I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it. Most of us have, at some point or another, been guilty of this.
When we’re wracked with guilt about something, major or minor, that we’re definitely at fault for, and we reach out to the injured party to apologize.
It’s only the right thing to do, after all. Not apologize? Are you kidding? It’s clear we’re in the wrong, and we need to do our best to make amends.
There’s only one problem. We’re not doing this for them.
We do it for us.
Most of our apologies are entirely selfish, not intended for the person we’ve wronged in some way. They’re just stepping stones for us to feel better about ourselves.
Your apology is sometimes just a manipulation. Stop trying to force the people you love to say you did nothing wrong.
Some years ago, I had a lot of social anxiety. Instead of seeking professional help, I put a lot of the burden on one of my friends. I would lament to her about how I was sure all of my friends hated me, how I’d majorly messed up at the last party, or how much I was mad at myself.
She wasn’t a therapist, she was just a student like me. But she consoled me as best she could.
I never asked how she was doing or how she felt — I just vented, forcing her to be my free counseling. At the time, it felt like I wasn’t doing anything wrong. But as the years went by, I realized I’d really messed up.
So a while back, I sent her a message to see how she was doing. Once we’d finished the small talk and reminiscing, I took a deep breath and typed out:
“Hey, sorry, by the way, about how much pressure I put on you that year. I was a terrible friend to you and I should have asked for professional help instead of relying on you.”
She replied back: “Yeah, that was rough. Hope you’re doing better now!”
A totally fine sentiment (and better than I deserved after the way I treated her). But I wasn’t happy. It was obvious that it wasn’t OK with her, and in fact that she agreed I had treated her poorly. My apology hadn’t made her forgive me. She hadn’t rushed to tell me that no apology was needed, that she did what any friend would do.
So I was mad. Why? This was because my desire to apologize wasn’t because I truly meant it.
Instead, I was saying sorry because I felt guilty about something and I wanted to hear her say it was fine. When she didn’t, I felt like I was owed it. I’d stepped up, I’d apologized — where was my guilt-free friendship card?
What was wrong with this apology?
After all, it was genuine. I felt real regret for my actions. I knew I’d acted badly, and I wanted to make it right.
But at its core, it was a selfish action. The apology was for me, not for her.
For a start, I didn’t think about the intended recipient of my apology at all. Did my apology do anything for her? Probably not. It might have been nice to hear me acknowledge what I did wasn’t great, but ultimately a measly apology isn’t going to counteract the year I spent being a bad friend.
My reason for getting in touch wasn’t to catch up with her, after all. It was a pretty transparent desire to stop feeling guilty, at whatever cost.
What I should have done instead was show up for her.
I could have gotten in touch for no reason other than to see how she was doing. I could have asked her what she was up to, with no agenda. I could have talked to her because I was interested in how she was doing, instead of only being interested in having my guilt absolved.
Every time I think of contacting a friend out of the blue to shoehorn an apology into a conversation, I have to really sit down and think about my motivations.
It’s possible I’m genuinely feeling remorseful — but a lot of the time, I’m forced to admit that all I really want to hear is
It’s fine, I forgive you.
Or even better,
No, you did nothing wrong!
And when I don’t get these words or sentiments, I feel cheated.
That more than anything tells me that the apologies aren’t for them, they’re for me.
Ican guarantee you’ve fallen into that trap before. And it’s fine — we all make mistakes, and we all want to feel better about them. But the truly good thing to do is learn how to stop wielding our sorries like ballistic missiles meant to force the other person — who we’ve already wronged! — to forgive us.
It’s difficult because it feels like you’re being a good person by apologizing. But you can learn to recognize the signs of a bad one.
Start paying attention when people apologize to you. Does it come about naturally, or do they bludgeon you with their remorse, their words making it nearly impossible for you to withhold forgiveness?
More importantly, start paying attention to your own patterns: are you genuinely passing on your feeling of remorse, without expecting or even demanding forgiveness? If not, consider your motivations a bit more.
We’re human, and we will inevitably hurt and be hurt during the course of our lives. But we can recognize and improve our patterns.
Our friends, our family and acquaintances, they all deserve better than a fraudulent half-sorry aimed to make us feel less guilty. And we deserve to receive apologies with no strings attached.