"Do I Have To?" and Other Questions About Apologizing

There's a lot of buzz around our new course, Heartfelt:  A Course on the Power of Apologizing -- the course opened this week, and people are having lively discussions about all the different types of apologies that we encounter every day (and that includes the apologies that we deserve, and don't get!).  We're seeing several questions that are appearing in conversations around the internet, so we thought we'd ask Harriet Lerner, who co-teaches this course with Brené, to share her wisdom in answering them.

One question that kept popping up was around the topic of apologizing too much.  "What about over-apologizing?"  Tracy asked.  Clara chimed in:  "My daughter has the opposite problem -- she apologizes for everything, even things that aren't her fault.  I'm worried that she's going to grow up to be a self-effacing doormat if this keeps up.  I've talked to her about it several times, and nothing changes." 

Harriet:  The greatest risk for being an under-apologizer is being raised male, and the greatest risk of being an over-apologizer is being raised female.  My generation of women was raised to be guilty and apologetic if we were anything less than an emotional service station to others.  Many women over-apologize to a fault, and we need to tone it down and get a grip on that endless stream of "sorry's."  Over-apologizing disrupts the flow of normal conversation, undermines your authority, and will irritate your friends.  If you've forgotten to return your friend's Tupperware, you don't need to apologize numerous times, as if you've run over her kitten.  Save your apologies for things that matter.

So, Clara, your daughter is in very good company!  That said, my advice is to ignore your daughter's over-apologizing, at this point.  Just let the "sorry's" slide on by you.  You've made the point several times, and have observed the result of your experiment -- nothing changes.  It won't help to do more of the same.  More importantly, your daughter's behavior says nothing about the kind of person she will become.  Our children's lives will take many surprising twists and turns.  If you start to label her (even in your own mind) as weak or submissive, this can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Jeff asked, "Is it possible to genuinely feel sorry that someone feels hurt by what we've said, but not feel sorry for expressing it?  A friend of mine was upset when I told him he was monopolizing all the time in a work meeting, and no one else could get a word in.  He's upset with me and wants an apology, but I think he needs to look at his behavior."    

Harriet: You obviously can't give a heartfelt "I'm sorry" for something you don't feel sorry for saying.  Your friend obviously got defensive here, while your intention was to give him valuable feedback.  But remember, even the most difficult things can be said with kindness and respect.  People don't listen well when they feel judged or shamed.  Consider how you might put things in a different way -- for example, you could have said, "You had great ideas at the meeting, but I found it difficult to find the opportunity to share my own."

It's also true that whoever was leading the meeting had the responsibility to ensure that other voices were heard.  Consider whether you might want to apologize for your part in hurting his feelings, even if you believe your part was a teensy fraction of the whole picture.

Several folks had questions about people who don't apologize at all.  For example, Karen shared:  "My dad showed up an hour late to my wedding, and when I asked him for an apology, he said, 'I don't apologize.'  And you know what? He really doesn't!  What do I do with this?"

Harriet:  In our course, Heartfelt, I explain why some people will never apologize -- but let me suggest a first step for talking to your dad:  don't request or demand an apology.  It won't help.  Instead, find a calm time to learn more about your dad's beliefs about apologizing.  One of the most courageous acts we can do is to learn to ask good questions to our difficult family members.  For example, say, "Dad, tell me more about why you don't apologize."  Be curious, without trying to change or convince him.  Report back on the results of your experiment!

And finally, Catrina asked, "Do we need to forgive a family member who betrayed us, and who will never apologize or feel sorry for what they did?"

Harriet:  One of the painful realities of every person's life is that some key people will behave badly and will never see it, validate our reality, listen to our feelings, or feel the need to apologize.  This is the human condition for which the proposed solution to our pain is often forgiveness.  But the truth is that we do not need to forgive a non-apologetic wrongdoer to heal.  Of course, we need to let go of the corrosive effects of anger, bitterness and hate.  And it's important not to demonize people, because every person is better and more complex than the worst things they've ever done.  But we can achieve peace and healing with or without forgiveness..


Thanks so much for your wisdom, Harriet!  To learn more about what it takes to make a heartfelt apology, be sure to join us in Heartfelt:  A Course on the Power of Apologizing, now available here on COURAGEworks.  (Use code CWTRIBE for 20% off when you register.)

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  1. Me3 teachmetruth says…

    This has become an eye opening revelation to me in many ways. When someone has done you wrong, hurt you and nearly destroyes your life; looking for an apology that may never come is a hard realty to suck up. I was forced to apologize in a situation that I later realized was not about me, I later became livid over this to find out it wasn't about me but about them.

    It is absolutely horrible when things like this occur, the relationship occurred between a pastor and myself. I tried multiple occasions to reconcile, to talk and bring things out in the open; I was shut down time after time, I was shamed openly and crushed more than I care to remember. It wasn't until I read one of Brene's books "I Thought It Was Just Me" did I realize I was not the problem after all. It took nearly five years to walk away but for the first time in my life I'm finally free, not from just this case but many other facets of my life.

    The sad thing I had to realize and except that there may never be an apology or an acknowledgement of her wrong doings so I have come to grips with that but I have since left that congregation. I was angry for such a long time not knowing the truth and in doing so I'm learning much about my anger issues as well.

