In my work as a therapist, I often sit with an angry or hurt person who is thinking about confronting a wrongdoer, often a parent, in the hope of receiving a heartfelt apology. The injury may be recent or it may have occurred decades ago. The most urgent issues—those about which we feel most desperate to be heard and understood—pertain to violations of trust by people we have most relied on.
The longed-for apology would include acknowledgment of harm that was disregarded at the time, validation for the fact that certain events or communications occurred and were emotionally damaging to the hurt party, and genuine expressions of remorse and pain—that is, a heartfelt apology.
Instead of the wished-for outcome, though, the harmed party may end up feeling re-traumatized after such a confrontation. Most people who commit serious harm never get to the point at which they can admit to their harmful actions, much less apologize and work to repair them. Their shame leads to denial and self-deception that overrides their ability to orient toward reality—and no person can be more honest with us than they can be with their own self.
Before you open up a conversation with a person who has harmed you, keep in mind that protecting yourself comes first. Reduce your expectations for getting the response you want and deserve to zero. Longing for an apology that includes a sincere, emotionally packed acknowledgement of harm done and authentic words of remorse is totally understandable. But it’s also often unrealistic when you enter a conversation with someone who has betrayed or harmed you.
No individual will feel accountable and genuinely remorseful—no matter how well you communicate—if doing so threatens to define him or her in an unacceptable or intolerable way. But the other person’s willingness to own up to harmful deeds has nothing to do with how much she or he does or doesn’t love you.
As I explain in Why Won't You Apologize? the capacity to take responsibility, feel empathy and remorse, and offer a meaningful apology is related to how much self-love and self-respect a person has available. However, we don’t have the power to bestow these traits on anyone but ourselves.
Speak only if you need to speak—for yourself. Do so if speaking your own truths is the ground you want to stand on, irrespective of whatever response you receive. Understand that the more serious the harm, the less likely that a genuine apology may be forthcoming, now or ever.