Wondering when should you apologize and when you shouldn't? I'm sharing my complete guide to the toxic culture around apologies today; with real life examples. And giving tips on how to forgive – even when someone won't apologize or if you need to forgive yourself.
Buckle in for some real talk, because I'm not sugar coating anything!
Not into reading? You can LISTEN to this post here or on your preferred podcast player:
Table of Contents
What’s Wrong With The Toxic Apology Culture + How To Forgive
- Listen to the podcast episode
- When a person is not in a place to hear an apology, the apology will always land on deaf ears.
- A Complete Guide To The Toxic Culture Around Apologies Today: When Should You Apologize? + When You Shouldn't
- #1 Reason We Do Not Need To Apologize (but are constantly being asked to apologize for)
- When should you not apologize
- When do you need to apologize?
- Let's put this to an example
- What happens if you apologize to someone you hurt and they don't accept it?
- Why apologies are manipulative and have become such a toxic part of our culture
- What to do when someone won't apologize / Why I no longer require apologies from people
- The mindset shift you need to make if someone won't accept your apology
- How will I teach my daughter about apologies?
- What to do when people demand an apology but you are not wrong and it wasn't your fault
- The idea of apologizing when you don't feel sorry, is disrespectful to both you and the other person
- #1 Way Apologies Have Become Manipulative: The Sincerity Police
- What to do when someone won't apologize to you
“You never apologized to me for that incredibly hurtful conversation we had 3 years ago… Until I have a sincere apology and some sort of recognition, I can't consider moving on from that,” she said.
“I acknowledge all of this pain you've been clearly bottling up for all of these years and that saddens me to hear you've been holding onto all of this and causing yourself stress and turmoil,” I replied.
Here's the funny thing about apologies: we only hear them when we are ready to receive them.
At least that's been my experience.
You see, I did apologize on that very initial call she is referencing from 3 years ago for a couple of things:
- For how I brought up the difficult topic (I definitely could've approached it wayyyy better), and
- For speaking on behalf of someone else (At the time, I was still holding onto tendrils of codependency that left me fighting someone else's battle on the call that I had no place in bringing up).
So in this moment, 3 years later, I immediately recognized and acknowledge her struggles, however I was not going to apologize.
When a person is not in a place to hear an apology, the apology will always land on deaf ears.
And I'm talking from personal experience here. I've shared about the challenges I've had in my family over the years. I used to lament that I “just needed a sincere apology.” So I would demand one, the person would apologize, and I'd still feel empty inside.
Or the person would apologize without me prompting, and I wouldn't hear it… someone else in the room would need to point it out. At the time I was too caught up in my anger or wounding and thinking of my next response, to truly listen.
My relationship with forgiveness was messy and I was not in a place to forgive back then. Holding onto my anger gave me a false sense of control in those situations.
I was one of many people who couldn't accept an apology, yet demanded one.
A Complete Guide To The Toxic Culture Around Apologies Today: When Should You Apologize? + When You Shouldn't
[+ How To Forgive When Someone Won't Apologize]
Today, I'm going to share with you all my thoughts on why we shouldn't apologize. I'll say this before we dive in: this something I wrote out nearly a year ago. Something I've sat on for quite some time. Something I fully recognize is still in the process of evolving. My views are not concrete, but I feel called to share them with you all right now as I see so many struggling with their own pain.
I also talk about what to do when people demand an apology but you're not wrong and it wasn't your fault.
With that said, I do think apologies are important sometimes. But I believe they are a gift more for ourselves, than the other person.
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I think as a society, we've moved towards manipulative apologies and a very toxic culture around forgiveness. So I'll also offer up some new perspectives for what to do when someone won't apologize to you.
My hope with this post, is that we all walk away with a little more love and forgiveness in our hearts. We stop taking responsibility for other people's feelings, and we stop trying to control and manipulate others with our feelings.
Again, I do believe in apologies at the moment. I just noted my own apology to the person above. I'll touch a little bit on when I think apologies are helpful, but this post will mostly be about the toxic culture that has seemed grow around giving an apology.
