What Is An Apology?
We define “apology” as “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure” as a paraphrase of multiple dictionaries.
I have struggled with apologies for as long as I can remember. At one point I was the person that said “I’m sorry” in response to everything. What I found out the hard way is that being trained to apologize for my existence results in others devaluing me. Through school I repeatedly was forced to apologize for my own existence to those bullying me as the only way to escape physical, psychological, and emotional harm. Later, people I called my friends, potential romantic partners, and individuals I did date took advantage of this same pattern. Here are some examples of things and people I have apologized for/to in the past:
- I have apologized to someone that attempted to rape me and succeeded in sexually assaulting me. I apologized for “keeping calm” while I figured out how to get away from them safely because this “implied consent” and sent “mixed signals” to them despite me saying “no”, “no, stop” out loud, repeatedly.
- I have apologized to someone that cheated on me for the entire duration of our relationship for not focusing on their feelings and the person they had cheated on me with the whole time.
- I have apologized for having panic attacks that other people caused on purpose.
- I have apologized for my existence in spaces where I was made to feel unwelcome.
- I have apologized for being too sensitive when hurt by humor and for not finding bigoted jokes funny.
- I have apologized for not being what strangers expected based on descriptions provided by others.
- I have apologized for many things I should never have apologized for and rather were reasons the recipient of the apology should have been apologizing to me.
Those are a few examples that I will never repeat. The thing is, at the time I genuinely believed that everything I experienced was my fault. In everything that went wrong and every experience I had I always saw the common denominator as myself. I still struggle with this.
What Defines Types Of Bad Apologies?
Apologies should be done because the individual providing them feels genuine remorse. Part of this means not using apologies to manipulate those around you. There are 3 “Don’ts” of apologies (see above), I’d like to address. These include the “I’m sorry you feel that way“, the “never add an excuse“, and the “never expect an apology“.
The “I’m sorry you feel that way” is rarely used in cases of actual empathy or sympathy if the speaker is indeed the person that caused the listener to be upset. This phrasing should never be used in response to someone being genuinely hurt and attempting to discuss their feelings or thoughts on a subject. Using this phrasing belittles the individual you are speaking to and attempts to erase their experience by devaluing it while elevating the status of the “apologizer”.
On the other hand, the advice of “never add an excuse” is often over generalized and used to abuse individuals that are attempting to defend themselves. The difference is there’s never a “I’m sorry, but…” when people are attempting to defend themselves against abuse. Instead, the phrasing used will focus on the logic and/or reasoning someone used as an indication that they should perform the behavior and a recognition that this information was received incorrectly. I have unfortunately dealt with people that would suggest saying anything beyond the words “I’m sorry” including what is being apologized for counts as an excuse.
People using apologies to manipulate, belittle, and otherwise damage the individual making the apology are ubiquitous throughout society. Many people that do these behaviors do so without recognition of their actions, instead focusing on their own emotional experience. The last piece of advice plays into this.
I lived by “never expect an apology” for a long time. Instead, I was the one apologizing every time I felt like someone needed to apologize to me and I wanted an apology, but knew I would never get one. Why? Because obviously whatever happened was my fault and therefore I should be the one apologizing since it couldn’t possibly be anyone else’s fault. Here’s the thing: it’s okay to want an apology, but you need to be okay with not receiving one and knowing how to respond if that’s the case.
Remember the phrase, “actions speak louder than words?” Sometimes people don’t know how to apologize using words and instead they do so through actions. It’s important to be receptive to this alternative method of apology, especially for appropriate offenses. Apologizing through action involves recognizing an uncomfortable situation or a pattern and stopping recurrence. For minor offenses nonverbal apologies are often enough. Alternatively, nonverbal apologies combined with verbal apologies take on synergistic amplification of the perceived sincerity.
Sometimes handwritten or typed apology notes are the way to go. These provide an indication to the recipient that the cause for apology has been contemplated. It also means that the ability to view and evaluate the apologizer’s response.
Rifts In Relationships
Apologies and forgiveness are meant to repair relationships and bring the divided parties back together. If someone wrongs you, does not see it even with some assistance, and does not apologize of their own volition you need to ask yourself: should this person be in my life? Apologies require the recipient to be receptive and the apologizer to be willing. So, the answer is maybe, maybe not. The relationship should be reevaluated.
Attempting to apologize using manipulation tactics will hurt relationships and drive parties involved further apart, particularly if a wrong has occurred. It’s important to be able to recognize these manipulation tactics when they arise, such as the examples previously mentioned.
When manipulation tactics are used, and/or the individual demanding the apology is doing so as a means of manipulation, it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship entirely.
It is important to note that sometimes a person may need to ask for more information before they can understand what they did wrong and apologize. That need for more information should be taken as a tentatively positive sign. Let the rest depend on the outcome.
Apologies And Boundaries
I mentioned that it’s okay to want an apology.
