Sorry—the five-letter word that has the ability to take the feeling of anger and turn it on its head. Short and sweet, it can diffuse an emotional situation just like—snap!—that.
But what happens when the magic seems to fizzle? When “sorry” start to feel as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny?
That’s the beauty of knowing your apology language. They provide a more meaningful structure to the way we apologize and receive apologies.
Because everyone deserves to hear “sorry” in a way that resonates with them. And this language can very well be the key to turning around those less-than-satisfying apologies.
What Is an Apology Language?
An “apology language” is a person’s unique way of expressing and receiving apologies. It’s a cousin to Dr. Gary Chapman’s love languages. And just like we have unique preferences for expressing and receiving love, the same applies to apologies.
There are pluses to knowing your own language and that of others. Here are a few to highlight:
- It enhances communication,
- Smoothes out the wrinkles of misunderstandings, and
- Helps resolve conflicts more effectively.
It’s like getting a decoder ring for understanding apologies. You’ll never have to squint at an apology, wondering if it’s sincere or just a quick Band-Aid over a problem.
Why do they matter?
The reality is, for many of us, saying “sorry” just doesn’t cut it. In fact, a 2017 study suggests apologies, when used in situations of social rejection, can heighten hurt, provoke aggression, and prompt insincere forgiveness.
What does that look like? Here’s an example to paint a picture:
You and your friends have planned this incredible weekend getaway. Unfortunately, due to limited space, you’re forced to exclude one friend—let’s call him Larry.
Despite genuinely feeling sorry about it, you apologize to him while explaining the situation: “Larry, I’m really sorry for not being able to invite you. We’ve maxed out on space.”
In this situation, based on the 2017 study, your apology might not lessen Larry’s feelings of social rejection. On the contrary, it might intensify it, and in the aftermath, he may show signs of increased aggression, maybe by being passive-aggressive or distant towards the group.
“We are constantly generating the future by how we are interpreting and then responding to whatever is happening,” says Katherine Woodward Thomas, author of the bestselling Conscious Uncoupling and trainer of the Mindvalley Quest with the same name. “How we are taking actions, how we are making choices—we want those to be consistent with the future that you’re standing for.”
So knowing your apology language—and that of those around you—can be a game-changer.
The 5 Types of Apology Languages
When you unravel your primary apology language, along with that of those around you, you can navigate through the stormy seas of conflict with a little more ease and grace.
It allows you to express your remorse in a way that’s truly felt and understood. And what’s more, you feel genuinely appeased when you’re on the receiving end of an apology.
So what are these five languages of apology, you ask? Here’s how Dr. Chapman describes each:
1. Accept responsibility
Accepting responsibility is about squaring up to one’s missteps in a manner akin to a superhero owning their kryptonite. This is not about self-deprecation but rather a mature admission of fallibility. After all, who doesn’t make a wrong turn or two?
Expressions in this apology language might sound like:
- “I am wrong.”
- “It’s on me.”
- “I shouldn’t have done that.”
For those who speak this apology language, anything less than a full acceptance of responsibility can feel hollow or insincere.
It’s about overcoming the ego and setting aside the fear of appearing weak or flawed. Moreover, it’s about understanding that, sometimes, a simple admission of being wrong can make a world of difference to the person you’ve wronged.
2. Expressing regret
Do you remember those heartfelt scenes in movies where the hero finally admits they messed up, their voice choked with regret? That’s the essence of this apology language.
It’s less of a scripted dialogue and more of a raw, unfiltered broadcast from the heart. And this apology language doesn’t need a detailed explanation or a promise of compensation; rather, a genuine, humble “I’m sorry” will do.
If this language resonates with you, you might appreciate expressions like:
- “It’s eating me up inside, knowing what I’ve done.”
- “I never meant to cause you pain, and I’m truly sorry.”
- “I’m filled with deep regret for my actions.”
In this language of apologies, regret isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s an act of courage. It takes honesty to recognize and verbalize the emotional hurt one has caused. And science affirms that expressing such regret is a vital step towards seeking forgiveness and mending relationships.
The beauty of this apology language lies in its simplicity and sincerity. Here, excuses are out, and owning up to the emotional damage caused is in.
3. Request forgiveness
Picture this: You’re the lead character in a drama, and you’ve made a blunder. Now it’s time for you to bare your soul, swallow your pride, and ask for forgiveness.
This encapsulates the “Request Forgiveness” language. Forget the grand gestures or elaborate promises. Instead, take the humble path of admitting your mistake and asking for a do-over.
If this apology language speaks to you, phrases like these might resonate:
- “Could you find it in your heart to forgive me?”
- “I hope you can forgive me for this.”
- “I ask for your forgiveness.”
In this realm of apologies, insisting on absolution is like expecting a rose to bloom in winter—it goes against the very nature of things. Forgiveness, at its core, is a choice the offended party must willingly make.
It’s an offering that should be made with genuine remorse, not a right to be demanded. Because remember, this is not a scene from your drama—it’s real life, and sincerity makes all the difference.
4. Make restitution
Wrongdoing demands justice, and the wrongdoer must rectify their actions. Welcome to the essence of this particular apology language, where heartfelt “sorrys” are coupled with sincere amends.
So, what does an apology sound like in this language? Here are a few examples:
- “I understand my actions have hurt you. What can I do to make things right?”
- “I’m truly sorry, and I want to make it up to you.”
- “My mistakes have caused you pain, and I’m committed to making things better.”
Research suggests that when you take action to make up for a mistake, people see your apology as more real. For instance, a study in 2020 focused on moral redemption showed that when individuals not only said sorry but also took concrete steps to fix their wrongdoing, others believed their apologies were more honest and sincere.
