COMMENTARY: Authentic Apologies

“I’m sorry.”

These are powerful words. Authentic apologies can work like a healing ointment on old wounds, dissolve bitter grudges, and repair damaged relationships.

They encourage both parties to let go of toxic emotions like anger and guilt and provide a fresh foundation of mutual respect.

But authentic apologies involve much more than words expressing sorrow; they require accountability, remorse, and repentance.

An accountable apology involves a sincere acknowledgment that the person apologizing did something wrong. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” is a fake apology because it accepts no personal responsibility. A better apology is: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” An even better one reveals an understanding of the wrongdoing from the point of view of the person injured and asks for forgiveness: “I’m sorry I called you a bad mother. I was speaking out of anger, and I ask you to forgive me.” Given the natural human tendency to interpret our own words and actions in a manner most favorable to us, it takes great self-awareness to be accountable.

An authentic apology also conveys remorse. It’s easier to forgive persons who have hurt us if we believe they have suffered some pain themselves in the form of regret, sorrow, or shame. Self-inflicted guilt is a form of penance or reparation that clears the road to forgiveness.

Accountability and remorse must also be joined by repentance – recognizing something we did was wrong coupled with a credible commitment to not do it again. Without such a commitment, an apology is hollow. Thus, repetitive apologies for the same conduct are meaningless and often offensive. “I’m sorry” is not a Get Out of Jail Free card that lets people off the hook who repeatedly break promises, get drunk, or say cruel things.

It takes character to both give and accept an authentic apology.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 4

  1. What a heartfelt article to receive. How wonderful your words and they connected so profoundly. You are an incredible person, and I’ll sit in your audience any day of the week!

  2. i’ve often wondered about whether “I’m sorry” is really the same as “I apologize.” I’m sorry seems like it’s more of a statement that ‘I feel bad,’ or ‘I feel guilty.’ Whereas, I apologize seems like a statement that means, I did something wrong and I shouldn’t have done it. in other words, “I apologize” means I take responsibility for my action/behaviour and it wasn’t the right thing to do/say. “I’m sorry,” on the other hand just seems like an expression of a feeling that doesn’t go any further. Of course, with Michael’s three additional steps: acknowledgement, remorse, and repentance, then it probably makes little difference whether someone says I’m sorry or I apologize.

  3. An the greatest authentic apology/repentance is when we recognize the one we have offended the most is God. From heaven flows the healing ointment.

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