Relationship Repair when Apologies are Due

HOW to Apologize
beginning with how NOT to

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Intentionality Series

Find it on ADDCoach Wisdom on Pinterest – linked to

Just because we didn’t do something intentionally (“on purpose”), doesn’t mean the injured party is not entitled to a sincere apology for the reality that we were involved and that something was damaged – or somebody was hurt – as a result.

Apologizing doesn’t mean that you have been purposely wrong and that the other person is absolutely right. It means that you value your relationship more than your ego.

ADD/EFD oopses

Far more often than many of the neurotypical members of society, those of us with what I refer to as Alphabet Disorders (AD[h]D, EFD, TBI, OCD and more) tend to say and do things that get us into hot water with our friends and loved ones.

  • Unfortunately, according to a great many of my clients through the years, instead of cleaning it up and asking for forgiveness, we tend to allow hurt and resentment to fester as a result of our reluctance to apologize.
  • Even more often, we make things even worse by our bungling attempts at taking responsibility for our actions when we do attempt to say we’re sorry – making it even more difficult for us to decide to apologize in the future.

While we might argue that the above points are two sides of the same coin, shame (certainly a factor), I have observed that only a few of us truly understand HOW to apologize – so we tend not to offer them as often as they are deserved.

That’s unfortunate, because apologizing costs us nothing, means a great deal to those we have disappointed or offended, and is a relatively easy thing to learn to do in an effective manner.

8 Reasons we don’t apologize more readily & more often

There are probably as many explanations as there are people who “refuse” to apologize, but they tend to cluster in areas similar to one or more of those below.

  1. We have collapsed blame, fault, and intentionality with apologyThey are NOT the same, and the presence of the former is completely unrelated to the need for an apology.
  2. Our egos are attached to appearing “perfect” or loving or emotionally sensitive in some black and white manner, fearing that apologizing makes us seem weak, ineffective or damaged in some fashion beyond that which we already fear that we might be.  The opposite is actually true.
  3. We aren’t fully appreciating the feelings of the individual at the effect of our actions, words or behavior, frequently because we ourselves would not respond in a similar manner.  We let ourselves off the hook with the lame excuse that they are “over-reacting”  — contexting our actions their fault.
  4. We feel as if we’re “always apologizing” – most often because we’ve been told that so many times throughout our lives we’ve concluded that yet another won’t really make much of a difference anyway. How can we expect to rebuild trust if we won’t take responsibility for our actions when they are hurtful?
  5. We don’t know how to “fix it,” and we are hoping that saying nothing will allow it to become no more important than a bit of dirt under a carpet.  By the time our attention is drawn to the huge dirty pile in the corner, it seems as if it really could be too late to repair the damage.
  6. They are younger than we are, or less senior, so we allow ourselves the excuse that an apology from us would be “inappropriate.”  Even very young children and junior office assistants are entitled to an apology whenever our actions would merit an apology to someone older or more senior – especially if we didn’t intend harm.
  7. It takes us a while to realize that an apology is probably due – or to work up the courage to offer one – and we don’t know how to begin at a later date.  It’s never to late to attempt to set things right.
  8. We lack the skill. When we believe we are apologizing, the person on the receiving end hears something entirely different: an attempt to shift the blame.

Whatever underlies our reticence or lack of effectiveness, we can learn to apologize effectively, and our happiness with our relationships will improve significantly once we do.

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Toward effective apologies

Practice makes perfect

Contrary to what we may fear, the more often we apologize the better we become at apologizing effectively – and the more likely our apologies will be accepted.

It’s perfectly okay and, in fact, advisable, to begin by disclosing that you’ve never been great at apologizing, but that you sincerely want to be given the chance to try, to ask for forgiveness, be given a chance to attempt to set things right and mend your relationship.

It’s also okay to begin with your realization that you have committed a repeat offense, as long as the resulting apology and your attempts at change are sincere – and sincerely expressed.  That means you must pay careful attention to your tone of voice!  Any tone that smacks of sarcasm or attempts at humor will absolutely backfire.

What else NOT to do

An apology is not the time to attempt to explain why you did whatever it was that you did – that will almost always be heard as an attempt to excuse your action rather than apologize for it.  Don’t be surprised if their reaction to that approach is an increase of whatever you hoped would settle down.

At another time, on another day, you can ask if you can attempt to explain what you were thinking, but don’t mingle it with your apology and expect it to be effective.

