You Don't Always Have To Apologize. Here's When You Should — And When You Shouldn't
Growing up, my mother was frequently angry. I never actually knew what she was angry about, but when she was, I learned to just apologize. Apologies, at least from what I observed, seemed to placate the situation. Over time, I began internalizing a belief that my parents' feelings were essentially my fault. It took me many years to learn that I didn't always have to apologize, and that, in fact, there is a big difference between saying sorry for doing something hurtful to someone and saying sorry just because another person is upset and blaming me for it.
We're in the midst of a movement against "overapologizing"—especially for women, who tend to apologize more often than men because they have a lower threshold for what counts as offensive behavior. To be clear, caring about how your actions affect others is rarely a bad thing. But the deeper problem seems to stem from the lack of understanding around why we apologize. Sometimes it's just a reflex. And sometimes, it's not coming from a place of concern at all.
My clients often ask me if they should apologize after a conflict. The answer is that it depends on your intent. Apologies can be used as a form of control, and it’s not loving to yourself or to the other person to use an apology to manipulate.
When are apologies manipulative?
- When you are apologizing to try to pacify the other person so they won't be angry. You're trying to control or subdue another person's feelings rather than actually expressing regret for hurting them.
- When the other person has demanded an apology, and you're just apologizing to avoid disapproval. You're giving yourself up and allowing yourself to be controlled just because you don't want to cause a scene.
- When you apologize for something that you consistently do and have no motivation to quit doing—like leaving dishes in the sink, driving drunk, coming home late without calling, or getting angry and blaming. Apologies don't mean anything unless you truly plan on changing your behavior, which might mean getting help for the problem.
- When the apology is a way to absolve you of responsibility for your actions. Sometimes people use an apology as a form of "confession," telling themselves that because they are acting sorry, they are off the hook with a clean slate.
One good way to tell if your apologies are coming from a place of honest remorse is by paying attention to the way stating your apology makes you feel. Since controlling apologies are unauthentic, they may feel bad inside, while genuine authentic apologies for hurtful behavior feel good inside. Being mindful of your emotions during a conflict resolution can be the key to understanding whether your "sorry" really means what you say it does.
We also often apologize out of fear, not remorse.
I used to consistently apologize out of fear, hoping that if I was contrite enough, my husband, parents, children, and friends would "forgive" me for whatever they believed I did wrong. I was willing to accept the blame, even when I had no idea what I had done that they were so upset about.
It took me years to understand that I had been deeply programmed to believe that if someone blamed me for their feelings, then I must have done something wrong and needed to apologize. The more I did my inner work, the more I understood that I was not responsible for another person's upset feelings unless I purposely did something hurtful to them—and to be frank, purposefully hurting someone is incredibly out of character for me.
From my work as a counselor, I began to realize that, oftentimes, people are actually hurting themselves with their own self-abandonment tendencies and then blaming others for it. In my own life, I saw people projecting their own anger and self-judgments on to me—a friend who says I'm never available when they're the one who never returns phone calls, or a family member telling me that I'm judging them when, in fact, they are judging me and likely judging themselves.
Nowadays, I might express sadness that they are feeling hurt and offer to help them in exploring their feelings, but I no longer apologize to them when I know in my heart that I did nothing hurtful. I do, however, say to myself the short Ho'oponopono prayer:
Please forgive me
I love you
I say this because I do believe that we are all one and that, on some level, my behavior affects them. I say the prayer because it makes me feel good to say it to myself.
When we do need to apologize.
The time to apologize is when we are genuinely sorry for our behavior, and we plan on doing whatever inner work we need to do to not repeat whatever we did that was hurtful. Genuine apologies are loving to the other person, but they're also loving to ourselves—in fact, they are actually more for our own benefit, as they are good for the soul. We are here on the planet to evolve in our ability to love, and since a sincere apology is loving, it makes us feel full and peaceful inside. A sincere apology is soul food.
While I never purposely hurt others, I'm human, which means that sometimes I inadvertently say or do something that is hurtful, inconsiderate, judgmental, or blaming of another. When this is the case, I'm genuinely remorseful, and I sincerely apologize. I feel glad that the person spoke up and let me know that my behavior was hurtful because the last thing I want is to be unloving or cause another person anguish. I explore my own behavior to see where it came from, and I become more aware of not behaving in that way again. I learn and grow from the experience.
Learning to trust yourself.
Because we all have a tendency to apologize as a form of control and to avoid another's anger, we need to be very conscious of whether the other person is projecting their own behavior onto us or whether we've genuinely done something hurtful. I've learned to go inside and trust my feelings and my higher self regarding the truth, and that allows me to be very honest with myself and the effects of my actions.
Even if you have inadvertently (or purposefully) hurt someone, an apology is not a Band-Aid. Apologizing just to make a problem go away or when you don't really mean it just ends up being unloving to the person you wronged and unloving to yourself.
Your feelings let you know whether you are offering a genuine apology, and you need to become mindful of your feelings and learn to trust them. If you feel hollow inside as a result of an apology, then it was a form of control. If you feel peaceful and full of love within, then you know that apologizing was loving to you and to the other person. Our feelings are an unerring source of inner guidance, so learning to be present in your body and mindful of your emotions is a very important part of becoming aware of your true intentions—to control or to be loving.
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Margaret Paul, Ph.D., is a best-selling author, relationship expert, and Inner Bonding® facilitator. She has counseled individuals and couples since 1968. She is the author/co-author of nine books, including the internationally best-selling Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You?, Healing Your Aloneness, Inner Bonding, and Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by God? and her recently published book, Diet For Divine Connection. She is the co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah, as well as on the unique and popular website Inner Bonding.