Impact vs Intent: Why We Suck at Apologies

It’s Happy Disclosure Hour at the OKblog Corral:

For most of my adult life (at least the parts to which I have been paying attention), I have been a *TERRIBLE* apologizer. My specialty was in “I recognize you have big feelings in response to something I have said/done, but I am not responsible for those feelings, and therefore don’t acknowledge any responsibility for having done something that impacts you as it does.” I thought I was being very well-differentiated: I don’t own your feelings, therefore I am not responsible for them. If you feel a reaction to something I’ve said, that’s on you, not on me. Or the ever-?popular?, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, therefore you must be hearing me wrong, and I don’t need to apologize so much as you need to fix your comprehension.”

Yeah. I’ve frequently been one of THOSE jerks. I’m ashamed to even admit that in a public forum, but vulnerability is part of compassion, so, here we are.

Why is this such a common behaviour in our culture? Why are so many of us terrible at simply meaning a genuine apology in the event of deliberate or inadvertent harm?

Harriet Lerner’s latest book, Why Won’t You Apologize? is a fabulous resource for anyone trying to understand why they don’t get solid, effective apologies from others, or why it’s such a struggle to provide them ourselves.

According to Lerner’s many decades of research on the subject of apologies, failure to create effective apologies comes from a lot of places. It may be cultural (in some cultures, a core assumption for intimate relationships is that apologies are implicit, so never offered explicitly) or a learned behaviour from within our families of origin or other high-impact social herds, like church communities. For many people, acknowledging we have done harm implies “we are/I am Bad People”, and that is a massive shame trigger for a lot of us.

Where the process truly falls apart, however, is in a staunch belief that INTENT trumps IMPACT when it comes to determining what merits apology and what (in our minds) does not. For example, consider this illustration:

Artist credit: Kelly Bastow

A very great many of us can probably relate to one or both sides of this type of exchange. One of the things that comes out of working with trauma survivors is an intimate understanding that it is never the offender who gets to define what is hurtful or damaging, it can only ever be the recipient of the behaviour who has that power. And like any accident response team learns, when doing damage control and medical response in particular, one MUST triage damage first and deal with the wounded in priority order of damage BEFORE doing anything else on scene. But admitting that perhaps one has caused damage to another means we react to that internal message of “I’m a Bad Person”, and we might dig in our heels in an entrenched defensiveness, where, “If you just understood my intent, you wouldn’t be hurting!”


The wounded party can’t get to a place of caretaking the offender’s anxiety because they’re too busy dealing with their own reactions first. Sometimes people can get to a place of contextualizing the offender’s intent fairly quickly, marshalling their own reactions UNTIL they know whether you MEANT to hurt them or not. But it’s been my personal and clinical experience that people who can self-regulate that quickly are definitely in the minority. Most of us will be awash in our own thoughts and feelings, and the offender’s intent is the least of our concerns right then and there.

But if I can’t get you to Just Understand, and I get stuck in defending my intent instead of acknowledging the unexpected impact of my initial actions or statements, then I’m failing to create vulnerable connection, I’m denying the repair attempt/connection bid (to use Gottman’s terms), and I am not triaging the accident effectively for anyone involved. As Terry Real says, “You can be right, or you can be in relationship; sometimes you can’t be both.”

Non-apologies tied to defending intent are further hurtful because they create a dynamic in which ONLY the offender’s intent has any validity or relevance to the exchange in progress. This has the unfortunate effect of pushing the other party out of the exchange, effectively “punishing” them for having a reaction that doesn’t mesh with the offender’s vision of themselves in that moment. Pushing back against the demand (or even implicit request or need) for an apology in this case is all about forcing people to (at best) outright validate us in our belief that we are seen as being Good People, or (at worst) return to conformity and validation-mirror alignment by at least silencing those who dare to suggest we might have maybe done something supposedly wrong.

There are a lot of other ways in which apologies undermine themselves as repair tools:

1. The Empty Apology. ?I?m sorry. I said I?m sorry.? The empty apology is all form but no substance. […]
2. The Excessive Apology. ?I?m so sorry! I feel so bad. I?m so sorry. Is there anything I can do? I feel so bad about this?? In theory, apologizing is meant to rectify a wrong and rebuild a damaged relationship. But with excessive apologies, you do no such thing. This tactic, instead, has the perverse effect of drawing the attention to your own feelings, rather than to what you?ve done to another person. […]
3. The Incomplete Apology. ?I?m sorry that this happened.? Sometimes your apology is edging toward effective and appropriate, but it just doesn?t quite hit the mark. […]
4. The Denial. ?This simply wasn?t my fault.? Finally, sometimes, your ego gets the best of you and you simply don?t apologize at all. […]

Harriet Lerner also flags:

* any apology that includes the words, “but” or “if” in it as a guaranteed failure as apologies go, because “[but] undoes the sincerity” (pg. 14), and “if” conditionalizes the apology in ways that make the receiver question the validity of their own feelings, rather than simply trusting and addressing them (pg. 18)
* “I’m sorry you feel that way”; “A true apology keeps the focus on your actions–and not the other person’s response.” (pg. 15)
* “mystifying” apologies that focus on aspects of the situation that are NOT something we could be expected to control (Lerner’s example contrasts, “apologize to your dad for giving him a headache” is ineffective, versus, “apologize to your father for not turning down the music when he asked you to” as the more effective approach) (pg. 18)
* viewing apologies as “an automatic ticket to forgiveness and redemption” and “getting over it” (pg. 21)
* intrusive apologies from people we just simply don’t want to hear from or interact with–boundary and consent violations, anyone? (pg. 23)

What constitutes a GOOD apology, then?