The cornerstone of this language is action, and it’s about expressing your apology through thoughtful, genuine efforts. Using the love language of your counterpart is a great way to redeem yourself—be it through words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch, or receiving gifts.
5. Planned change
Admitting your mistakes is one thing. But actually saying and taking the steps to change is another.
With this apology language, verbalizing your intention to do so is crucial because your partner can’t read your mind. Without expressing it, their hurt may linger, leaving the apology incomplete.
Now imagine putting this language into action. Here are a few examples of how it might look:
- “I deeply regret my actions and am committed to seeking professional help to address the root causes.”
- “I’m owning up to the pain I’ve caused. And I’m learning healthier ways of dealing with my emotions.”
- “Sincerely, I’m sorry for the hurt I’ve caused. And I’m working on communicating better so I can prevent any misunderstandings in the future.”
Change is challenging, for sure. And constructive change doesn’t guarantee immediate success.
The journey will have its ups and downs. However, it’s important to remember that true change is possible when you’re genuinely ready and committed to transformation.
Take the Apology Language Test
You may already know your love language. And you may even know your fight language. But how do you like being apologized to?
If you’re not sure what the sequence of your apology language types is, you can take the Apology Language™ Test by Dr. Chapman. But before you start, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Do the test on your own and keep your results so you can refer back to them in the future.
- Invite your partner, family, or friends to take the test together to gain insights into each other’s apology preferences.
- Discuss your apology needs with those closest to you as well as how you (and they) can honor them.
These conversations pave the way for healing, understanding, and strengthening relationships through sincere apologies. And when you uncover your apology language, you unlock the potential for meaningful reconciliation and forgiveness.
As Dr. Shefai Tsabary, a clinical psychologist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest, says, “The quest for wholeness can never begin on the external level. It is always an inside job.”
When Is the Right Time to Apologize?
Timing is everything, even when it comes to apologies. And having the habit of saying “sorry” to every little thing can be downright put-off.
Based on a 2015 poll by YouGov, “sorry” seems to be part of the British daily interactions more than the Americans. The results found that for every 10 American “sorries,” there were 15 British ones—and these ranged from sneezing, standing in someone’s way, or correcting someone who’s wrong.
So this goes back to the question of “when is the right time to apologize?” Here are some examples:
The right time to apologize:
- If you accidentally step on someone’s foot in a crowded elevator.
- When you unintentionally interrupt someone during an important conversation.
- Upon realizing a mistake in a work project that had a negative impact on your team.
- When you’ve forgotten to return a borrowed item, causing inconvenience to the person who lent it to you.
- If you unintentionally offend someone with a thoughtless comment.
On the other hand, here are examples of when the wrong time to apologize might be:
- During a heated argument when emotions are running high.
- When you feel compelled to apologize insincerely just to ease tensions.
- In situations where you lack full awareness of your actions and their impact on others.
- When you apologize solely to evade consequences rather than genuinely acknowledging your mistake.
- When the other person is unreceptive or not in an open-minded state to accept an apology.
The rule of thumb is that when your action is unintentional, it merits an apology. However, when it’s intentional, it may take more than an apology to rectify the situation.
Be Mindful When You Apologize
“I’m sorry I’m cutting you off, but…” or “I’m sorry you feel that way…” may seem like well-intended phrases, but sometimes they can be a way of overapologizing without truly meaning it. It’s like using apologies as a cushion or filler, often leaving the other party wondering what you’re actually sorry for.
But here’s the thing: Being mindful when you apologize is important. Over-apologizing can dilute the power of genuine apologies and even foster a victim mentality. Insincere or rushed apologies can end up causing more harm than healing, leaving wounds open and relationships strained.
So, instead of empty apologies, open up your heart and approach apologies with mindfulness:
- Take a moment to recognize your own feelings and understand how your actions impacted the other person.
- Focus on the impact rather than the intent, because that’s what truly matters.
- Avoid making excuses or shifting blame—take responsibility for your mistakes.
Apologies are about genuine repair and fostering understanding. And by taking a mindful approach to it, you can avoid diluting their meaning and damaging relationships.
And if you’re on the receiving end, may this advice from Katherine be a source of inspiration and strength:
“Finding a way to forgive the unforgivable and to move forward in life graciously with hope in our hearts and goodwill in our gestures and in our words may very well be the essence of what it is to truly love each other.”
Healing Hearts Starts Here
Misunderstandings—no matter how small or how big—can, undoubtedly, cause pain. But getting familiar with your apology language (and that of your loved ones) can be the key to avoiding that and instead building better relationships.
And as you delve into compassion and connection, why not join Mindvalley as a member? There are a whole collection of quests that can help bolster your journey to healing hearts. You’ll find experts, including…
- Katherine Woodward Thomas, in the Conscious Uncoupling Quest, where you’ll learn to break relational patterns and harness the power of positive attraction in your life.
- Dr. Shefali Tsabary in the Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest, where you’ll explore how to nurture your inner child so that you can better show up for your actual one.
The great thing is, you can sample the first few lessons of their programs (among others) for free when you sign up for a Mindvalley account. And because learning is easier when it’s with others, you’ll also be part of the Mindvalley global community, who’re all on similar paths to step into their greatness.
It’s as Dr. Shefali says: “The liberated self doesn’t emerge overnight. It arrives as layer after layer of our ego gets peeled off and replaced with mindfulness and the wisdom that comes with it.”
And while the path to your “self” may not be smooth or straight, it’s one that’s surely worth it.