Sorry & Not Sorry: The Power of Intentional Apologizing

Written by
Jesse Spear
Jesse Spear
multiple authors
Updated on
May 29, 2024 8:19 PM
Using "sorry" effectively means apologizing only when truly necessary. Overusing it dilutes its value. Instead, express gratitude, contributions, and forgiveness.

My mom is my best friend, but I’m not too proud to admit that I was a bit of an angsty teenager. Years ago, I was in the car with my dad, explaining my side of a particularly dramatic mother/daughter argument when he stopped me and said, “Jess, when you’ve upset someone or made them angry, the only way to stop them in their tracks and end the conflict, is to apologize.” It was something so simple, something I thought I already knew, but it has stuck with me ever since.

Unnecessary Apologies

Sorry is a powerful word when used correctly. However, that’s not always the case. I know personally when I’m at my most vulnerable I tend to overuse sorry when it’s not necessary while holding strong in my convictions to not say it when it really is warranted.

The word “sorry” is like a comic book or diamond ring, its value comes from its rarity. However, people — and women in particular — tend to vastly overuse it.

We use it to:

  • Introduce ourselves and our ideas
  • Preface our beliefs and emotions
  • Downplay our accomplishments and compliments
  • Excuse our bodies
  • As a placeholder
  • Passive-aggressively to get others to say it
  • To be polite
  • At the first sign of conflict
  • At no sign of conflict.

We are unapologetically apologetic. But each time we use sorry out of habit, impulse, or in place of something else, we’re stripping it of some of its value. In order to maintain its meaning, as well as our own confidence, we have to be more frugal with our sorries. The best way to do this is to ask ourselves: am I really sorry, or am I something else?

Am I thankful?

Am I thankful my friends waited for me when I was running late? Am I thankful my roommate listened to me vent about a hard day? Am I thankful someone caught that spelling mistake before the slide deck was sent to the client? We can just say thank you.

Am I forgiving?

When someone bumps into me on a crowded day at Trader Joes, I don’t have to apologize. Instead, I can say “after you” “go ahead” or “it’s all good.”

Am I contributing?

Rather than discredit my ideas before I even say them, I can simply say “I have an idea” or “I’d like to add” rather than prefacing with “sorry.”

Am I busy?

I know personally, I start a lot of texts and emails with “sorry for not getting back to you sooner.” But we don’t have to apologize for being busy. We can simply state the circumstances and follow up with that thanks for waiting or thanks for understanding.

Replacing sorry with that more direct or complete thought leads will not overhaul our conversations or make us unlikeable or cold, but it will lead to higher self-worth and more effective communication. And allows us to preserve the value of the word for those times when it’s truly needed.

Necessary Apologies

So who do we give that prized comic book or diamond ring to? When do we apologize? As I learned during my angsty freakout, sorry has healing power. In order to use it effectively, we have to identify a situation that needs healing. In her bookArt of the Apology, Lauren M. Bloom outlines a few of those situations:

Personal Relationships

  • If a relationship needs healing, and we value that relationship and apology might be needed. This could be if a relationship is going well and we do something to jeopardize it or if there’s a broken relationship we need to mend.

Relationships Once Removed

There are instances when we personally might not value the relationship, but someone close to us does—think: in-laws or your best friend’s new boyfriend. Failing to apologize to these people when we’ve hurt them, results in straining a relationship we do actually care about.

Contain an Escalating Crisis

This could be if our actions have put our job or a lawsuit on the line. Sometimes an apology can save ourselves and other people a lot of future pain.

For the Common Good

Maybe we were part of a group that broke a rule or hurt our household, company or community, it’s okay to be the one to apologize for the sake of the common good.

We’re Genuinely Sorry

We’re all human, we make mistakes, and sometimes we just feel bad about it. Emotions that go along with this and signal it might be time to apologize are regret, embarrassment, guilt, or just the desire to change our actions.

This may feel overwhelming. The best thing to do is to take a breath and think before blurting out sorry at the first sign of discomfort. There’s no prize for saying it immediately and finding some white space will allow us to assess the situation. Taking a minute for reflection will not only help us decide if an apology is warranted but if so, it will make for a more effective and intentional one at that.

“…before you can say you’re sorry, you need to decide what you’re sorry about.” 

— Lauren Bloom

Effective Apologies

Now that we know when to apologize, it’s just as important to know how to apologize. An effective apology acknowledges the past and plans for the future.

This list of steps is a cocktail from the ideas of Meygan Caston of Marriage 365, and Bloom:

Step 1: Say You’re Sorry

Bloom tells us, “Be direct, honest, be honest, and don’t get too fancy.”

Step 2: Identify the Action + the Feeling

“I’m sorry that I did X and it made you feel Y.” The more specific you can be the less it will seem you’re apologizing out of obligation.

Step 3: Admit We Were Wrong

Take responsibility without hedging any of the blame. It’s okay to describe the circumstances as long as it doesn’t sound like an excuse. IMPORTANT: we have to be especially careful not to blame the person to whom we are apologizing :)

Step 4: State How We’re Going to Make it Better

This can be something tangible, but it can also be as simple as promising to not repeat the same action. Like previously stated, the more we apologize, the less meaning it has, especially if it’s for the same action again and again

Step 5: Ask for Forgiveness

This one might feel awkward, but according to Meygan Caston it’s vital because resentment comes from lack of forgiveness. And if there’s resentment, we can’t move past the conflict.

Like any behavioral change, intentional apologizing is not an easy switch to be flipped on. Awareness is our friend here. If we can become more aware of our apology impulses, convictions, and methods we can start the journey toward intentional apologies. And we’ll be able to truly experience the power of the most healing word in our vocabulary.

It’s been years since that argument with my mom, and for the life of me, I can’t tell you what started that fight, but I can tell you what ended it.

A big TY to Lauren M. Bloom, J.D., Meygan Caston & Dr. Maja Jovanovic for helping shape this redbit.

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