This Is What a Real Apology Looks Like (And Why They’re So Hard to Get)

A woman apologize to her highly sensitive friend

Saying, “I’m sorry” is about much more than the words — it’s about the empathy, actions, and intent behind the words, too.

The patient I’d been assigned to interpret for — a woman around 40 years old — was sobbing, and had been since I arrived at the office. Her caretaker looked over at me, her face at once apologetic and slightly embarrassed.

The doctor was running 40 minutes late to our appointment and had triggered anxiety in this patient. As we waited for him, she wailed to her caretaker in Spanish, “You can never rely on anyone. He told us to be here at 9:30. We got here at 9:30. We did what we were told, and now where is he?”

I would learn that, two years ago, this woman had been run over by a forklift while working. She now lived with chronic pain — like the majority of my patients did.

As we waited for the doctor, the patient talked about waking every morning with an intense pain in her head. The pain lingered through the day. It would not leave her alone (even though she did everything she was told). She followed the recommended exercises. She took her meds as prescribed. She waited. She tried to grasp onto some leaf of hope, even with all the roots and branches of struggle that stood in its way, blocking access to it. 

But the pain wouldn’t budge. It woke her up various times throughout the night. Her ears rang loudly, constantly. She just wanted to be able to sleep. Why couldn’t the doctors do something to make it go away? She felt like no one cared.

Standing up from her seat, she frantically paced the room. A model of the spine perched against the counter rattled as she walked. She opened the door forcefully, declaring, “No quiero estar encerrada!” (“I don’t want to be trapped!”). Tears fell down her face even more.

Not Getting an Apology Makes Us Feel Unseen and Unheard

As an highly sensitive person (HSP) who’s struggled with depression, among other mental health issues, my heart went out to her. There have been moments when I, too, have felt like no one cared (even if I could rationally tell myself this wasn’t true). There have been times I’d felt let down by people (even though this probably wasn’t their intention). There were also times I’d felt like a mouse inside the cage of a particular situation (similar perhaps to how the patient had felt entrapped inside that room). 

And we highly sensitive people feel things more so than most, so I would be quite upset, too, if I were in the woman’s shoes. And because we feel things so deeply, we tend to take things more personally than others might, as well. So not getting an apology could make us feel disrespected (among other things).

The doctor arrived, and we had our appointment. At the end of it, as he began to walk away, the patient spoke up, “Llegaste tarde y no es justo para nosotros.” (“You came very late and it’s not fair to us.”)

I thought back to a doctor who’d once arrived two hours late to another appointment I was interpreting (the receptionist said this was his pattern, not an anomaly). That doctor, wearing a colorful shirt and a goofy demeanor, launched right in without any acknowledgement of the time we’d spent waiting. 

When the patient and I spoke up about it, the doctor’s response was to launch into a speech about the importance of his work and his high case load.

All of what he said was valid — I knew he had his reasons for arriving late, and the patient and I weren’t saying he was evil or a bad person. Rarely is this the intention behind calling someone out. I just knew that both the patient and I would have felt more respected if he could have offered even a brief “sorry to keep you waiting” — rather than nothing at all. 

As Psychologist Harriet Lerner writes in her book, Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, “Sometimes, the failure of the other person to apologize when they should hits us harder than the deed they should apologize for.”

But back to the late doctor…

“Doctors like me provide people like you with a job,” he went on to say. He asked us if we’d ever been inside a doctor’s office before. He asked me if we ‘knew how they worked.’”

I braced myself now for a similarly dismissive and defensive reply. I waited for this doctor to say that none of his other patients took issue with his tardiness. They all understood — why couldn’t this patient offer similar understanding?

But to my surprise, he didn’t dismiss her. Nor did he try to defend himself. Rather than argue with the distressed woman, he simply looked her in the eye and apologized.

Wow. Impressive.

