The Art of a Sincere Apology & How to Respond to a Non-Apology

Apologies usually usher in a safe space for making amends—when they’re sincere. Sincere apologies communicate regret, remorse, genuine empathy, an acceptance of personal responsibility for a wrongdoing, a promise to learn from mistakes, and a desire to improve. Some apologies, however, aren’t apologies at all and can feel impersonal, contrived, and accusatory, and generic. These non-apologies are usually offered when people don’t think they’re wrong or don’t want to take responsibility for any wrongdoing.

Knowing how to respond to a non-apology and how to utter sincere apologies yourself are some of the fine tune relationship skills that you can work on in individual or couples therapy with a therapist to support you. Our blog today will offer some guidelines, but as always, feel free to reach out to our therapists in Arlington Heights, Roscoe Village and Downtown Chicago if you need some extra support.

Why Are Apologies Necessary?

Admitting you’ve intentionally or unintentionally done something that hurt someone else or something you aren’t proud of can be challenging. Pretending it never happened can seem like an easy fix. But offering an apology is a better one.

When you do or say things that offend someone, sincere apologies can help you repair lost trust. It’s a way of acknowledging and owning up to any wrongdoing. It shows the other person that you respect their feelings and value your relationship with them. “I’m sorry” are two words that can convey that you think a relationship is worth keeping and building.

Sincere apologies come clothed in integrity and honesty, and accessorized with care and humility. When done effectively, apologies:

  • Focus on your action, not the other person’s reaction
  • Make it clear you’re sorry for what you said or did, even if it was unintentional
  • Take responsibility for your words or behavior and how they made someone feel without any excuses or explanations
  • Acknowledge that you hurt someone
  • Validate the other person’s feelings
  • Convey that you want to make amends
  • Discuss what it’ll take to make amends in the context of your relationship
Why do some apologies heal and make us feel optimistic about our relationships, while others make us feel vengeful, insulted, or disrespected?

What makes an apology acceptable can differ from person to person. Sincere apologies allow us to achieve reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness. Non-apologies, however, stunt progress and reconnection.

At Pure Health Center, our mental health experts help individuals, families, and couples learn how to apologize well. Specifically, clients learn the do’s and don’ts of sincere apologies and how to respond to a non-apology and receive practical communication tools that enhance relationships.

What is a Non-Apology?

While some people may over-apologize (which is a topic for another day), others may be guilty of under-apologizing or not apologizing. We call these non-apologies.

A non-apology is an insincere apology without regret, remorse, or responsibility for offenses. These non-apologies can make recipients feel they wouldn’t want to reconcile with you. Even if you have good intentions, giving someone a non-apology can make them feel invalidated, undermined, manipulated, or misunderstood.

What Does a Non-Apology Sound Like?

When someone gives you a non-apology, they’re implying that you don’t necessarily deserve an apology because they didn’t do or say anything offensive to you; you just overreacted. Non-apologies can take the form of sincere apologies, but they contain excuses and blame-shifting rhetoric that ultimately gaslights the offended person, psychologically manipulating them. They often include conditional modifiers like ‘if’ and ‘but’ and perpetuate the idea that the problem lies in how the offended party’s perception of what happened.

Common non-apologies include:

  • “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
  • “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • “I’m sorry, but you started it.”
  • “I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.”
  • “Mistakes were made.”
  • “I was only kidding.”
  • “I was just trying to help.”

Are we conditioned to give non-apologies?

When we were children, it was common for caretakers to force us to apologize when we were the cause of something hurtful. And how often does the following scenario play out?

The child refuses to apologize until again prompted by an adult. At this point, they give a reluctant, remorseless apology, to which the adult often replies, “say it like you mean it.”  We were masters of the non-apology from an early age.

Many adults try instilling the importance of ‘saying sorry like you mean it’ in children, only these lessons don’t cover what it actually means to apologize well. They don’t teach us to be the bigger person. Instead, they reinforce non-apologies: forced apologies that lack sincerity, sympathy, and empathy, hint at offensives without owning up to them, and are only offered to make the problem disappear.

How to Respond to a Non-Apology

Learning how to respond to a non-apology is as crucial as learning how to apologize sincerely. No one’s required to accept an apology, nor should someone feel bad for rejecting an insincere one. Effective ways to respond to non-apologies include:

  • Telling them why their apology is insufficient. You may feel that when you’ve been offended by someone, it’s not your job to tell them how or why they’ve offended you. However, you have a responsibility to your feelings to be transparent and point out why their non-apology won’t solve anything. Pointing out the flaws in a non-apology may challenge the friendship, but could also strengthen the respect you have for one another.
  • Boundary-setting. Be assertive yet calm when responding to non-apologies and let people know that you only accept apologies that express accountability, regret, an understanding of your feelings, and an attempt at reconciling the issue and relationship.
  • Taking some time before revisiting the issue. Sometimes, forgiveness takes a while, and you don’t have to rush it. Sometimes, the best advice for how to respond to a non-apology is to practice delay, and not respond right away. Explaining yourself can be draining, especially when you’re missing the communication skills or emotional language needed to share your point of view. It’s okay to take time to reflect on what happened or process the situation with your individual or couples therapist. After some time has passed, or in the safety of a therapy session, you may find clarity to speak about the issue without becoming emotionally triggered.

Learn Apologizing Rightfully and Respectfully at Pure Health Center

Knowing what separates sincere apologies from insincere or incomplete ones can help you know how to respond to a non-apology. It can help you respond to and give sincere apologies, too.

Adhering to the following six A’s can help resolve issues and help people give and receive sincere apologies that demonstrate consideration and effort.

  • Admit you made a mistake
  • Apologize for making it
  • Acknowledge whatever went wrong that prompted your mistake
  • Attest to what you’ll do to fix the error and overcome the aftermath of it
  • Assure the communication skills or healthy coping mechanisms you’ll use to avoid repeating the same mistake
  • Abstain from making the same mistake

The art of giving and receiving apologies is not one-size-fits-all, and there are many complexities to be considered when dealing with the intricacies of human relationships. If you’re looking for support beyond what this blog can provide, consider reaching out to PURE Health Center, with offices in downtown Chicago, Arlington Heights, and Roscoe Village. Our individual and couples therapists will give you the coping skills and judgment-free support you need to grow into a healthier version of yourself and relationships.

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