Forgiveness, Apologizing, and Taking Responsibility: Real vs. Fake
We all have been wronged, and all of us have probably wronged someone at some point. Unavoidably, people interact with one another and are sometimes hurt or hurt others.
When a person wrongs another, the trust between them is compromised.
Depending on the relationship and the severity of the wrongdoing(s), it is sometimes possible for the perpetrator to make restitution with the aggrieved party, sometimes it can only be achieved partially, and sometimes it is impossible to restore any substantial level of trust.
For example, if I am carrying a heavy box and accidentally hit my neighbor’s flowerpot with it and break it, then I caused them some damage. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter if it was too heavy, or that I didn’t see the flowerpot, or that I was distracted, or that it was too dark, or anything else. The damage is as it is regardless.
I can take responsibility for it, apologize, pay for the damages, promise and actually try to be more careful in the future, and depending on how the neighbor feels towards me afterwards, the trust between us will hopefully be restored.
Now, this is a very simple example where the damage is very clear and the relationship is not that complex. The perpetrator accepts responsibility for their actions, makes restitution, and doesn’t repeat it in the future. Usually it’s not so smooth and simple.
Why it is so hard for people to take responsibility
Some people have a really hard time taking responsibility for their actions, while others apologize profusely and take responsibility for things that they are not even responsible for. Both of these behaviors are not constructive. You should only take responsibility for the things you are actually responsible for. Correspondingly, you should not avoid responsibility for the things that you are responsible for.
Unfortunately, many people come from an environment where they were either forced to take responsibility for things that they were not responsible for, or their caregivers didn’t take responsibility for their own wrongdoings. On top of that, many children are severely and routinely punished for not taking responsibility for something that is not theirs to take, making a mistake, or for “doing something wrong” as decided by the toxic authority figures in their life.
Chronic shame, guilt, lack of empathy
When this person grows up, they are terrified of accepting that they did something wrong because they were unjustly treated in similar situations in the past. So as adults, people like that tend to avoid and deflect responsibility, sometimes to the degree of severe narcissism and sociopathy where they don’t even see others as human beings.
Here, toxic shame and guilt and a lack of empathy cause people to avoid responsibility, sometimes at all costs, for doing something wrong. Taking responsibility prompts an unbearable level of inner pain, which makes them deny or blame others because they just can’t handle it and they haven’t learned how to deal with it.
Fear of making things worse
Sometimes the perpetrator actually feels remorse and wants to make things right but the aggrieved party is unable to self-empathize. In other words, some people tend to blame themselves for people’s mistreatment of them. They feel ashamed or even guilty that they were hurt.
As a result, it is very difficult for the well-meaning perpetrator to bring it up because they don’t want to make the aggrieved party feel even worse or can tell that the person who was hurt will only dismiss, minimize, or blame themselves for it.
Mistakes of apologizing
Despite the fact that taking responsibility is hard, a lot of people still try to do it. Sometimes it is genuine, sometimes it is genuine but still encased in the desire to avoid responsibility, other times it’s purely manipulative.
Here are a few common mistakes people make while trying to make amends:
1) Not using “I” when describing the problem.
“I’m sorry it happened to you.”
If you caused the problem, then you should describe it by using the pronoun I. “I’m sorry I did this, which caused the problem at hand.” The lack of I in the situation shows that you want to avoid responsibility or blame it on someone or something else.
2) Apologizing for how the aggrieved party feels.
“I’m sorry that you feel angry/sad.”
Here the problem, and therefore the responsibility, is shifted to the aggrieved party. Here, the problem is not the perpetrator’s hurtful actions but rather how the wronged party feels about them. Instead, again, one could say (and mean it!), “I’m sorry I did this. I understand that my actions hurt you, and it’s completely valid for you to feel this way.”
3) Repeating the wrongdoing.
The whole point of making amends is to make up for the wrongdoing and not to do it again. If the perpetrator keeps hurting the person and apologizing, then either the apology is insincere or they are incapable of changing their behavior. Either way, the consequences for the aggrieved party are the same.
4) Getting angry if the aggrieved party doesn’t accept the apology.
Here’s the thing: forgiveness depends, in most cases and for the most part, mainly on how the perpetrator behaves. Many falsely believe that it’s up to the hurt party to “just forgive them.” But that’s not how it works. You can’t just “forgive” if you still feel hurt, or if restitution is factually impossible.
It doesn’t stop people from saying, “I forgive you” and acting as if nothing happened, but usually these are the same people who tend to blame themselves for how they were mistreated. They will justify the abuser and blame themselves to the degree to which they are blind to it. False forgiveness is epidemic, and it only makes the problem worse.
It is terribly common in a parent-child relationship where the child or adult-child justifies their parents’ bad parenting. It is more evident among rape, kidnap, or domestic abuse victims, but the mechanism is the same. Sometimes it is referred to as Stockholm syndrome.
So when the perpetrator tries to make amends but fails, repeats the offense, or restitution is impossible, and the aggrieved party refuses to accept the apology, they get angry.
“I already apologized!” “What do you want from me!?” “Why are you torturing me!?”
That’s a really bad sign. It shows that the perpetrator severely lacks empathy and, more likely than not, is simply trying to manipulate the person into restoring the same toxic relationship they had.
How to make amends correctly
1) Accept responsibility for what you are actually responsible. Learn to constructively manage the unpleasant emotions that may come up.
2) Use “I” when making the statement. You can try to explain what was going on for you or what led you to do what you did, but don’t use it as negation of your responsibility. It’s still you who did it, and the damage is as it is.
3) Mean it, and do whatever you can to not do it again. Work on yourself and change your unwanted characteristics. Otherwise, if you repeatedly hurt the person and especially in the same manner, the attempt to make amends is pointless or manipulative.
4) Offer to make as fair of restitution as possible. The fact that it is impossible to fully restitute the harm doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it or make the situation at least slightly better.
5) Don’t make it about yourself. Don’t pressure the person to “forgive” you. Be empathetic. It’s not about managing your feelings—it’s about making it right and restoring trust with your fellow human being.
Is it hard for you to apologize and make amends? Is it difficult for you to differentiate between fake and real apologies? What’s your experience? Feel free to share your thoughts below or in your personal journal.
Photo by: Shereen M
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.
Cikanavicius, D. (2018). Forgiveness, Apologizing, and Taking Responsibility: Real vs. Fake. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-self/2017/11/forgiveness-apologizing-responsibility/