If the person to whom you are apologizing is not yet ready to hear “your side of things,”  let it go for now – unless you want to start an argument guaranteed to cause additional hurt feelings or relationship damage.  Take it as your cue to repeat your most sincere version of, “I’m really sorry, I hope you will be able to forgive me.” 

Depending on the severity of what you did, or how often you have repeated even what you consider a trivial behavioral oops, be prepared to “grovel.”

If you truly hope to be forgiven you may have to apologize quite a few times before they are interested in hearing what else you have to say about why you did it, why it continues to occur – or what they might change to make it less likely to occur in the future.

An apology is also not the time to lead with their emotional reaction to whatever it was that you did.  “I’m sorry you’re hurt (or angry)” isn’t an apology for your action.  It’s also no good to avoid specifics in a introductory comment like, “I’m sorry I made you angry” or “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”  The person on the receiving end is more likely to shut you down and stop listening if that’s how you begin.

You need to validate their right to their reaction to the specifics of what you did.

  • How can you expect to convince them that whatever won’t continue indefinitely if you can’t even detail the action that deserves an apology?
  • How can you expect them to believe that you are truly sorry for your actions if the first thing you mention seems to say that you regret your exposure to their emotional state?

Be prepared for some additional negative reaction before they are ready to let it go.

An apology isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Saying you’re sorry doesn’t change what happened.

If you are unable to “replace the plate,” at least extend the courtesy of allowing them to mourn its loss!

WHATEVER you do, do NOT attempt to characterize their emotional reaction — leading up to what you did OR following it — as inappropriate in any manner. You don’t get a vote where their emotions are concerned.

Words like childish, temper-tantrum, and over-reacting can leave lasting wounds and delay or prevent relationship repair – unless you are using them to describe your own behavior, not theirs.

Give up tit-for-tat

If you’d rather be happy than right, you need to think about taking responsibility for your own actions as a solo act. If you value the health of your relationship, when both of you are in the wrong you need to be willing to be the FIRST to apologize — and be willing to, at times, be the only one to apologize.

If you believe that you are due an apology, be direct and ask for one humbly and outright – just not in the same conversation where you offer your own.

If the only reason you are apologizing is to garner an apology in return, you’re not really apologizing, you’re manipulating. Manipulation rarely works.

It might seem to work in the short-term, but it will ultimately backfire. Before long, it will undercut the value of any future attempts at sincere apologies, resulting in significant damage to the future of your relationship.

The graphic below is a wonderful summary of many of the points in this article.  Check out some of the related links around the internet as well. (Keep scrolling – you’ll always find them at the very end of articles on

MANY THANKS to well-known Canadian author D.G.Kaye (Debby Gies) for promoting this article a year after it was originally published.

For those who don’t already follow her, she is a talented memoir writer with a wicked sense of humor, sharing the insights from her own life in arenas as varied as packing, traveling and shopping (Have Bags, Will Travel), struggling through MENO-WHAT? and her challenges dealing with her feelings about an estranged relationship with her delusional and narcissistic mother facing the end of life, wanting from her daughter what she was never able to give to her (Conflicted Hearts and PS. I Forgive You).

If you don’t already know Debby, click the links above to jump over and check out her enlightening and heartfelt books by reading a few reviews and excerpts, and stay to explore some of the other delights on her blog and website. I promise you’ll be very glad you did.

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

46 Responses to Relationship Repair when Apologies are Due

  1. Excellent advice. I do have the habit of saying I am sorry a lot… I think much of that stems from my childhood… Having had a similar Mother to that of Debby’s .. So reading this makes so much sense .. As I would be the first to say sorry, even though at times I knew I had done nothing wrong.. Just to get my Mother to speak to me again..
    We are a strange breed.. at times..

    Many thanks for sharing your wisdom Madelyn …
    Sue 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Sue, my heart breaks to read that your mother was like Debby’s – that “freeze you out” manipulation is so damaging, especially to children. One of my brothers was married to a woman who pulled that stunt as well, and I believe she died before ever becoming aware of how distancing and damaging it was to their marriage.

      I won the Mom lottery – she was my champion, even though her own (my grandmother) could have gathered around a cauldron with the two of yours. My mother stopped abuse in a single generation, which I think is simply amazing – and she somehow managed to foster the development of empathy without shaming any of her 5 children.

      Even so, it took a great deal of Self-development over the years to understand the difference between “making nice” and “making relationship,” and especially where to locate and how to establish healthy boundaries. I did a great deal of work there – and my coaching mentor taught me some wonderful techniques that helped tremendously.

