- June 14, 2017
- by Emily
Have you ever felt so badly about something you did that no matter how many times you said you were sorry, it didn’t feel like enough? Maybe the person you hurt didn’t accept your apology, or you haven’t yet forgiven yourself. Either way, continuing to say you are sorry is not the best path toward healing for anyone involved.
We All Make Mistakes
I have lots of regrets. Anyone who says they don’t either hasn’t lived a very remarkable life, or they buy into the notion that having regret (or admitting it) means you lack understanding of some mysterious universal truth. That is ridiculous. The idea that everything happens for a reason comes from the realization that the personal growth one might experience having done the difficult work of moving through our emotional and spiritual pain can contribute to the meaning-making integral to healing. In other words, the reason is the result of the work.
The work might include moving through the pain, practicing life with integrity, and repairing what can be put back together. Jumping from doing something hurtful (or being hurt) to it happened for a reason is a misunderstanding of a potentially powerful truth. So, if you feel guilty about something you have done, the first step is to admit it to yourself.
Regret and its cousins—remorse, guilt, and healthy shame—teach us essential lessons about how to behave (and how not to) as social beings.
As a mother, I have made some objectively bad decisions. I would give almost anything to go back and try again. Forgiveness eventually allowed me to view my choices and their impact with greater understanding and compassion. And to even find meaning. But that takes time. In the beginning, when I came to see the harm I had caused to my son and our relationship, I did what most people do, I apologized. A lot. Over and over. Through that process, I learned some important lessons about the work of healing interpersonal wounds and forgiving myself.
One (Authentic) Time is Just Right
The impulse to apologize is a good thing. It means you recognize the harm caused and want the other person to know you are sorry. But, unless you stepped on someone’s toe or borrowed your sister’s hairbrush without asking, saying you are sorry means little without also taking steps to repair what was broken. Verbally expressing remorse is often a vital beginning. Still, we may also need to take practical measures to ensure those impacted believe it won’t happen again (rebuild trust) and participate in the recovery process if that is appropriate (make amends).
My son and I went through many years (decades, really) of restoring trust and learning to love and appreciate each other the way we are. I must have said I was sorry five hundred times in the first few years. With time I noticed a pattern: I would see a behavior or attitude in him that caused me to be concerned (imagine that from a teenager!), I would blame my past behavior, feel guilty or afraid, and say sorry again.
Kids are smart. It didn’t take long for him to recognize the pattern. But, rather than seeing my motive as an attempt to alleviate some of the weight of his struggle, he seemed to interpret my actions to mean that because of our past, he was not normal or okay. Because I repeatedly linked our past trauma with his daily experience during an already tenuous time in life, he seemed to have—subconsciously—believed that he was damaged. Of course, recovering from trauma is messy and hard. But, by endlessly referring back to the trauma, I was making it impossible for him even to attempt normalcy.
No less notably, by repeatedly apologizing, I was also making myself the center of his narrative, which is particularly frustrating to our children. Kids have their own valid and independent narratives. Sometimes we get to be the “bad guy” in that narrative. That does not make them wrong. By continuing to inject our story into theirs, we invalidate their genuine journey and risk isolating them from us.
If you feel you need to apologize for something you have done, do so once. Do it with authenticity and compassion. Then stop. Continuing to say sorry only reinforces the sense that something is wrong or broken. That is not for one person to determine for everyone involved. Making someone else’s experiences about you is not a pathway to healing for either of you. Allow them to move forward with or without forgiveness in their own time and in their way. You can do the same.
Hidden Intention: Seeking Forgiveness
The desire to apologize is likely not entirely about the other person. When we suffer, we tend to seek relief. One source of consolation can come from those we have hurt. Most of us have probably felt the weight of remorse lifted when someone accepts our apology. Being forgiven is liberating. For this reason, it is possible that the instinct to apologize is in part an unwitting attempt to elicit absolution from the other person.
Whether or not someone is ready to extend forgiveness and share it with someone who has hurt them (because we can be forgiven and not know it) is wholly personal to them.
Before you apologize, ask yourself if this may be part of your motivation. If you are also hoping for forgiveness, put yourself in the other person’s position. How would you feel if you were unsure about their intentions? How would you feel if you sensed they wanted you to make them feel better? If you want them to forgive you, ask explicitly, and ideally, separately from the apology (later). Then, give them the time they need.
You might also reflect on how you will feel if they cannot or will not forgive you. Do you still want to say you are sorry? If not, then don’t. At least not until your objectives are clear to you.
The impulse toward interpersonal healing is a good thing. It means we are growing and evolving into humans who can contribute more fully to our families, communities, and the world. An apology is an integral part of healthy relationships. Learning to do it well can make those bonds stronger and more resilient. So, if you have regrets, say you’re sorry and willing to help make things right. Then, do better.