Learn the Nine Essential Ingredients of a True Apology

I had a hard time with this one, folks.

I’ve always fancied myself an expert apologizer. I have LOTS of opinions on how and when we should apologize and I’ve been working on creating my own apology framework for couples. 

As I was researching apologies, I discovered the nine essential ingredients of a true apology by apology expert, Dr. Harriet Lerner (@HarrietLerner). Harriet is a trained clinical psychologist who’s written several New York Times bestselling books, her most recent one being Why Won’t You Apologize?

Her framework has given me a lot to think about. Some of her ingredients overlap with my own (which makes me feel super smart), and others raise a lot of questions for me which almost made me scrap this post altogether and write about something else – something easier. 

Apologizing is hard. It’s a complicated and delicate topic. I think Harriet’s nine ingredients are brilliant. The fact that it’s got me thinking so much is a good thing (I think). So today I’m going to share her ingredients with you in the hopes that they get you thinking too. I’ll leave out my own spider web of analysis for now but might torture you with it in a future blog post.


I borrowed the content for this blog from an interview that Dr. Harriet Lerner gave on Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us (@BreneBrown, who’s brilliant in her own right). It’s a two-episode crash course on apologizing and it’s FANTASTIC. This post only scratches the surface of the things they discussed, so I highly recommend you give it a listen by clicking HERE. I’ve listened to it twice already and absolutely loved it.

Ok, let’s dive into the nine ingredients.


  1. A true apology does not include the word “but”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Anything you say after the “but” voids your apology.

“I’m sorry, but you deserved it.” 

“I’m sorry, but you were being a jerk.”

We can call someone a jerk, we just shouldn’t pretend it’s an apology.

  1. A true apology keeps the focus on your actions and not on the other person’s response

“I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I said” is not a true apology because you’re not apologizing for your action.

“I’m sorry about making that joke – I didn’t realize you were so sensitive about that topic” or “I’m sorry you felt offended by that”. These aren’t true apologies either. These make it sound like the hurt party is overly sensitive.

We should instead apologize for making the offensive joke or the hurtful comment.

  1. A true apology includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the situation

You break it, you bought it. You shrunk my favourite sweater in the dryer? Then you should offer to replace or pay for it. 

You promised your spouse you’d spend quality time together tonight after you finished work but ended up having to work late? Offer to reschedule the date for another time. 

  1. A true apology does not over do

There are two ways of overdoing an apology. 

The first way is to apologize for everything. 

“I’m sorry, did you want to sit there?” or “I’m sorry, am I talking too much?” or, if you broke someone’s soap dispenser (like we did last weekend), you don’t need to gush a big fat apology like you ran over their dog, but you should say sorry and replace it (whoops – we forgot to do that part). 

The second way to overdo an apology is better explained through an example. Imagine that you’re confronting your spouse about something he did or said that was very hurtful to you. Now imagine your spouse, in response, is so consumed by his own pain over having upset you that you’re put in the position of having to console him. In this example, your spouse hijacked your pain. This is no longer an apology, it’s an invitation for you to sooth him, even though you are the injured party. 

  1. A true apology doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it

Apologize first for the part you played, even if it’s less than 50%. This is hard. 

If Steve’s done something to upset me and I respond by getting disproportionately angry with him (by name calling or yelling, or both), then I need to apologize for the part I played in escalating the situation, even if I didn’t start it and even though my escalation may have only caused 30% of the problem.

Oh, and did I mention that I need to apologize for my part whether or not he’s apologized for his?

I told you this one was hard.

  1. A true apology requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance

An apology is meaningless if, after you’ve apologized, you engage in the same behaviour again. It happens to the best of us, but the important part is that we try our best to avoid repeating the hurtful behaviour.

  1. A true apology should not serve to silence

You can’t say “I’m sorry” just to shut your partner up. 

“I said I’m sorry already so let’s not talk about this anymore.”

An apology is not an end to the conversation. It’s meant to de-escalate it so that you can move forward and have a productive discussion about the issue.

  1. A true apology shouldn’t be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse

It’s not a true apology if you’re apologizing because you want to feel better but the other person doesn’t want to hear from you. The apology is not for you, it’s for them. If your partner needs a break and doesn’t want to talk to you in that particular moment, then you need to respect their wishes and come back later.

  1. A true apology does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive

It’s natural to want forgiveness or a reciprocal apology, but apologizing only to get those things does not constitute a true apology. An apology is not a bargaining tool. 

You shouldn’t say “I said I’m sorry, so now it’s your turn”

You also shouldn’t say “do you forgive me?” too quickly. Don’t rush your partner’s process. 

Steve and I are both definitely guilty of using apologies as bargaining tools and of rushing each other’s processes


If you read these nine ingredients and feel like garbage because you don’t think you’ve ever issued a compliant apology, then join the club. I felt awful after reading this list. 

But now I think feeling a little bad might be the point. If I feel bad, then it means I have some work to do. And if Steve hasn’t issued divorce papers yet, then maybe I don’t need to feel that bad. Maybe I just need to practice being better… 


If you’ve found this interesting, consider sending it to a friend or to your partner (it might make for interesting dinner conversation – but be careful not to criticize their apologies – focus more on how you can improve). 

Please get in touch! I would love to hear from you. Email me (nelly.mosstaghimi@gmail.com), add a comment below, or message me on Twitter (@nellymosstag). 

And if you want to hear more from me or see what’s I’m up to, please follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss future posts! 

Wishing you all a lovely weekend,


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