      For you and Deb, I can imagine, no healthy boundary other than walking away would ever have worked – it would not with my grandmother. Even though it broke my mother’s heart, I stopped going home for Christmas once she moved in because I simply would not subject myself to her behavior after I understood clearly how damaging it was.

      Thanks for commenting – there are many of us who use the words, “I’m sorry” reflexively (mostly women, I’ve observed – and a few have commented about that here). All the more important to understand how to apologize sincerely when an apology is due. A well crafted, sincere apology is SO healing for both parties.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What a beautiful reply Madelyn. And yes totally agree with your last sentence “A well crafted, sincere apology is SO healing for both parties.” so true..

        I was the eldest of 5 siblings and I guess when the others came along I was drafted into the role of surrogate Mother . And my middle sister still to this day says I was more a Mum to her than our Mother..

        Its not until later years you come to understand the personalities and the why a person can not GIVE of themselves to others. Always a condition upon it.

        I was shown the door at 18 because We didn’t agree.. Over a piece of cheese no less.. LOL.. Yes.. I went to live with my aunt for a time.. But then asked to come home because of my job being a distance away..
        Her first words were to her New Rules..

        I could write a book.. Lol.. But its best left in the past.. But will just say that when my children were teens she stopped speaking to me again and to be really honest the disagreement was over something trivial again.. She wanted everyone on her side all the time.. When she divorced my Dad she demanded we have nothing to do with him.. I said it was between them not me.. He was still my Dad. I went repeatedly with door shut in my face.. She even stopped speaking to my middle sister because she said the same.

        Even when my middle sister had breast cancer.. I wrote a letter posted it through her letter box.. Begging her to get in touch with her.. She didn’t..
        Later after a few years my sister plucked up the courage to ring her..
        My mother said WHO.? When she said her name.. It was awful for my sister..

        10 years we didn’t speak, then one day the Universe gave us a second chance.. We bumped into each other in our town.. As we rounded a corner.. I spoke straight away asking how she was.. She scowled at me, turned on her heels and almost ran the other way..

        That was in the November.. By the following April she died..

        So… It took me a long while in those 10 years and afterwards to let her go.. For she was a very powerful controlling woman who lied and manipulated the family.. Dad getting much of blame.. It wasn’t until later years you understood his own frustrations and how she would twist things around to be the victim….
        Anyhow.. Confession over..

        Thank you for listening Madelyn.. What you do is remarkable.. And so needed..

        Love and Blessings Sue xxx

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you so much for sharing your story, Sue — always welcomed and appreciated here, btw. Your mother and my maternal grandmother sound like they were cut from the same cloth. It took me longer than 10 years after she died to forgive my grandmother for how she treated my mother’s younger brother, his wife Ann, his oldest daughter and me.

          The only way I can approach forgiveness for how she treated my amazing mother (who did NOT pass it on) is to try to remember what a sad and angry soul Gram must have been if the only way she could feel good about herself was to make someone else feel horrible (or try to).

          Thank you also for the acknowledgment – always wind beneath tired wings.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Tina Frisco says:

    Madelyn, this is the best article I’ve ever read on apologies and forgiveness. It is clear and very well-written. You’ve left no stone unturned. I noticed you placed “grovel” in quotes and wonder how you define it. I’m assuming you don’t mean obsequious, because that might give the wrong impression to the person to whom we’re apologizing. As you said, we need to take responsibility for our actions as a solo act; so it follows that the other person needs to do the same. We all need to own our feelings and realize that no one else can make us feel a certain way. So how do define “grovel”?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. adeleulnais says:

    I loved this article and recognized a lot of times when it happened but with me, I tend to apologize all the time, sorry is a word that is constantly out of my mouth. I think it’s because of my mental health and my past of being abused and put down constantly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. dgkaye says:

    Wow, I loved this article Madelyn. My latest book is all about finding forgiveness for my mother. It took many years (decades) to find forgiveness for an emotionally neglectful mother, after waiting a lifetime to hear an apology which never came. Your words are the perfect anecdote for apologizing and forgiveness. ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Osyth says:

    This is SO fabulous …. sorry really is the hardest word but armed with this, it might not be quite so difficult. Being British I apologise for apologising by the way … we are just always sorry though mostly it’s a ‘have a nice day’ reflex and we don’t mean it at all. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Osyth. Women in America are similar. We also say,”Sorry?” if we don’t hear or understand and sometimes if “excuse me” is actually what is meant (like reaching past someone in the supermarket) — sometimes even after sneezing! But rarely is it a sincere apology.

