DBT Tips: How to Apologize to a Friend

You messed up.

Whether intentionally or unknowingly, you hurt a friend, a parent, a teacher, romantic partner, or someone else.

How do you make it right?

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Executive Clinical Director of Evolve Treatment Centers, has practical tips that come directly from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). She’s an experienced DBT therapist and teaches DBT skills to teens to help them know how and when to make a sincere and effective apology.

Decide if You Need to Apologize

You need to determine if you really want to apologize, and if so, what you’re apologizing for. In DBT, this is called “Check the Facts.” In a specific situation where there are hurt feelings, review the facts of what happened. If you think you’ve wronged someone, or your behavior went against your own moral code, specify exactly what you did wrong.

However, only apologize for what you’re sorry for – apologizing for things you actually don’t regret isn’t effective.

What if You Think What You Did Was Right?

What happens, though, if you did something that you believe was right, and still believe is right, but another person was hurt anyway? What can you do to repair the relationship?

Try using the following statement in those situations:

“Now that I know how my actions impacted you, I wouldn’t do the same if I could go back in time.”

Note that this technically isn’t an apology, but instead considers the consequences your actions have had on the other person. Let’s illustrate with an example.

Let’s say you invite a friend to go on a hike with you. Later another friend finds out and says she was hurt you didn’t invite them, too. However, you wanted to go on a one-on-one walk with Friend A only, and didn’t want to make it a group activity. You really didn’t want to invite Friend B, though you do feel bad that she was hurt.

You can hold yourself accountable for how your actions impacted the other person without apologizing.

Because the reality is, you’re not sorry.  You wanted to have alone time with Friend A, and you had no intention of upsetting Friend B. Acknowledge and validate Friends B’s feelings, and come up a with shared understanding, and ideally a middle path to reduce her feeling that she missed out (FOMO), while still honoring your initial desire for alone-time with Friend A. 

Use THINK Skills from DBT

However, in situations where you are genuinely regretful of your actions, and truly wish you would have acted differently, use THINK skills to craft a sincere apology.

T: Think.

Think about the situation from the other person’s perspective, and try to imagine why they might have felt hurt. “Perhaps John believed I was intentionally trying to distance myself from him when I didn’t take up his offer to join the Zoom party. Maybe he thought I don’t value his friendship as much as he does.”

H: Have Empathy.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What might your friend have been feeling or thinking when you did what you did?

I: Interpretations.

Can you identify more than one interpretation, or an alternative explanation, for your friend’s behavior? Note: behavior can include expressing hurt feelings. Make sure to consider at least one positive, or good, interpretation of the situation. For example: “Maybe he felt really lonely and isolated due to the shelter-in-place orders, and when I said I was too busy, it just made him feel even more isolated and alone.”

N: Notice.

Realize how has the other person has tried to improve the situation, or show they care about the relationship. Or, notice how your friend may be struggling with stressors or problems of their own. For example, you might notice that it took a lot of courage for your friend John to reach out to tell you he was upset. Or perhaps he was already dealing with a lot. Maybe he struggles with depression, or is having a stressful time with his parents.

K: Use Kindness.

Remember to use a kind and gentle approach when interacting with your friend. Don’t turn the tables on them while apologizing, or bring up examples of when they hurt you. Qualified apologies aren’t real apologies.

More Advice on Apologizing

Here are some last pieces of advice when deciding to apologize to a friend:

  • When giving the backstory, don’t downplay what you did, even if you want to avoid takung blame. Stick to exactly what happened. Be completely transparent and truthful, even if you’re cringing when you think of everything you did.
  • In the same vein, don’t use the word “if,” as in: “I’m sorry if what I did hurt you…” You know you hurt your friend already. Including the word “if” minimizes your responsibility.
  • After you feel like you’ve constructed a full, comprehensive, genuine apology, the ball is now in your friend’s court. While you might be tempted to keep begging for forgiveness, at a certain point you must relinquish control and hope the other party can eventually come to acceptance.

One thing that’s important to remember, and is implied throughout this article is that communication is at the root of healing a relationship you think may be damaged. It may be tough to talk through painful emotions for both of you, but in the end, it’s worth the effort.