We’re taught from a young age that whenever we hurt someone or upset them with our words or our actions, we should apologize. We need to say sorry for the things we did wrong and ask the other for their forgiveness. And because apologies help renew trust, soothe emotional wounds, and repair damaged relationships, sincere apologies are key to maintaining a strong, healthy, and meaningful relationship. So why is it so hard for some people to say they’re sorry?
When someone hurts you and gives you a fake apology, it can feel just as worse as them never even apologizing at all. Fake apologies are insincere, manipulative, and oftentimes very confrontative. Some people get defensive when you tell them that they’ve done something wrong and may react by denying it, playing the victim, making excuses, or shifting the blame on someone else. With that said, here are 7 tell-tale signs that can help you spot an insincere apology:
1. “I’m sorry, but…”
“I’m sorry but I never wanted to do this.” “I’m sorry, but there was no other way.” “I’m sorry, but this hurts me as much as it hurts you.” Any of these sound familiar to you? If an apology is ever followed by the word “but”, then that’s already a definite red flag. Though the other person is saying they’re sorry, they’re not really apologizing as they should. Instead, they are trying to make you feel like they had it worse and because of that, you have no right to expect an apology from them. Because what they’re really saying is: “I’m the real victim here, not you. I’m hurting, too, and my feelings matter more than yours” (Schumann, 2018).
2. “No, you’re taking it all wrong!”
Another common type of fake apology is the “No, no, you’re completely missing the point!” or “I’m sorry you took it that way.” And while it may sound like a genuine apology at first, don’t be fooled. All they’re really doing is acknowledging that there’s been some sort of miscommunication between you, but they’re not sorry at all about what they said or did to you. They think that just because it wasn’t their intention to hurt you there’s no need to feel bad about the way they acted (Luchies, et al., 2010).
3. “I’m sorry that you’re so sensitive.”
Has anyone ever told you you’re “being too sensitive” when they hurt you? People who try to say sorry by telling you “It’s actually not a big deal” or that “There’s no need to overreact” are not sincere in their apologies. In fact, by saying that you “don’t know how to take a joke” or “get hurt too easily”, what they’re actually doing is trying to shift the blame from them to you. They don’t understand how their words or deeds have hurt you. What’s worse is that they somehow think that it’s your fault for feeling hurt about the way they treated you just because they lack the empathy to see what they did wrong.
4. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“Look, I’m sorry you’re mad/upset/hurt but it’s not my fault you feel that way” isn’t an apology but an excuse. Anyone who says they’re sorry about the way you feel instead of saying sorry about what they did is just trying to defend themselves, not atone for their bad behavior. And because they don’t want to own up to what they’ve done, they will try to invalidate your feelings and make you believe you have no one to blame but yourself (Schumann, 2018). You’ll most likely catch them saying things like, “I’m sorry but I couldn’t help it”, “I’m sorry but or “I’m sorry the truth hurts but it’s not my fault you can’t accept it.” Now, do those sound like the words of someone who’s sorry to you? Definitely not, right?
5. “I’m sorry you think that…”
Next is the “I’m sorry you think that” kind of fake apology. And though it may seem genuine to some, you should be careful not to fall for this type of manipulation. Because when someone tells you they’re “sorry you believe that”, what they really mean is that you’re wrong in your thinking and they’re right. They are asserting that they are not at all to blame for the way you have misinterpreted them or misunderstood their actions. They’re not taking responsibility for their mistakes, but rather, forcing you to take responsibility for your (perfectly valid) feelings.
6. “Okay, I’ll apologize if…”
If you’ve ever fought with a sibling or a classmate when you were younger, you might remember saying these exact words, especially if your parents or your teacher forced you to say sorry and make up. And though the words “I”m sorry” may have come out of your mouth, you didn’t mean it in the slightest bit back then. So why believe someone trying to do the exact same thing to you now? When an apology comes with certain conditions, the other person is most likely just telling you what you want to hear so you’ll get off their case or try to get you to apologize first and take all the blame (Luchies, et al., 2010).
7. “I’m sorry, but I only did it because of you.”
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, when someone tells you things like “I only said that because you started it” or “I only did it because you made me,” know that they’re not really apologizing to you, but rather, accusing you. And instead of saying sorry like they should, they are trying to put the blame on you and make you out to be the bad guy. What this fake apology means is: “Look what you made me do. This is not the person that I am or the way that I usually behave, but you made me like this. You forced me to act this way.” They are in denial of what they did and lack the self-awareness to understand that, although they may have been reacting to you, ultimately their choices were all their own. Suffice it to say, this is as fake an apology as they come (Schumann, 2018).
In the end, while it certainly means a lot that the other person would say they’re sorry, there’s definitely a right and wrong way to go about it. An authentic and heartfelt apology isn’t about finding someone to blame or justifying your wrongdoings, but rather, showing genuine remorse for what you did wrong, owning up to it, and listening to what the person you hurt has to say.
Start by saying you’re sorry and acknowledging your mistakes. Explain your side of the story but don’t focus too much on getting them to agree with you, but rather, making them understand why you did what you did. Listen to them attentively, validate their feelings (“You have every right to be mad at me” or “I know what I did must have really hurt”), and ask them for their forgiveness. When the other person sees how much you mean it and they feel like they can trust you again and move past what happened, then they’ll come around. All you need to do is say you’re sorry.
- Schumann, Karina. “The Psychology of Offering an Apology: Understanding the Barriers to Apologizing and How to Overcome Them.” 2018, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(2), 74–78.
- Luchies, Laura, Eli J, Finkel, James K. McNulty, James and Madoka Kumashiro. “The Doormat Effect: When Forgiving Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), 98. 734-49.