How to Apologize to People You Hurt Many Years Ago

Reach out to someone you hurt in the past.
... Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Don’t let past actions create distance and anger between your family, friends or coworkers through hurt feelings or painful consequences. If your past misdeed or error hurt someone many years ago, apologize to the person you hurt. That person might feel the apology is too little, too late or might not even remember the action. You can’t control the reception of your apology, but you can try to make amends.

1 It's Never Too Late

The time to apologize is when you realize that you have done something wrong, hurt someone’s feelings or created a mess, advises sociologist Martha Beck. You might not have apologized at the time because you didn’t feel you did anything wrong or because you hoped things would settle. When you know that your past deed is a problem for you, even if the person you wronged has let it go, take a big breath and do the mature thing -- apologize. You can best do that face-to-face, but on the phone or in writing with a letter or email will also work, suggests clinical psychologist Elvira G. Aletta.

2 Admit Your Actions

Take full responsibility for your actions, and include an explanation that helps the wounded individual understand your actions, advises psychiatrist Aaron Lazare. The explanation doesn’t excuse your action and won’t necessarily ensure your forgiveness, but it could answer some questions about how and why the offense occurred. Your apology must be sincere and should stick to the issue. If your actions betrayed someone, consider showing full understanding of how your actions affected the wounded person and empathizing with what that person felt and experienced, suggests motivational psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson.

3 Make Amends

Offer to make amends for your misdeed. That could include paying for damage you have done, promising you will behave better in the future or asking what you can do to make things better. It should be up to the person you wronged to decide what appropriate reparations are required. Part of making amends could include listening to that person describe how it felt to be on the receiving end of your actions. Perhaps your actions caused long-term damage and you need to express understanding for that. Be willing to take meaningful steps to set things right, regardless of how long it has been since the original action took place.

4 Move Forward

Your apology acknowledges that the offense occurred and you can’t take it back. However, just because you have made steps to mend fences doesn’t mean the person you hurt will forgive you. Accept that the offended person might stay angry and never want you around again. That’s her right and you have no right to force forgiveness. Let it go and accept forgiveness might never happen. If forgiveness is offered, express your thanks and accept it gracefully. Move forward with a commitment never to repeat your offense.

Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.