Sorry. Not sorry.

Has someone ever demanded an apology from you? Have you demanded one from someone else? Have you refused to forgive someone?

I am willing to bet you have experienced all three. You’re not alone. But, the way most of us think about apologies and forgiveness is wrong.

Apologies and forgiveness are not for the person receiving them, they are for the one issuing them. How can this be so when your experience indicates that it feels good to receive an apology, and that it feels especially good, to your guilty conscience, to be forgiven? The problem is the narrative that for you to feel better, someone else must do something. Since the actions of others are outside of your control, this sets you up for conflict and unnecessary suffering.

When a transgression occurs, it cannot un-occur. Something happened, someone got hurt. Both parties feel bad, but for different reasons. If the transgressor feels guilty or ashamed, they may tell themselves they cannot shed these negative emotions until they are forgiven. Depending on the nature and magnitude of the transgression, they could be waiting a long while. Conversely, the hurt party may feel justified in carrying anger and resentment until they hear the almighty, “I’m sorry.” Until then, they shall keep their assailant locked securely in a shame cage. This strategy perpetuates suffering for both.

Worse yet, if someone believes they are entitled to an apology, and goes so far as to demand one, they will either receive a begrudgingly insincere version, or none at all. They have layered on the egocentric accelerant of pride to the smouldering conflict.

How do you avoid unnecessarily prolonging the pain in these situations? First, accept that no matter what you think, say, or do, you do not control the perceptions or responses of others. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Do not make your feelings contingent upon what another person says or does. This is much harder to enact than it sounds, but is a crucial step toward overall well-being, as you navigate relationships.

An apology means taking responsibility for your actions and their outcomes. Everything you do potentially impacts others, intentionally or not. You must be aware of and accept this. By owning your actions, you can sincerely issue the, “I’m sorry,” which is an empathic expression of regret. Apologizing, when you haven’t taken responsibility or don’t feel the other party is justifiably hurt, is no apology at all. It is an insincere placation meant to protect your own ego. Finally, by insightfully learning from your experiences, the apology will naturally extend to thoughts of how to prevent this outcome from happening again.

This is a constructive and positive approach. You cannot change what happened, nor should you dwell on its negative impact. Instead you should own it and turn your sights to bettering the future. This approach does not, however, guarantee a positive response from your counterpart. How should they respond?

When someone wrongs you, the best response is to forgive them as soon as possible. Do not mire yourself in how things could or should have gone differently. It’s done! You certainly should not wait for an apology, let alone demand one. How self-indulgent that would be. Instead, take stock of what happened and how this might change the course of the future relationship with this person. Consider intent, magnitude of the damage, and the relationship’s relative importance. Interestingly it seems most difficult to forgive those closest. Higher stakes, I suppose.

Nevertheless, as with our apologizer, you ought to be future-oriented. Move on from this event, with or without an apology in hand. This allows ridding yourself of unnecessary negative emotions. This is so even for the most minor transgressions. Through forgiveness, you give yourself permission to move on. The result of this choice liberates you to stay present, inwardly unscathed, outwardly strong and accepting. This choice, however, will come neither easily nor naturally. Reciprocity is the default when harmed, but it can be overcome.

Keep this philosophy in mind the next time you find yourself on either end of an incident where an apology or forgiveness are on order. Given the complexities of our relationships with others, it won’t be long!

Be well.