Carefully crafted apologies can open the door to healing, or, with different intent, open the door to continued abuse. Their power comes from phrasing, nonverbal signals, and the surrounding context of the interaction.
We’re all learning
Few of us learned about good apologies growing up. Instead of modeling genuine apology, many parents force children to voice a sullen, “I’m sorry,” often followed by an unspoken, “… that I got caught.” Did you receive apologies from adults as a child? What were they like?
In abusive environments, apologies are often associated with weakness and shame instead of connection and healing. As you read about apologies, do you notice shame or other emotions arising?
An apology acknowledges the speaker’s boundary violation or transgression against someone, either spontaneously or in response to an expressed boundary. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or “I’m sorry to hear that,” are expressions of sorrow and sympathy rather than apologies, and are not covered here.
Good apology: Focused on the recipient
A good apology focuses on the recipient’s emotions and the speaker’s actions. It expresses authentic regret, takes responsibility, and stops. The speaker then actively listens to anything the apology recipient wants to say.
“I’m sorry I’m late. I know it’s annoying to be kept waiting. Next time I’ll leave earlier.” This creates room to talk about how it felt to wait. The recipient may feel relief, and a sense of being seen.
Good apologies validate the importance of the recipient’s experience. For small transgressions, they nourish connection. For big transgressions such as past abuse, they can lift a burden of self-blame and confusion by making it clear the abuse was never the recipient’s fault.
Bad apology: Focused on the speaker
Bad apologies focus on the speaker’s feelings and make excuses rather than taking responsibility. “I’m so sorry I’m late! I feel terrible to keep you waiting, but traffic was snarled and I’m so busy these days.” This is all about the speaker and leaves no room for the recipient’s emotions. The recipient may feel annoyance, disconnection and a sense of being erased.
Another form of bad apology is “I’m sorry if you’re offended,” which evades responsibility for causing offense. Better options are, “I’m sorry I offended you,” or “I’m sorry I phrased that offensively,” or “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”
Too many rain checks
Any repeated apology is a bad apology, no matter how carefully phrased. An apology is like a rain check promising future respectful treatment. If transgressions continue, repeated apologies are like a stack of rain checks for items that never come back in stock.
Abusive apology: Focused on control
Abusive apologies blame the recipient for what went wrong. Tone and body language convey a manipulative demand for appeasement or forgiveness. “I’m sorry I’m late, but you’re the one who chose to meet at rush hour.” The recipient may feel fear, anger, or distrust, and may reflexively apologize in turn to reduce tension.
- Phase 1: Tension builds
- Phase 2: Abuse occurs: emotional, physical, and/or sexual violence
- Phase 3: Reconciliation, including abusive apologies
- Phase 4: Calm, normalcy, until next time
Apologies mixed with boundaries
In the hall of mirrors of an abusive environment, a victim’s attempt to both apologize and express a boundary can come out just like an abusive apology. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, but you kept interrupting me.” Someone focused on control might respond, “That’s not a proper apology!”
If you mix apologies with boundaries, take a step back and look at the power dynamics of the interaction. Consider separating your apologies from your boundary statements. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m working on handling irritation differently.” Then listen. In a separate conversation, you can say, “Interruptions make it hard for me to communicate.”
“I’m sorry I exist”
The shame of abusive behavior is often deflected onto the victims, who find themselves apologizing for anything and everything. Notice how often you apologize. Are you apologizing for existing, for taking up space, for having boundaries and preferences? Remind yourself that you never deserved abuse, and you have the right to take up space. Frequent apologies can be a holdover from past abuse, or a sign of lack of safety in the present.
Many abuse survivors carry a dream that the perpetrator will finally see the survivor clearly, be horror-struck at causing pain, and issue a heartfelt apology. Those dreams rarely come true, but contain a seed of truth: each survivor’s underlying faith in deserving care rather than abuse.
Are you waiting for someone to apologize to you? Write a letter to yourself with exactly the apology you desire. This is what you know you deserve. How does it feel to read it and take it in? Can you allow more of that feeling in your life, even though the transgressor remains unapologetic?
Is there an apology you carry inside about a past transgression you committed against someone else or yourself? Write it down, expressing your genuine regret and taking responsibility for what happened. How does it feel to put your regret into words? If it would do no harm to you or to the recipient, consider sending your apology, even if a lot of time has passed.
Forgiveness not required
When you receive an apology, no matter what kind, stay connected with how you feel. You may notice relief, annoyance, fear, or a mixture of emotions. You do not have to forgive in response to an apology. Forgiveness is private and internal, and happens in its own time. “Thank you” is a sufficient response, until and unless you want to share more about your truth.
As you give and receive apologies with thoughtful care, you can repair connections in your life that nourish you. Awareness of your internal responses helps you notice when apologies play a manipulative role.
In I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation, Laura Davis offers concrete suggestions for evaluating the possibility of reconciliation and moving toward it, including the role of apologies.
The Portly Dyke’s article about Acknowledgement, Apology, Amends, and Action is wise, funny, and contains some cussing.