What to look for in a sincere apology

apologies boundaries emotional health healing mental health trust Apr 15, 2022

Apologies can be difficult for us sometimes. It can be hard to know what to say, to put our insecurities to the side, and to communicate effectively. Because we often have difficulty knowing what we should put in an apology, it can be hard to figure out if we are receiving a sincere apology. 


So, What Should An Apology Look Like? 

When we start an apology, we first want to acknowledge what we did wrong and name it. Take responsibility for your actions in a clear and concise manner, owning up to your parts. Keep your explanation brief because the goal of the apology is to take ownership, not justify yourself. If a boundary was pushed, discuss what is and is not acceptable, and reiterate what the issue was. Above all, you should be empathetic with your apology, express regret and remorse for what was said or done.  


An apology should be made for the right reasons. The goal should not be to push for a result, like ending a fight or getting an apology in return. It should be for taking accountability, expressing remorse, and working to regain forgiveness and trust.  


One of the big takeaways from apologizing is the ability to learn from past mistakes. No one should repeatedly be apologizing for the same thing over and over again. After a while, no matter how sincere the apology seems, there is an apparent lack of care and respect if the person continues to make the same mistakes.  


Fake Apologies 

At first, it can be hard to recognize a fake apology, but once you know the signs, it's easy to spot.  


  • They are sorry for YOUR reaction, not their action. "I'm sorry YOU FEEL that way," "I'm sorry that YOUR FEELINGS got hurt," etc.  
  • If their apology contains an "if" or "but." "I'm sorry IF you're upset," of course you are upset, there is no “if.” "I'm sorry, BUT it was just a joke." When they use “but” they are invalidating what they said before this and then trying to excuse their behavior. 
  • They are vague. We will see this in an apology where they refer to it as "that misunderstanding" or "the situation" instead of saying what happened directly. This is done as a way to distance themselves from what they are apologizing for.   
  • Too much explanation. This is an easy one for many people to overstep because they want to explain what happened. They may do this to try and show the person that what happened was never their intention, but it is still a way to lessen their responsibility. An apology is not meant to justify or explain our actions; it's to take accountability.  
  • Their apology sounds too formal or mechanical, and does not have any real remorse or emotion behind it. Their tone is normal, and they act like they are simply checking something off of their list.  
  • They think that “I’m sorry” is all that is needed. "I said that I was sorry," "I apologized already, what more do you want from me?" and so on. They act that because they apologized, they are owed forgiveness. They often see themselves as the bigger person because they apologized when they “didn’t really do anything wrong” but apologized as a way to end a fight.  


What You Should See In A Sincere Apology 

Now that we know what we should include in an apology and what a fake apology looks like let's break down what we should see/hear in a sincere apology.  


  • Accountability! The biggest sign is that the person owns their actions. A majority of what we saw with fake apologies were the ways that people try to avoid taking responsibility. Directly apologizing for their actions without invalidating their apology with a “but” or trying to explain away their actions, is a great start to a sincere apology. 
  • Empathy and remorse. There is real emotion behind their apology.  
  • Their body language matches what they are saying. They are not scrolling on their phone, watching tv, or doing another task. They are focused on you.   
  • They are clear and concise. They don't give long detailed explanations. They are straight and to the point, keeping the apology focused on them and their actions.  
  • They understand there is a time and a place for the apology. They don't push you to meet or talk to them so they can apologize. They understand that you are in charge of when you are ready to hear from them and that the apology is not meant as a way to ease their guilt.  


An apology is just the first step when seeking forgiveness. It takes time to forgive, and sometimes it takes multiple conversations. The apology is meant to show remorse and take accountability. If you choose to hear it, the explanation can come later. When someone apologizes to you, you don't need to accept and forgive them immediately. And just because you forgive them, that does not mean things have to go back to normal.