      Most of the men I’ve known throughout my life, on the other hand, rarely use the word at all. They are more likely to say, “I apologize” and are likely to get irritated if that alone doesn’t fix everything – NEVER when the apology is just lip-service.

      I wrote the article for a young male friend after we went round and round about an action that REALLY required a sincere apology, upset with me because I did not accept his “apology” and move on. He continued to “excuse” rather than apologize, i.e., – “I did that because this was going on.”

      Perhaps, but he didn’t get the trust element. How was I to trust his promises to me going forward? Only after I refused to engage with him *at all* for several months was he finally ready to listen, and we finally reengaged.

      He finally got it that he cannot “over-promise and under-deliver” and that when things get screwy he must call to make a new plan ASAP. btw- this same behavior had been a problem at work for him as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Men seem to be worse at apologising than women.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dizzy Chick says:

    First want to let you know, Dizzy Chick is me, Wendy. I started a new blog where I can be more open about things so my family doesn’t see it, and I don’t want Wendy in my comments. I don’t know how I’ll keep up with both of them. and Picnic with Ants has been doing very well lately. I just wrote a post on the new one that could easily have gone on Picnic. I’m confusing myself.

    Great Article!! I admit my husband is better at apologizing than I am. Well, kind of. I will apologize, I think we both have the bad thing of saying…why it happened.

    sometimes when he apologizes I feel I need to apologize for my reaction. He is so hurt, he didn’t mean to hurt me, and wants to make it better. That’s great, but then I feel like how I felt was not how I should have felt. I never want to make him feel bad. Perhaps that’s just love. We don’t mean to hurt each other, when we do we are genuinely sorry, and the other person care so much they hate to see the person who just apologized in pain.

    I am usually the firs to apologize in my family. Even if I don’t feel it was my fault, I will be the bigger person. My family likes to just move on. Don’t discuss it, just forget it and move on. Needless to say there are a lot of unresolved feelings there.
    sometimes what hurt you needs to be discussed, so it won’t happen again. If someone apologizes because someone is hurt but they don’t really know why, then it doesn’t help. It will most likely happen again.
    I have apologized and been brushed off by family so often I think, do they even know what happened? and sometimes, often, I am the person who was hurt first and I retaliated. I am sorry for my actions and don’t want it to happen again…but let’s talk about it and figure out why happened so it won’t continue to happen.

    I’m going in circles I know.
    can you tell I have trouble with this with certain people?
    It always hurts when you apologize because you do feel you reacted wrong, and the other person doesn’t own up to what they did. Then I’m hurt again.

    long enough comment again I know.
    great topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eager to check out your new blog. Great name for it. Dizzy Chick still clicks to Picnic, btw.

      Most people will probably think that dizzy means something like “lightheartedly crazy” – which, of course, describes even the best of us at times. The double meaning of your blog name is clever.

      I’m not surprised by your comments about apologies. I’ve heard similar many, MANY times through the years – which is one of the reasons I wrote this post.

      Another is that I’ve relatively recently had an experience with the “blame shifting” kind of mock apology for repeated over-promising and under-delivery that, in common with his repeated behavior, probably sounded the death knell to our relationship [casual, not romantic, btw].

      I guess my fantasy is that he might find his way here, read it, and figure out how to take responsibility for his actions so that his behavior might change (unless, of course, he really DOES believe it’s my problem that I don’t consider the words “I apologize” some kind of abracadabra that repairs everything, removing my entitlement to any feelings about any consequences of his actions in MY life, despite how many times his behavior repeats).

      I probably wait too long to do so, wanting to believe the best in people, but I eventually set barbed-wire boundaries around one-way relationships when attempts at rebalancing fall on deaf ears. Sad, but beats the alternative in my mind.

      Anyway, I wanted to share here some of the points of the discussions I have had with clients who didn’t understand why their apologies seemed to make things worse.


      • Dizzy Chick says:

        I hate to hear about your relationship, its hard to lose any when you’ve invested yourself in it.

        You taught me well with this post. Today was aggravation day for me and hubby, nothing worked right, just one of those rare days. A few apologies were said, I took your advice and worded mine very carefully. Then S said he was sorry, then he tried to explain, he didn’t take his meds. I stopped him and said that it sounds like it’s not a real apology when he does that, first apologize, the later we can talk about circumstances, if it’s together it sounds like, I was a jerky but it wasn’t my fault. Even if the lack of meds makes him more grouchy I want a real apology first. And I need to always do that for him.

        Than you again for this article.



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