Forgiveness

When You Don’t Apologize, You Only Make Things Worse

Making a good apology not only mends the hurt—it prevents a second harm.

Posted Jan 15, 2021

If you hurt someone, it’s on you to try to make things right. Sometimes, of course, you aren’t aware that you’ve hurt another person and they have to bring it to your attention. In real life, this is the beginning point of most apologies between people. Unfortunately, a common reaction is a reluctance to accept—or even consider—that you’ve wounded someone. If you don’t change your position, you will hurt the person afresh.

Initially, what’s called for is curiosity, caring, and listening. The roadblocks to taking this kind of high road are legion. They include:

  • Cognitive processes that make our mistakes hard for us to see. Our brains protect us from the pain of information that conflicts with how we want to see ourselves.
  • Widespread cultural myths about the nature of and need for apologies in relationships.
  • The lack of teaching and modeling of good apologies.

(See also previous posts for more on these impediments: apologies seem impossible and top apology myths.)

When asked to apologize, our first reactions are often defensive. We see the other person’s complaint as unfounded, exaggerated, or otherwise unfair. We don’t like the guilt or shame that may arise and we try to shut the feelings down by dismissing the problem. If we give the request a little time, we may consult our better angels and return in a more responsible frame of mind. If we’re lucky, the other person will let us try again.

Here’s the problem: If we don’t get past our defensive reluctance and develop a more curious and open attitude, we hurt the person an additional time.

Consider the situation from the other person’s perspective: When someone’s hurt, it can result in two different kinds of pain. The first is the actual harm, for example, the sting of a slap on the skin, the loss of a prized possession, or the disappointment in someone who’s broken a promise. In themselves, those things are unequivocally painful. In addition, though, if the one who caused the damage doesn’t notice, pretends they didn’t cause a problem, or doesn’t care about the hurt they caused, a second injury follows the initial one.

In my experience, a good apology not only heals the first injury but strengthens the relationship between people. In contrast, the failure to make an apology when one is called for often causes more damage than the initial hurt—because it expands the breach between the two of you. Not only have you already let the person down, but now you’ve refused to acknowledge a shared reality, which leaves them isolated with their feelings of hurt and/or anger. By refusing to mend the initial problem, you’ve undermined confidence in their relationship with you. Further, if you’ve implied that the other person is imagining things, you’ve created an even more unhappy distance between you, which can be full of harmful echoes (essentially “gaslighting”).

When a dear friend didn’t show up to my patient Tina’s birthday party, Tina was disappointed. When Lauren stopped responding to texts and calls, Tina was bewildered. As the days went by, her feelings bloomed into hurt and anger. The two women had shared important moments across the previous decade and Tina had come to count on Lauren. Discouraged and confused, Tina stopped reaching out. A month later, when Tina’s daughter underwent emergency surgery, she was bereft that Lauren wasn’t there to support her.

Two more weeks went by. Finally, Lauren sent Tina a friendly text, asking about walking in the woods together, adding, “It’s been so long!” Right away, Tina called her on the phone. She said that she’d been hurt by Lauren’s “ghosting” her. In response, Lauren dismissed her friend’s “overreaction,” saying that she’d been “incredibly busy” and that in the past Tina herself hadn’t always been available. Lauren insisted that she hadn’t done anything wrong and hadn’t meant any harm, so she didn’t appreciate Tina trying to make her feel guilty.

Tina told me that she’d been anticipating that conversation, expecting to find out what had been going on with Lauren. She’d figured that Lauren would care about what Tina had been through and that they’d come to a common understanding. But that didn’t happen. When Lauren denied hurting Tina, Tina’s pain was multiplied and now she also felt lonely and hopeless.  

Another, searing example of this double-injury appears in a new book by Susan Shapiro called The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology (out January 12, 2021, from Skyhorse Publishing). In it, she describes how a trusted person deceived her and denied it, refusing to acknowledge any hurtful impact on Ms. Shapiro. I’m not going to spoil the book for you, but I will tell you that she makes the suffering from both the initial betrayal and the defensive denials compellingly clear. Because she can’t get the harm-doer to take the responsibility that’s called for, she can’t put her hurt to rest. She has to do an extensive amount of emotional and intellectual work to recover.

In situations involving more severe harm, such as child abuse, the perpetrator is unlikely to acknowledge harm to the victim, much less take responsibility for it. What happens is that the child has a terrible experience that is difficult even to hold in their mind, and has no help understanding it. The lack of acknowledgment or witness to the damage is an additional component that makes this kind of trauma worse. (A neutral witness can provide—sometimes decades later, in therapy—recognition of the hurt and a new sense that the person isn’t completely alone with it. This isn’t an apology, but it does help. It’s also what reportedly benefitted the victims of apartheid violence in the Truth and Reconciliation Courts: The truth was spoken and witnessed.)

In more common circumstances, as with Lauren and Tina, you may not be aware (or fully aware) of having caused pain. If you’re lucky enough that someone tells you, you’ve been offered a valuable opportunity. You may refuse to listen and reject the message, or offer an insincere apology. But, if you do, bear in mind that not only will you leave one injury unhealed, but you’ll also cause a second one.  

It behooves you to make the most of the chance you’re given. To make your apology count, include the necessary four steps (understanding the other person’s experience, making a statement of regret and responsibility, making restitution, and preventing repetition). (For more on these steps, see my book A Good Apology and previous blog posts on public apologies and fake apologies.)

It’s unfortunate that so many of us—even with the best of intentions—don’t know how to make things right. But almost anyone can learn how. What’s needed is not only straightforward and accessible, it’s enormously powerful. With a good apology, you can repair your mistakes, right your wrongs, and, along the way, protect others from more hurt.