The Importance of a Good Apology, Especially for Highly Sensitive People

Women tend to over-apologize more so than men. Once, I heard a friend apologize to two guys for spilling water on them (water!) — even though the reason she had was because some guy had bumped her from behind, forcing the cup out of her hand. 

Throughout my own life, I’ve even apologized to inanimate objects (!), like purses, trash bags, GPSes, and a number of others — sometimes in words, other times with body language, in a physical gesture that communicates the “sorry.”

Point being, all of us crave a meaningful apology — not just a surface-level one, but the kind that clears the air. The kind that takes ownership and accountability. The kind that expresses empathy. And, again, since we HSPs feel things more deeply, it really impacts us when we don’t get the heartfelt apology we’re seeking. (And when we do, we feel so seen and heard and really appreciate it.)

“When someone offers me a genuine apology, I feel relieved and soothed. Whatever anger and resentment I may still be harboring melts away,” Lerner also writes in her book.

A genuine apology requires seeking to understand the other person’s experience. We pause to consider why they might feel the way they do. We may have had our reasons for doing or saying “x” thing, perhaps even very good ones. Yet despite those good intentions, we still are able to acknowledge the unintended negative consequences. We’re willing to accommodate for the validity of both our own intentions and the other person’s reality. 

Case in point, the kind doctor could have brought up the (valid point) that medical professionals have very busy schedules. He could have explained that the two appointments before ours were complicated cases requiring extra time. But he didn’t. And in my mind, achieving this took the ability to summon compassion for the patient’s distress, while momentarily setting aside his ego.

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A Good Apology Does Not Include ‘But’

Lerner, in an episode of NPR’s Life Kit, has described a good apology as “when we take clear and direct responsibility without a hint of evasion, blaming, obfuscation, excuse-making, and without bringing up the other person’s crime sheet.”

According to her, a good apology doesn’t include the word “but” — rather, it offers to make amends and also does not overdo it. (This one’s hard for me. I tend to like giving long explanations; I think it’s the writer in me.)

Additionally, the words alone won’t cut it. Lerner says it needs to be backed up with corrective action. For instance, a former housemate’s apology for breaking my bike after borrowing it didn’t do much to mend our relationship. Even after she said, “I’m sorry,” she still took no steps to fix the bike thereafter.

And lastly, a good apology doesn’t ask for anything — not forgiveness, and not an apology in return.

How Being Rational Plays a Role in Apologizing vs. Being Reactive

Life-long conditioning and observing others’ behavior teach many of us to react in the opposite way from how this kind doctor did. Instead, people tend to respond to “irrational” bursts of emotion using logic and reason. In that way, they insist on the rightness (or goodness) of one’s intentions as a way of blotting out the possibility of an unintended negative impact.

In the media, for example, rarely does the wrongdoer take accountability using words that convey self-reflectiveness and introspection. Instead we’ve become used to hearing canned, generic, and succinct “apologies” from high-profile transgressors.

The dismissive doctor was funny. He spoke animatedly, his tone facetious. He gestured extravagantly when he talked. His voice bounced. Words cartwheeled from his mouth and into the air between us to deliver the explanation. But unwillingness to take accountability, even when its absence is cushioned between jokes and facetiousness, is still unwillingness to take accountability.

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., wrote about apologizing in Psychology Today, and says it’s good to keep a few things in mind, including being clear on what you’re apologizing for; not to apologize just as a means to an end (i.e., not just because you want something from the other person in return); being aware that there’s a difference between explaining and justifying; truly listening to the other person; and being empathetic as well as remorseful (and we all know HSPs are big on empathy).

Personally, when I give an apology that I really mean, and the other person does too, I feel cleaner inside. It feels like we grow closer. It feels like necessary relationship maintenance.

Genuine apologies start with setting aside the ego. They continue with willingness to question the responses we’ve always unquestioningly accepted as the “right” (or only) way, and replacing them with something new. Hopefully, they end with the other person feeling heard, and your connection strengthening as a result.

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