There are variations on the theme, and some fine-tuning particular to context or situation, and even individual love languages within the relationship under fire, but generally there are some standard key components:

1. A clear ?I?m sorry? statement.
2. An expression of regret for what happened.
3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
5. A request for forgiveness.
Guy Winch Ph.D., for Psychology Today

Interestingly, Lerner challenges the last point, that apology MUST include the request for forgiveness; she certainly doesn’t agree that offering or supplying forgiveness MUST be a part of the repair process:

“I disagree with these well-intentioned but potentially hurtful ideas; the idea that forgiveness is the ONLY path to a life that’s not mired down in bitterness and hate, and that those who do not forgive the unapologetic offender are less spiritually evolved persons at greater risk for emotional and physical problems. Contrast those ideas to the work of psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, whose books provide an excellent counterpoint to the blanket messages and cliches about the virtue and necessity of forgiving. Forgiveness, Spring says, is not a cheap gift. She notes that rushing to a premature and superficial peace can have its own costs.” (Why Won’t You Apologize? pg. 139)

(For additional reading on the complexities of forgiveness, look up Terry Hargraves’ work on families and forgiveness, also discussed here.)

Genuine apologies are, or should be (IMO) all about offering contrition in acknowledgement for harm done, however inadvertently. Intent is irrelevant until AFTER the pain is addressed. It matters less to me WHY your fist connected with my face while I’m still dealing in with the immediate shock and pain of the fractured cheekbone or broken nose; we can determine whether or not it was an accident AFTER we get back from the hospital. Apologies need to genuinely triage the harm done *IN THE MOMENT* before there can be ANY space for most recipients to make space for discussions of intent. Genuine apologies probably should NOT come with a built-in expectation for forgiveness; we can ask, but we cannot expect we’re entitled to receive it, and certainly not right in that moment.

Good apologies are difficult if we ourselves are not willing to look further than our own skin at how we move through the world. Sometimes we do harm without meaning to. Sometimes we do harm without even knowing we have done so. Decoding the internal messaging about what it says of us that we have done something harmful is a difficult process, but when we let that get in the way of being present with someone on the receiving end of our unintended harm, we deny space in that engagement or transaction to the other person present there with us. We make the situation all about us and defending our undoubtedly-righteous intentions… at the cost of being open and vulnerable in the face of someone else’s pain. It’s a damnably hard place to be, acknowledging effectively our own impacts on the world. But stepping outside of our internal blockades to be better at seeing those impacts, and the harm, and being better at being genuine in owning our impacts whether we intended them or not, is a HUGE part of creating safety and secure attachments in our relationships.

And if that’s not something we consider worth the work, then why are we in relationships?

11 Comments to “Impact vs Intent: Why We Suck at Apologies”

  1. A. Baldwin

    Thank you so much for this clear and concise breakdown of a toxic problem. I think you may have finally helped me to help my husband to understand. (We?ve been married for 38 yrs). Would you say that the ability to be vulnerable and humble enough to empathize and apologize is particularly difficult for narcissistic personalities? (I don?t necessarily mean a person dx?d with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but for those who have a tendency to struggle with letting their guard down enough to be vulnerable and empathic in a marriage relationship).

    1. Laurel

      Fascinating question in the comments about the narcissist having difficulties… I find, it is almost always a gross violation of boundaries on the part of the narcissist that has precipitated the event and, repeatedly, that is consistently the requesting the acknowledgement of harm and in need of receiving the apology. I truly deeply see it as an emotional manipulation and abuse.

  2. Bee

    Really great article. This is the part I would love to shout around the world.

    “But if I can?t get you to Just Understand, and I get stuck in defending my intent instead of acknowledging the unexpected impact of my initial actions or statements, then I?m failing to create vulnerable connection, I?m denying the repair attempt/connection bid (to use Gottman?s terms), and I am not triaging the accident effectively for anyone involved. ”

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, yes?

    Additionally, I’ve taken resolution of my offense a step further: when faced with someone’s continued impenitence, I maintain healthy boundaries, forgive them anyway, and move on. I won’t allow that person to live rent free in my head. Bitterness is a rubbish companion.

    1. Karen Grierson Author

      I absolutely believe so. Statements like, “Wow, that had a bigger impact than I anticipated, but I’m still not sorry for what I said/did” aren’t common, maybe, but they do come up at times.

  3. Tristan

    How do you handle situations where you don’t feel your action violated any social norms or stated boundaries, yet this person is still upset? In my personal experience, I wouldn’t want to apologize because I don’t think I am in the wrong, but at the same time, I don’t want this person to be upset. How should I handle this?

    1. Karen Grierson Author

      The answer usually lies in understanding what’s NOT been clearly stated. There’s something below the waterline for the aggrieved party that hasn’t been identified and addressed; you as the perpetrator clearly didn’t know there was a boundary there, it’s possible the hurt party didn’t realize it either, or may have assumed that “you should have just known”. So when a reaction seems disproportionate, my suggestion is to check in about what’s happening for the person displaying the reaction; find out what’s happening on the inside, and if there has been a transgression, you can still apologize for unknowingly treading on perilous ground or doing damage (however unintentionally; damage is damage and an apology for it will never go amiss), and what’s the newly-discovered boundary the injured person wants you to see and respect going forward?

  4. Brianna Horn

    Trying to explain this to my fiancé so I send him the link and he says it doesn’t fit him because he’s not ashamed of anything and it’s all ludicrous.

    1. Karen Grierson Author

      Sometimes it’s a challenge to get people to understand the difference between being sorry for what they said (which they may not be) and sorry for the damage done by what they’ve said. It’s one of the greatest recurring challenges in couples therapy, as well as in individual relational processing.


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