When should I say “I’m sorry?”

don't apologize by default woman looking away

Making a good apology is essential for having healthy relationships. But knowing when and how to apologize is a lot more complicated than most of us expect. Is our apology sincere, or do we secretly believe someone else is to blame? Should we apologize to begin with, or are we allowing ourselves to be pressured into feeling guilty over something that isn’t our fault or responsibility?

First off, stop apologizing by default. If you respond to every complaint with an immediate “I’m sorry,” you risk three things:

  1. You sound (and maybe even are) insincere. Have you even listened to the complaint, or are you just saying “I’m sorry” to shut the other person up? At its worst, an insincere apology shifts blame onto the other person. What it says is, “I’m apologizing to be polite, but really you’re being unreasonable.”
  2. Even when you do mean it, apologizing right away can be a form of avoidance: you fear conflict, so instead of hearing the other person out you shut them down by immediately accepting blame and forestalling further discussion.
  3. You accept responsibility uncritically, even for things that aren’t your fault. At worst, you may even come to believe that everything is your fault.


But the larger question is: What are we actually owning with our superfluous “I’m sorrys?” Are we owning our own actions, or somebody else’s?

At heart, this is a question of responsibility. What do we consider ourselves responsible for, and how should we take ownership of those things?

Be more thoughtful about what you apologize for. Some of us have an almost instinctive belief that if someone is upset with us, it must be because of something we did. Maybe it’s not entirely our fault, but (we think) if we had only been more patient, more considerate, more on top of everything, the problem could have been avoided. Some of us grew up thinking this way, but we can also be manipulated into thinking that way by someone who is trying to make us feel guilty for things that aren’t our fault. At its worst, this is a form of abuse.

The truth is: nobody is 100% perfectly aware and forward-thinking at all times. Stop apologizing for not having supernatural abilities.

Apologize for the actions you are willing to own. Never apologize for anything else.

Iris Proctor
Iris is the director of ArborWoman.