I’ve been reading this interesting post on apologies and decided to post my own thoughts on the subject.
I don’t like apologies. Usually, I perceive them as just as offensive as the original act that the person is apologizing for. I’m not talking about small daily mess-ups, of course. If somebody steps on my foot on the bus or shoves me inadvertently in a Starbucks check-out line, it’s perfectly fine for them to say “I’m so sorry” and move on.
However, when we are talking about really serious offenses, about actions that inflict real damage on a person, saying “Oh, I’m so sorry” is cheap and meaningless. It’s all about the offender, too. Notice how the person who has been hurt doesn’t even appear in this sentence. The very idea that I have to let go of my hurt because somebody is “sorry” is preposterous to me. Contrary to what many people believe is right, I consider myself under no obligation to grant forgiveness to anybody, no matter how sorry they are or aren’t. My hurt is about me and my feelings, not about them and theirs. And I will retain it as long as it suits my purposes. Repressing anger is unhealthy, and I would never dream of damaging my health for the sake of somebody who hurt me just because they apologized. There have been situations in my life where the offending individual destroyed any chance for patching things up with me by saying “I’m sorry.”
I especially love it when people say, “I’m sorry it worked out / happened this way.” This immediately makes me wonder about the identity of this mysterious “it” who caused things to work out in a way that hurt me. A variation on this is offering a person you offended a long description of how hurting them made you suffer. “After I did this horrible thing to you,” such people often say, “I suffered / cried / prayed / drank / self-sabotaged / visited a shrink a lot.” I find such things incredibly hard to digest. You hurt me and now you expect me to sit here and feel sorry about your suffering? Seriously? Don’t harm people and you will avoid suffering this way in the future. Now, how about the person who has been hurt because you chose to damage them?
So what should one do to express remorse and make amends for a hurtful action? This is what I do and what I insist that people do in their relationships with me. You come to the person you hurt (or write to them if they are refusing to see you)* and say:
I messed up. I did this horrible thing [make sure you name the horrible thing] to you and I recognize that you have the right to be angry / upset / furious / livid. Please feel free to do or say anything to me that you feel is right. I will take it and accept it because I deserve it. I want to do anything I can to make it up to you. I am willing to do XYZ to repair the damage I have done. If this is insufficient, please let me know what you would like me to do.
Sometimes, people need to express their anger and do it for a long time. You will have to listen to them for as long as it takes. It is disrespectful and wrong to interrupt and say, “Yeah, OK, I get it.” If the offended person needs to repeat it 50 times in a row to feel better, then it’s your duty to listen. It is important to remember that the offended person is not responsible for your feelings. You, as the person who messed up, are the only responsible party here.
* Of course, if the person in question asked you not to contact them in any way, then that’s the only respectful thing to do.