We Have Been Taught To Apologize, But Not To Forgive


From a young age, I was taught to say that I was “sorry”. At first, it began with apologizing for honest mistakes. I said sorry when I spilled a drink, or said I was sorry for bumping into someone. Yet, quickly, as I aged, apologies became a means of dismissal, a way to quickly move past an issue. I would apologize for not doing the dishes I was asked to do, or apologize for fighting with my siblings. Yet these apologies were often empty. Though I apologized for my misbehavior, it reflected nothing in terms of how I would change my actions in the future. Though I apologized for not doing a chore, I still had no intention of doing it the next time I was asked; though I apologized for fighting with my sister, there was no way I wasn’t going to pull her hair the next time she made me upset.

While this misuse of apologies in these juvenile contexts may seem insignificant, they set the tone for more problematic, disingenuous apologies later in life. Suddenly, instead of apologizing for not cleaning our rooms, we were apologizing for repeating our friends’ secrets or for breaking our parents’ trust. And the older we get, the more often we are apologizing to our friends and significant others about deeper issues that can truly impact a relationship.  Yet, these apologies still often fail to spark a change in behavior. Apologies have come to serve as a quick solution to a lapse in good judgment. We apologize to appease others. We apologize when we don’t mean it. We apologize when we made the conscious decision to do something. We apologize when we have every intention of repeating the behavior. We apologize to move past an issue as quickly as possible to avoid having to go through the awkward – and oftentimes painful – conversation that might bring about a permanent resolution.

And herein lays the problem with forgiveness: if you do not give genuine apologies, then how can you expect to receive them?

The overuse and misuse of apologies have created a climate where saying “I’m sorry” is totally meaningless and it is nearly impossible to forgive. People distribute empty apologies, and their recipients respond that its “okay” when that’s not actually how they feel. Instead of strengthening relationships through reaching resolution, the points of conflict are swept under the rug where they are left to fester. The apologizer is likely to temporarily mend their behavior and eventually regress to problematic behaviors, while the apology recipient internalizes an unspoken bitterness. Despite people having these rushed exchanges to avoid conflict, they typically result in a repeat with escalated emotions and frustrations.

Studies have shown that those who choose to forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments. But before we can forgive, we have to learn to genuinely apologize. Don’t say you’re sorry when you’re not, especially if you have no intention of changing. If you don’t think you did anything wrong, then have an open and honest conversation where you explain that to the other person. Approach every conversation with an open mind and open ears. Understand that every conflict doesn’t have an immediate solution, and sometimes taking some time apart to move past an issue can be much more effective than trying to force yourself to move on before you’re ready.

If you feel like you’re forcing someone to apologize, you probably are. That isn’t good. Be level-headed and express why you’re hurt, but allow people to reach the point of apology on their own. Sometimes both parties may not feel an apology is necessary and a friendship may be at a crossroads. Accept that people are ever-changing and that friendships ebb and flow causing friends to drift apart and, sometimes, to come back together.

But most importantly, when you choose to apologize, do so because you mean it. It’s an incredible gift to be able to say that you’re sorry and that you were wrong, but only when that’s how you actually feel. When moving forward, be self-aware and make conscious efforts to not repeat a behavior that you identified as being problematic, insensitive or hurtful.

If you can recognize your own ability to self-reflect and humbly admit when you were wrong, then you will have more faith in others to do the same. And so, with a shift to authentic apologies will come authentic forgiveness.

featured image – Flickr / emilio labrador