Later, we talked a bit more about the incident. However, because we take care to check in with each other and repair any ruptures—and because we’ve been together for quite a while–not much more needed to be said. Each of us knew the vulnerability the other had likely been feeling in that moment when we “bumped.”

Still, this reminded me just how powerful apologies are. I hadn’t been looking for one: I had forgotten all about the exchange. But it felt so good to receive this gift from my partner—like a big unexpected deposit in our goodwill account. How wonderful to know we have this power to contribute to others.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash