Why Is It so Hard to Say “I’m Sorry” and Really Mean It?

Kelley Gray M.A. LPC self

It seems easy enough, right? We tell our children to apologize and “mean it.” But we see them struggle to conjure up sincerity when they are still hot from the difficult moment. Moms are sometimes guilty of oversimplifying this lesson for our children. As it turns out, apologizing is more complex than meets the eye. It’s a broad task, ranging from the minor, unintended error, like bumping into someone’s grocery cart, to committing a life-altering criminal act. The ability to apologize with sincerity is rooted deep in ourselves, our character. First, we must address the holes and thin places within our own beings, then we will have the wisdom to shepherd our children into the foundational qualities from which sincere ownership and personal responsibility grow.

Prerequisites for a sincere apology:

Empathic emotional awareness. The ability to feel the emotions of others is such an important tool, as is the ability to observe oneself – the effect our words, actions and nonverbal communication have on others. “I can see that person is hurting. I noticed her face showed pain when I said her kid is acting like a raccoon. I didn’t intend to hurt her feelings, but hurt her feelings, I did.”  I emphasize the word intend because it is frequently said in response to a confrontation from a loved one, as in, “I didn’t intend to hurt you.” That response rarely brings any comfort and is mostly a defense against the vulnerable feelings of having done wrong to someone. Just skip that step and move to, “Ugh, I’m so sorry. I hate that it came out wrong.” Boom. Fabulous apology.

Self-regulation. If I don’t take time to breathe and chill a little, I’m likely to be snippy, lash out or exaggerate instead of apologizing for my mistake. When I have calmed myself, I can say that I’m centered – a delicious place to be. When I am centered, I have a robust and nuanced understanding of the complexities of human interactions. It’s much easier to say, “I’m so sorry I hurt you,” without qualifiers and know there will be a right time to share my side of the story after I have made a quality repair attempt. The other person gets the mic first because they started the confrontation, not me.

When I allow my upset self to jump into the fray, I inevitably make mistakes. I cut the other person off, talk over them and loudly announce my side of the story. My sole focus is on how they are misunderstanding me … which will only prolong things unpleasantly and unnecessarily, since now the other person is forced to fight to be heard or shut down and give up.

Well-defined values. Do I want to be a person who cares more about reality than my own image? Do I want to be a person who generally does right and makes quick amends for my wrongs? If I haven’t worked this one through consciously, it will hinder a sincere apology. I’ll keep tripping over my need to look perfect. Some of us are so bound to our ego that we will lie, manipulate and cover up to protect it. An apology is far simpler, but it requires a certain amount of wisdom and depth.

A solid sense of your personal worth. This one is definitely the biggest factor in my opinion. Our mommy demographic is fairly polluted by inaccurate self-worth. If you say you believe in God’s love for you, you are engaging in heresy every time you beat yourself up. Being beaten up leads to a negative sense of self. A low view of self can spark the ego to work overtime to create an acceptable façade. Then, our energy goes to maintaining, improving and protecting this false-self, thus we slip farther and farther away from the rest and peace of true self-confidence.

If we choose to take the path of radical faith, we must walk in the truth that we are literally cherished children of God. Our worth is immense and rooted only in our presence, not performance. In my office, I say I don’t care much about self-esteem, I care about self-accuracy. I want an accurate understanding and ownership of both my glory and my brokenness – we must not deny either.

When a person with an accurate view of their self-worth is told that they screwed up, they aren’t shattered or surprised. The ability to hold the tension of both beloved and kind-of-messed up is so drama free. And that is freedom indeed.


Kelley Gray has been a private practice psychotherapist in the Denver area for 15 years. She is married to Brian Gray and is passionate about promoting growth, healing and making messes with her daughters.


This article currently appears in the fall 2017 issue of The MOPS Magazine. If you didn’t get a copy and would like your own, you can subscribe to get The MOPS Magazine in your mailbox every season. If you subscribe, forward your receipt to magazines@mops.org and we’ll shoot a copy of the current issue in the mail to you for free … just because we like you.