How to Apologize to Someone You Hurt

We all make mistakes. They don’t make you a bad person; it only makes you human. 

Even though mistakes, mishaps and accidents happen all the time, apologies are still difficult. It’s hard to own up to hurting someone else.

Regardless, apologies are important to maintaining healthy relationships. After hurting someone, an apology can’t undo what happened. Instead, an apology should help mend the relationship so everyone involved can learn and move forward.  

Apologies are for both of you. Apologizing will help you grow as a person and let the other person know you care about them and your relationship. 

The next time you need to apologize, try structuring your apology by following these five steps to help everyone heal.

1. Understand the Situation 

An often overlooked step in the process of apologizing is figuring out what needs to be apologized for. After all, how can you validate the other person’s feelings if you don’t try to see it from their perspective? How can you move forward from this situation if you don’t know what needs to change? 

Before you begin your apology, make sure you understand what just happened and what the repercussions might be. This might require you to actively listen to the other person or take a step back and reflect on the situation, actions, and feelings of everyone involved. This isn’t easy to do.

2. Say Sorry 

A simple “sorry” likely won’t do the situation justice, but it’s a good start!

A lot of times people need to hear the words “I am sorry” to feel you are making an honest apology. This clear statement of ownership is more genuine than other phrases like “mistakes were made” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” because it does not shift blame or attempt to minimize what happened. 

In some situations, being more specific can help communicate that you know exactly what you are apologizing for and be taken genuinely (“I’m sorry for making an insensitive comment about your family” is better than “I’m sorry for whatever I said”). 

3. Acknowledge your Actions 

Apologies are hard because it means we have to take a good look at ourselves and our actions and admit our wrongs. No one likes to be wrong, especially when our error results in hurting someone we care about. 

We might feel uncomfortable, awkward, ashamed, or embarrassed. These are very common feelings in situations where an apology is warranted, but it’s a crucial step in moving forward and healing. Shying away from the truth doesn’t protect you and instead damages people’s trust in you, extends conflicts, and holds you back from personal growth. 

Be honest with yourself and your loved one(s) and don’t beat around the bush. In some situations, particularly if something was an accident and won’t happen again, giving an explanation of your actions may be appropriate. Be careful to avoid excusing your behaviour (“I’m sorry, but I just…”), and instead only give context if it helps explain your action. 

4. Express Remorse 

Put yourself in their shoes and think about how you might feel if the situation was reversed. 

Validate their feelings. Let them know you understand that you’ve hurt them and that they may feel hurt, neglected, sad, etc. You should let yourself be vulnerable in your shame, remorse, or guilt and express how you regret your actions and the hurt it caused. 

This is not the time to feel defensive or resentful, as neither emotion will help either of you move on from this. If you are feeling defensive or resentful, it might help to think of the situation as us working together against a conflict rather than a “you vs. them” battle. 

5. Make it Right

Now, the crucial step: let them know what you will change and follow through. 

Not sure what needs to be changed or have no solutions? Ask them! Asking the person what would be most meaningful for them is a great way to show them that you really care how they feel. This is also helpful to ensure you are on the right path towards healing, rather than taking a course of action that would only relieve yourself of guilt. 

If you seem to be having the same argument repeatedly, take a moment to think about how the last conflict was resolved. Was there anything that we said needed to change, but never actually did? 

The key is holding yourself accountable for the promises made. This demonstrates your commitment to change and genuine regret for your actions. 

Example of an apology 

The Set-Up:  

You come home later than usual after letting off some steam with your coworkers after work and you see that your partner has made dinner and there is a gift on the table. With a sinking feeling in your stomach, you realize today is your anniversary and you have completely forgotten. Your partner is visibly upset, saying your forgetfulness clearly shows you don’t care about them. 

1. Understand the Situation 

Realizing both of you have emotions running high, you take a moment to think about the situation: 

  • What happened? You forgot your anniversary and arrived home late while your partner prepared a special dinner. 
  • How are they feeling? They are feeling hurt, believing you are not putting in effort into your relationship. 
  • How are you feeling? You initially feel defensive — you care a lot about your partner and their accusation feels dismissive of everything you’ve done. You’ve been swamped with work the past couple of months and the stress has been wearing you down and you’ve been feeling very overwhelmed. While so focused on work deadlines, you realize that you may have been too tired or stressed to spend time with your partner and ultimately forgot your anniversary. 

2. Say Sorry 

“I’m sorry for forgetting today was our anniversary and for being late to the dinner you made.”

This is clear and specific about what actions hurt your partner. 

3. Acknowledge your Actions 

“It was wrong of me to forget our anniversary. I’ve been focusing on work a lot lately and I can see that it has been hurting both of us. I realize now that I haven’t spent enough time with you.”

This phrase acknowledges what you’ve been doing wrong both in a larger context of your relationship and this specific situation. It demonstrates you are taking accountability for your actions and are aware of the bigger picture. An important feature is starting with “I” statements because it places you in the active role rather than merely being a bystander of a bad situation (e.g. “I focused too much on work” vs. “work has been busy”). This communicates to your partner an explanation of your behaviour without excusing it. 

4. Express Remorse

“I can imagine that my attention always being on work has left you feeling neglected, hurt, and lonely. Plus, I’m sure my short temper and tiredness from feeling overwhelmed with stress have made you feel worse. I feel terrible and embarrassed that you so thoughtfully made a nice dinner and got me a gift for our anniversary, while I forgot all about it. I want to be clear that my forgetfulness doesn’t mean I don’t care for you, because I do” 

This shows you’ve empathized with your partner’s feelings, acknowledged the hurt you’ve caused, and are willing to be honest with your feelings of remorse. 

5. Make it Right 

“What can I do to make this up to you? Moving forward, I want to leave work at work and spend more quality time with you.”

Asking how you can make it up to them shows that you are making an effort to make things right and care about how they feel. Once they’ve given you a direction or action that you can move forward with, be sure to keep your promise.

Author

  • Next Gen Men is a small but mighty Canadian nonprofit whose work is dedicated to one really ambitious thing - to change how the world sees, acts and thinks about masculinity.

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