What’s Wrong with these Apologies?

(A version of this article appeared in Family Circle November 1, 1998.)

  1. Sorry.
  2. I’m sorry you’re upset.
  3. You know I didn’t mean it. You’re trying to make me feel guilty.
  4. I regard you as a friend. I would never intentionally hurt you.
  5. I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t…

These aren’t genuine apologies, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, M.D., Chancellor/Dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, a psychiatrist who has spent nearly a decade studying shame, humiliation, and the healing role of the apology in restoring personal relationships. He calls them “pseudoapologies” because none of these statements will heal the offended person’s hurt feelings, or mend a fractured relationship. None of these will restore tranquillity, or set the relationship right after the offender has hurt a loved one.

Why? These statements are designed to shield the offender, allowing her to avoid taking responsibility for her actions by owning the offense and making a genuine apology. Dr. Lazare adds, “They’re patronizing and offensive.”

Take another look:

  1. “Sorry” is a perfunctory word offered by the offender to close the subject; or as a demand to the offended: now forget it, and let’s move on. The offender doesn’t state what she is sorry for, why she did what she did, or if she intends to do it again. The word “sorry” itself doesn’t necessarily mean “I apologize.” It may mean, “I’m sorry that happened;” or it may even mean, “I’m sorry I got caught.”
  2. The offender accepts no responsibility. Instead, she places the responsibility squarely back on the offended person by defining the problem in terms of the offended person’s emotions, not in terms of her own actions.
  3. The offender turns the tables here, instead of accepting responsibility and apologizing, she tries to make the offended person feel responsible for her guilt.
  4. If, as the offender states, she would never intentionally hurt the offended, then the offended person is left to conclude it is her fault she feels injured: either the offended person is too thin-skinned, or she has misunderstood.
  5. The offender creates an excuse to escape taking responsibility.