About apologies

When you’ve been inadvertently rude:
  • Eg: If you carelessly bump into or trip someone
  • Or if you take away a chair away that a scooter/wheelchair user wants to sit on
  • It’s good to say “excuse me” or “sorry” in that situation
  • That kind of apology says implicitly “What I did was inadvertently rude. I don’t mean it as an insult, and I don’t think it’s ok to be rude to you.”
  • (It’s better not to say that explicitly, because saying it explicitly sounds like you’re pressuring them to reassure you that you’re a good person)
For the sake of someone you’ve hurt:
  • Sometimes when you hurt someone, apologizing is a way to undo some of the hurt.
  • Because it can be a way of saying “That wasn’t your fault, it was my fault, you deserved better and I’m sorry”
  • (That can be powerful, because people often think that it is their own fault when someone hurts them, and they are in fact often pressured into thinking that it’s their fault or that it didn’t happen by their entire social circle. If you apologize without offering any defense, that can go a long way towards fixing that, particularly if you are also honest with third parties)
  • If you hurt someone without apologizing, it can be an implied threat that you will do the same thing again in the future.
  • If you realize that what you did was wrong and apologize for doing it, the person you hurt might feel safer and be spared the stress of living under the implied threat of harm you’ve created
  • (but this is something you do for their sake, not yours. The point is to stop threatening them, not to get them to feel better about you, forgive you, or trust you. You don’t have any right to any of that and shouldn’t put pressure on them to give it. They’re allowed to be afraid of you, whether or not you feel you deserve it)

For your own sake:

  • Sometimes, you offend someone with power over you (eg: a boss, a teacher, a nurse, a social worker) without actually being in the wrong
  • Or a group with power over you (eg: an activist group)
  • And, in that case, it is often a good idea to apologize even if you have done nothing wrong
  • The point of apologizing in this case is to appease powerful people enough that they will stop hurting you
  • Everyone does this at some point; there’s no shame in it even though it can be humiliating
  • Sometimes it’s also good to draw a line and refuse to apologize and take the consequences of taking a stand. But you’re not going to be able to refuse every time you offend someone with power over you

It’s very important to be clear about which type of apology you are making:

  • If you’ve hurt someone, it’s important that the apology be for their sake and not yours
  • Sometimes if you hurt someone, they will be angry at you. They might also tell other people what you did. They might be afraid of you. They might avoid you. They probably think of you as a person who does the kind of thing you did to them (because you are: if you did the thing, you are the kind of person who does that thing). They might be afraid of you.
  • None of those things are wronging you; they have the right to do all of those things and you don’t have the right to stop them
  • Since all of those things hurt, it can feel tempting to use the scripts you use when you’re apologizing to a person who is wronging *you* to get them to stop.
  • It is not ok to do that when you’re the one who is in the wrong.
  • The point of your apology is to give them something, not to get something from them or make them stop doing something

If you’re really sorry, you have to be willing to admit what you did to third parties without defending yourself:

  • Eg: “Yes, they’re telling the truth. I wish I hadn’t done that, but I did, and they have every right to be angry with me”.
  • This will mean that some people *other than the person you’ve hurt directly* won’t trust you either
  • It means that some people whose respect you value will have a low opinion of you
  • You have to be willing to accept this without trying to gloss over what you have done; anything less is continuing the harm done to the person you hurt
  • Even if you have sincerely changed, you still did what you did, and no one has to trust you. Everyone gets to decide for themself

Sometimes it’s important not to apologize:

  • If you have reason to think that someone would find contact with you terrifying or otherwise unwelcome, leave them alone
  • In particularly, if someone you have hurt has told you not to contact them, do not contact them with an apology
  • When they said “don’t contact me”, they meant it. They did not mean “don’t contact me unless you’re sorry” or “don’t contact me unless you feel like you have a good reason”
  • It is not ok to violate that boundary, no matter how much you regret the circumstances leading up to it. Your victim does not owe you help in your healing.
  • If you’re considering contacting your victim to apologize even though you know they don’t want you to, you probably haven’t improved nearly enough to be capable of offering a sincere apology anyway. Go work on understanding boundaries and your actions some more before you think you’re all better.

A point of clarification

I’m not opposed to forgiveness.

Or to salvaging relationships in which someone hurt you.

Both can be good in a lot of circumstances. People hurt each other, and often it’s something that people can get past and fix.

It’s just that: people put a lot of pressure on people who have been hurt to forgive and/or patch things up. Even to the point of telling them that they’ll never be happy until they do.

And sometimes, forgiving is a bad idea. Sometimes attempting to patch things up would make things a lot worse.

This is a decision someone should be making for themself, and it’s important to be aware that both options exist.

A follow up: When you’re the one who wants forgiveness

Sometimes, you hurt someone in a way that is dealbreaking. I think most people will probably do this at some point during the course of their life. Not to the same degree, and not with the same culpability, but it’s something that everyone is capable of doing.

If you do that, it’s important not to put pressure on the person you hurt to forgive you.

If they’ve asked you not to contact them, respect that. Even if you think that you understand what the problem was and you’ve now solved it. Even if you think you’re trustworthy now. Even if what you really want is a chance to apologize. 

People you’ve hurt don’t owe you their attention, and they don’t owe it to you to help you learn to be a better person. They don’t owe you help getting atonement.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Don’t keep hurting the person with constant invasive attempts to apologize or fix things.

Sometimes you can’t make things right. Some things can’t be undone; some damage can’t be fixed.

What you can do is move on, and learn from the experience. You can learn what you did wrong, and figure out how to never do it again. And you can build a life in which you are good to others, while respecting that the person you hurt is no longer part of it.

A short additional point about forgiveness

You can get distance without forgiving the person who hurt you.

In in particular, you can get past a point of being consumed by anger without forgiving the person who hurt you.

Because your recovery is not about that person. It’s about you. And you don’t have to forgive them to get them out of the center of your emotional life.

Sometimes distance is better than forgiveness

Sometimes, someone hurts you in a way that’s permanently and forver dealbreaking.

Some people will tell you that you have to forgive the person who hurt you in order to move on. Sometimes, they will put lots of pressure on you and tell you that if you’re still suffering, it’s your own fault for bearing a grudge.

But… you don’t have to forgive someone to get distance. You can do that by creating a boundary. Sometimes that means you limit contact with them to areas in which they’re safe for you. Sometimes that means you break off contact entirely. In any case, it’s something you can do unilaterally. 

You can break away and build a life that has nothing to do with them. They don’t have to loom large in your life forever. 

And you don’t have to get closure or resolution or anything like that in order to move on. What you have to do is move on and do other things.

It takes time and it doesn’t fix everything (neither does forgiveness, despite cultural tropes). But it allows you to build space for yourself, without that person’s hurt taking over everything. And you don’t have to forgive them or do anything at all regarding them to get that space.

Your life is about you, not the person who hurt you.