The Power of "I'm Sorry": Offering Forgiveness to Others and Yourself

Do you remember being little, getting into a fight with your siblings, and you were told to “say you’re sorry like you mean it”? Apologizing has always been a difficult thing for us but self development app LIFE Intelligence is here to help teach you the steps to work up that apology. Saying sorry is an important step in relationships because it is the bridge to rebuilding trust after a disagreement or mistake was made. Visit lesson 8.3 in our app for a more in-depth look at how to apply apologies successfully to resolve conflict.

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Why do we say sorry?

Those two little words, “I’m sorry” can have a huge impact on the person whose feelings have been hurt, especially if the apology is a sincere one. Schumann (2018) outlines eight elements of a comprehensive apology:

  1. expression of remorse
  2. acceptance of responsibility
  3. offer of repair
  4. explanation
  5. promise to behave better
  6. acknowledgement of harm
  7. admission of wrongdoing
  8. request for forgiveness

These might seem like self-explanatory elements of an apology, but they are often easy to forget since it is difficult to fully express our feelings in the moment.

Interestingly, a study done by Gulifiyle et al. (2019) showed that of the top three groups in our lives, we commit transgressions against these three most commonly: romantic partners (~33%), family members (~27%), and friends (~23%). This is not surprising since it is easy to hurt the people we are closest to, but it does further stress the importance of apologizing.

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Sincere Apologies

No apology is often better than an insincere one (Grover, 2019). Apologizing is not just about the words; body language always has a strong factor in how that apology is received (Eftimie, 2019). When you apologize, make sure to face the person, look them in the eyes, give them a hug if you feel it is appropriate. These small gestures show a sincere desire to fix the mistake, express remorse, and request forgiveness.

When apologizing, think about the last time someone apologized to you. What did they do that helped the situation? What could they have done better? Self-affirmation theory encourages us to reflect on our own values and utilize those into how we communicate, and apologize, to other people so that we can have an empathic, understanding state of mind (Schumann, 2014).

Why is apologizing so hard?

Comprehensive apologies, detailed above, leave us at the risk of exposure because we are admitting that we have done something wrong and are risking the rejection of the other person not accepting our apology. Sometimes when we feel guilty, we use “nonapologies” and act defensively by victim blaming, justifying our actions, or minimizing the damage done (Gulifoyle et al., 2019).

Example 1: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Think about the underlying message of this phrase. It doesn’t address the transgressors’ action that caused those feelings or give an offer to fix their mistake. Instead, you could say something like, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way. What can I do to fix it?”

Example 2: “I’m sorry I called you [stupid] but it’s not my fault you…”

You can insert any sort of description into those brackets and see this as an example of victim blaming. If one were to hear this apology, they would be unlikely to forgive the person who hurt them (understandably) because this person doesn’t seem to want to make amends and is instead using the apology to further criticize their victim.

Example 3: “I’m sorry if I hurt you by…”

When you are apologizing, make sure to fully, sincerely recognize the other person’s feelings. The word “if” can signify a doubt that you actually did hurt them when, in the other person’s mind, you definitely did. Make sure to state your apology clearly so that the other person feels the situation, and their feelings, have been fully recognized and acknowledged.

Nonapologies will only further the conflict and lessen the chances that the issue may be resolved, even if these defensive strategies are not done maliciously. Oftentimes, we use defensive mechanisms out of fear. Schumann (2018) presents 3 barriers for apologizing, reasons why it may be difficult to offer those sincere apologies:

  1. low concern for victim/relationship
  2. perceived threat to self-image
  3. perceived apology ineffectiveness

Apologizing can be a nerve wracking thing because it involves giving up power (Okimoto et al., 2013) and admitting we were wrong, but it can also be a cathartic act. Although admitting we did something wrong is difficult, living with that guilt may be even more damaging. “Sincerely asking for forgiveness relieves us from the burden of inexplicable pain, resentment, anger” (Eftimie, 2019).

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Healthy Benefits of Apologizing

Apologizing might be scary because it makes us vulnerable, but that vulnerability makes our relationships stronger. Trust and vulnerability go hand and hand for strong relationships and apologies. The best way to build a strong relationship and show that you care about your partner’s feelings is to apologize when you have made mistakes so that you can both move forward, acknowledging and fixing the issue (Strelan & Krieg, 2017).

When you apologize to someone else, you indirectly apologize to yourself. Oftentimes, when we make a mistake or hurt someone’s feelings, we feel guilty and want to make up for this. Saying sorry relieves us of this guilt and allows us to forgive ourselves; in the end, both the victim and the transgressor should feel that the issue has been resolved (Mu & Bobocel, 2019).

Another frame of an apology is that it gives us the opportunity to voice anger or contempt and ask for an apology. Although anger and contempt seem like negative emotions, bottling them up is unhealthy and addressing these emotions can have emotovational goals, like getting that apology (Fischer & Roseman, 2007).

Apologizing simultaneously allows us to ask forgiveness from another person while forgiving ourselves from the guilt we may have been holding onto. Those two words “I’m sorry” can be difficult to say but by reflecting, considering the impact of that apology, and recognizing the value of forgiveness, it is possible to provide that apology and start rekindling whatever relationship might be on your mind today.

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Develop Your Skills Further with LIFE Intelligence

Apologizing is an incredibly important component of how we communicate with people, especially those closest to us, because it is a sign that a relationship can be trusted and built upon.

Download LIFE Intelligence, an app that teaches you the skills to better your life by mastering mood, managing stress, and building healthy relationships. LIFE Intelligence provides a mental roadmap to help you in every aspect of your life: self, career, and romantic relationships. It’s important to take time for yourself; get started with LIFE.

Chiara Nicholas
June 14, 2021

Eftimie, S. (2019). Forgiveness and Apologizes in Human Relationships. Jus et Civitas, VI

(LXX)(2), 49–54.

Grover, S. L., Abid-Dupont, M.-A., Manville, C., & Hasel, M. C. (2019). Repairing Broken

Trust Between Leaders and Followers: How Violation Characteristics Temper Apologies. Journal of Business Ethics, 155(3), 853–870.

Fischer, A., & Roseman, I.J. (2007). Beat them or ban them: the characteristics and social

functions of anger and contempt. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93 1, 103-15 .

Guilfoyle, J. R., Struthers, C. W., van Monsjou, E., & Shoikhedbrod, A. (2019). Sorry is the

Hardest Word to Say: The Role of Self-Control in Apologizing. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 41(1), 72–90.

Mu, F., & Bobocel, D. R. (2019). Why did I say sorry? Apology motives and transgressor

perceptions of reconciliation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(8), 912–930.

Okimoto, T.G., Wenzel, M. and Hedrick, K. (2013), Refusing to apologize can have

psychological benefits (and we issue no mea culpa for this research finding). Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 43: 22-31.

Schumann, K. (2014). An affirmed self and a better apology: The effect of self-affirmation on

transgressors’ responses to victims. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 89–96.

Schumann, K. (2018). The Psychology of Offering an Apology: Understanding the Barriers to

Apologizing and How to Overcome Them. CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE, 27(2), 74–78.

Schumann, K., & Orehek, E. (2019). Avoidant and defensive: Adult attachment and quality of

apologies. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 36(3), 809–833.

Strelan, P., Karremans, J. C., & Krieg, J. (2017). What determines forgiveness in close

relationships? The role of post-transgression trust. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56(1), 161–180.

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