3 Elements of a Healthy Apology - Sage Hill Counseling

When I was in the 10th grade, I used to intentionally antagonize my French teacher. I would hide her chalk and her coffee mug.  I’d ask to go to the bathroom in Spanish. I’d “forget” that my assigned seat was in the front row right next to her desk. I was a real prince.

We had a little ritual. She’d get fed up and extend some kind of empty threat. I’d say, “I’m sorry.” Then she’d say, “I don’t want you to say you’re sorry. I want you to apologize.” As a sophomore in high school, I definitely didn’t understand that notion, but I’ve never forgotten it.

As an adult, I think I get it a little more. I definitely understand it with regard to my kids who tell me they’re sorry a lot, but I don’t think they’re really apologizing. At least not yet. I see it with clients too. I’ve had more than a few conversations lately about the difference between a hollow and a healthy apology.

Slowly, I’m forming a definition for what a real apology actually is. It includes at least these three elements:

1. Responsibility

A healthy apology includes an awareness and articulation of how your actions and/or intentions were hurtful. It’s not conditional, as in, “I apologize if I offended you.” It’s a clear acknowledgement that your choices have an impact.

2. Empathy

An awareness of how your choices have an impact is the second part of a healthy apology. Understanding the other’s feelings, walking in their shoes, seeing it from their point of view…. Whatever you want to call it, identifying with the other’s experience is essential.

3. Commitment

An apology is hollow if it’s not followed by change. Some commitment to a change in approach or behavior is required to reinforce the sincerity of your mea culpa. Some might call this repentance, but it goes without saying that an actual change in behavior is the only credible follow up to your commitment.

So, here’s what I think my French teacher was actually asking for:

Mademoiselle Reynolds,

I’m sorry that I’ve been picking on you. I was just trying to get attention from my classmates and I made some really juvenile choices as a result. I know that must have been really frustrating for you. You’re just trying to do your job and you don’t get paid enough to deal with punks like me. I bet it makes it hard to look forward to coming to school, if not just my class. I promise to knock it off. I’ll concentrate and even try to hold my friends accountable. You can count on me.


If you need help extending or receiving an apology, don’t hesitate to contact Sage Hill Counseling.



Zach Brittle is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in Seattle, WA where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist and author of the Relationship Alphabet. Follow him on Facebook at Zach Brittle, LMHC or on Twitter @kzbrittle.



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