    WOW, just WOW, for such knowledge that is available for those who desire to change their lives and how it can change the world in which we live in. I have never walked away from a relationship before until now. I am still grieving this loss regardless of how abusive it was I had a genuine care for this pastor. But...I realized the more knowledge I was gaining the more threatening I was becoming to her; how sad. My knowledge was just for personal growth not to rob any one of their's.

    I pray that one day this pastor would come to know more about her own fears and the projections that were exhibited. I seemed to of been an isolated case for some reason for her, but that's not my fault anymore either. I have become braver and taken on more challenges of vulnerability than ever before..."I Want to be Well", and that requires guts sometimes!!!!

    I have not been able to purchase this book by Harriet as of yet but I do intend to soon, I'm just not sure when the paper back versions will be released.

    Thank you for all the small excerpts that you have shared on this so far.

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  2. Img 0631 ShePersisted says…

    I have been in AA - and Alanon - for over 10 years. I have a very clear understand of why we make amends, who they are for, and why it is important not only for my sobriety, but for my physical, mental and spiritual health.

    That said, (see how cleverly I didn't use the word "BUT"!)
    I have 7 sisters and my parents are still married. I have been estranged from them since 2010 when I got sober.

    I know (in my past) I have done a lot of terrible things, and I was a very angry, scary, and sometimes abusive drunk. I am aware of MY PART in the dysfunctional mobile of my family.

    I have written one amends to one sister who never responded about 5-6 years ago, and now I have written another to another sister....but have not gotten the strength/courage to send it (even though I wrote it three weeks ago).

    My feeling is this. I am 18 years older than my youngest sister. I am 12 years older than the sister I am having reservations about sending this amends to. Their experience, understanding and relationship is completely different with my parents than mine was. I had good reasons for being so angry. I saw and experienced things they are clueless about.

    I am not going to clue them in. It is not a part of an apology to give excuses or put blame.
    I honestly don't even want them to know the truth about my parents and what was said and done as they don't need to have their relationships with my parents destroyed or tarnished by that info.

    What keeps me "sick and suffering" is that I am tired and angry and HURT that no one ever apologizes to me! That I am the one that is the "black sheep"....but no one ever wonders why. No one ever owns their part or admits their brokenness or their part in the shit show of our family dynamic.

    My amends are "by the book", heartfelt and take ownership of my part. I even get them sanctioned and sealed by the approval of my sponsor before they are sent. (She feels I shoulder too much blame and "over apologize at times). Additionally, she helps to write in such a way that does not indicate I want to open myself up to renewing a relationship with them.

    I live out of state from all of them. I have no intention on seeing them. BUT where ever I go---there I am! I walk around sad and hurt that it never occurs to them that they have a part to play in the madness. I am so hurt they never think to apologize TO ME!

    How can I let that fantasy go so I can move on in the world without that pain?

    Reply 1 Reply
    1. 247642 3605782026732 251604138 n 2 DJAD6685 says…

      @ ShePersisted
      I thought I'd share my experience, strength and hope as a fellow Alanon-member about not getting my amends.

      What has helped me was to recognize that they, too, are sick. They do not have the benefit of a recovery program as you do. They are still suffering from the disease of Alcoholism/Alanon-ism. I'm sure you already know that they don't have to abuse alcohol or drugs to be sick from the family disease -- a disease of relationships. My qualifier died of the disease before I "got my amends", and though I was not able to communicate with him after we divorced and he continued on his path of drinking, I made peace with his choices and forgave him for the fact that he wasn't able to see his part. I recognized he has his own Higher Power, who in my opinion had His hands full keeping him, and others, alive for another 8 years.) Offering amends to get an amends is asking too much from someone without a program. My parents were children of Alcoholics and I was raised in a sexually, physically and emotionally abusive home. They never found Alanon. I needed to end that relationship for my own sanity. They, too, do not see their part.

      There is a great reading in Hope for Today (or Courage to Change?) about finding compassion for the Alcoholic by envisioning them shouting at you from the window of an insane asylum, and another where you picture them as little children. Both of these ideas have helped soften my heart  –– helping me out of victimhood of my abuse into compassion for the hell they've experienced -- and still live in.

      Also, My sponsor did a lovely thing for me after my fifth step! She gave me an amends by proxy. She apologized for all the hurtful things that my qualifiers had done. I needed the affirmation - confirmation that my need(s) for an apology(ies) were legitimate and real. And the reality check from another human that they are not healthy enough to see their part. Knowing someone else on this planet saw me, heard my struggles and said, "Yep, that sucks! You totally are owed an amends! On their behalf, I apologize for ______, ____, _____." It was validating, healing and helped me move past the stuck feeling of staring at them, waiting for them to behave differently. Sending you that same love and acceptance here.

      You definitely need to grieve that loss - letting go of the fantasy is a loss! Hopefully through compassion, for yourself first, then them, you will be able to move forward.

  3. Avatar missing Tmderinger says…

    I'm struggling with someone who fails to take responsibility for her part in getting hurt. Had she not pleaded for information that I knew would be painful for her to hear I would of never shared it. She manipulated me and told me "she could not be more hurt than she already was". It was a grave mistake to share with her and despite a heartfelt apology to her she no longer speaks to me. Is there any hope for this relationship?

    Reply 0 Replies