The way that people apologize can help you set boundaries with those around you. As an example, there have been times in my life where I was faced with the need to reevaluate friendships where manipulation tactics disguised as apologies have been used toward myself and my life partner. In these circumstances, I kept wanting an apology for the behaviors these individuals exhibited with communication as to the offenses. Only then could I be confident that these friendships were worth salvaging.
In cases where someone demonstrates their lack of respect and manipulation attempts in writing, actions or spoken phrasing, I can only control myself. I can choose not to respond and I can choose how to provide information regarding my own emotional state moving forward. By wanting an apology, but not expecting one, I have set a boundary that removes these individuals from the previous privileges of friendship until a rejoining moment, such as an apology, can occur.
This needs to be okay. If you remove someone from your life or from the privileges of friendship this needs to be respected. I’m not suggesting abandoning professionalism, the inalienable respect all humans deserve, or common decency.
Friendship Is A Privilege
Let me emphasize part of that last line: treat friendships as a privilege, not a given. By valuing other human beings and treating knowing them as a privilege, recognizing that they do for you things they would not do for others, and acknowledging their efforts to support you, you exhibit gratitude. That gratitude, while it can’t be expected, it can be wanted. Be warned, gratitude can also be used for manipulation, especially in circumstances of competition. This worsens in the event of abuse.
If someone does not show you gratitude for your efforts, what does that mean? What if they demand gratitude from you, but do not show it in return? What if they express gratitude in words, but their actions do not match up?
Dictionary.com defines privilege as “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most.” I am a very private person. It takes a long time to get to know me and those that succeed I make every effort toward maintaining a friendship. Here’s the thing about privileges: they can be taken away.
Take a moment and think about the last time you had to break up with a friend or a friend broke up with you. Do you know why it happened? Did it happen despite apologies? Did one party refuse to offer forgiveness for the other?
Even the most socially blind among us notice when someone stops contacting us entirely when before there was constant communication and support. That said, not everyone recognizes why friendships end and after time has passed, it is within reason to reach out to attempt to reconnect with the understanding you may not receive a response. Don’t spam the person and don’t continuously reach out. Respect their boundaries.
Being your friend is a privilege, but it is also a privilege to be friends with someone else. If any friendship does not involve two individuals treating the other with mutual respect that acknowledges this, then it is unlikely to be a friendship worth keeping.
Especially if the dynamic of forcing another individual to apologize is observed.
Hurt People Hurt People
There’s this thing called the cycle of abuse. Once someone is removed from the circumstances contributing to the cycle of abuse they are experiencing, they may restart it in a different role – that of the abuser. Many individuals that use manipulation or abusive/unhealthy tactics to exploit those around them were once victims themselves and are not doing so consciously. That’s not true for everyone, but it is true in some circumstances.
This is not meant to garner undue sympathy for, or excuse these behaviors. Instead, I want to use this as a springboard for the thought, “it’s about them, not you.” You can’t control other people. You can show them compassion and understanding. You can communicate with them. You can hold boundaries with them. Hopefully they recognize this pattern and break it, but in my albeit limited to my own life’s experience, this takes attempting to explain the behavior, severing contact, and not speaking to the individual with the assumption that it may be indefinite.
I can’t expect apologies from anyone. I can’t expect people to change their behavior or recognize how what they did was wrong. I only have control over my own actions and the way I choose to interact with these behavior patterns and the individuals expressing them. I choose to understand the reasons behind the behavior, but it is not my responsibility to fix anyone.
When Do I Apologize?
I apologize only for things I know I’ve done wrong and am remorseful for. Besides this, I do apologize for my actions if the results did not match my intent. But my apologies are offered less often – not out of pride, but rather self-preservation. I have learned standards for apologies that I hold myself and others to. As a few examples of these standards:
- I do not use apologies as manipulations and do not tolerate it in those around me.
- I provide and accept apologies years after once time and introspection has passed. These apologies should not have justification or excuses – as time goes by all that’s left to mend is the pain. Situations and words are distorted and lost by faulty memories – all that matters is the expression.
- I apologize in that awkward English language way as a sign of sympathy, but reserve when I do it to be driven by compassion. Accepting cultural norms in the face of contrary life experience – yay!
I still apologize to people more frequently than I should, despite efforts to practice otherwise. I still struggle with deciding when enough is enough in unhealthy friendships. I still struggle to stand up for myself after years of training that tells me anything I say counts as an excuse, therefore invalidating the apology that I never should have said anyway.
I never expect an apology, but I don’t suggest the absence of one be “water under the bridge”. It’s important to surround yourself with individuals that remind you what healthy relationships look like – mistakes, apologies, forgiveness, absence of manipulation, absence of physical/sexual/psychological abuse, and mutual respect.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this post. Without you these words fail to complete the reception portion of communication and instead hang out idly on servers somewhere. If you found that this content resonated with you, please like, comment, and/or share with someone else you think will appreciate it.