My hope is you'll discover an alternative path to forgiveness that empowers you. I hope you also discover an alternative path to self love that allows you to drop any self loathing or shame you may hold about yourself and do not feel a need to beat yourself up if people demand an apology from you and you don't want to give one.
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#1 Reason We Do Not Need To Apologize (but are constantly being asked to apologize for):
Hurt feelings. Seriously, the number one thing I see people asking for an apology for is because someone said or did something that hurt their feelings. I think it comes from this therapy technique that has become vastly misguided where people are taught to say, “I felt (insert healing word, let's use “hurt” in this example since it's the most common one I hear) when you did (fill in the blank), what I need from you is (insert action, usually “an apology and for you to not do that again”).
While this practice I believe is well intentioned, it seems to have created this twisted approach where people think they can take others emotionally hostage when they have an uncomfortable feeling around someone. The #1 thing we should not be apologizing for is someone else's feelings!!
Hear me out…
I don’t need to apologize because you had a feeling around me.
I will not apologize or take responsibility because someone is blaming me for their feelings. In that past, I assumed if someone was hurt, then it must be my fault and I had to apologize. I always felt so bad when someone demanded an apology that I’d even quickly give them the apology! But then a few funny things started happening…
- The person kept manipulating me to become more and more responsible for their feelings or perceptions rather than looking at themselves and doing their own work.
- When I gave actual heartfelt sincere apologies it'd fall on deaf ears and the person would continue to nail me to the cross (so to speak)
- If I apologized because I was being demanded to, I'd end up feeling worse about myself. Seriously, by falling in line with someone else's victim story, I started to believe their story and in turn, dislike myself. I believe this was a big reason I struggled with anxiety and depression in the past – because I continued to let other people define who I was and whether or not that was good enough using their feelings, thoughts, and opinions as a measuring scale rather than my own.
I really thought, if someone brought their hurt feelings or angry feelings to me then I must be responsible for them. The more work I did on myself, I realized that I’m not responsible for anyone's feelings/opinions or thoughts other than my own.
In fact, the only thing I’m responsible for is myself. That includes managing my own feelings and reactions when I have a feeling around someone AND if I purposely hurt someone.
Let’s be real here: hurting someone intentionally is wildly out of character for me/most of humanity. Rare is the person who intends to hurt someone's feelings; most people are reacting to their own unhealed wounds without ever realizing it; but more on that later.
When should you not apologize:
I think what we got wrong in the art of giving an apology is what the apology is actually intended to do. An apology is intended to make forgiveness easier for ALL parties by acknowledging wrongdoings. Because when we mess up, the most important thing is that we forgive ourselves; what the other person does is up to them. However, forgiveness does not need an apology.
I don't think it's wise to give an apology if…
- You have no intention of stopping the behavior or it's something you consistently do (e.g. person always apologizes for drinking, but doesn't plan on quitting)
- It's out of fear
- You are only apologizing to pacify the situation (that's codependency)… (example of a fear based apology)
- You are only apologizing to avoid further confrontation or disapproval… (example of a fear based apology too)
- To wipe away your guilt in hopes the person will give you a clean slate (aka sweeping things under the rug, without actually making changes)
An apology is a selfish act. We apologize for ourselves… which is why I think it only feels good when we really mean it. When we’ve looked at how we’ve gotten there. It's part of our internal growth and healing journey.
When do you need to apologize?
I think you apologize when you want to.
I think a more interesting question is, “how can we apologize?” I think it's helpful to apologize when there is true remorse and intention to change or do better. However, an “I'm sorry” isn't really an apology. It's simply a verbal acknowledgement of the situation. The actions that follow the “I'm sorry” are the apology.
Personally, I apologize when I feel remorse. When I know I've messed up and want to acknowledge the behavior in order to reassure both myself and the person it will never happen again (to the best of my ability at least). However, my apology has nothing to do with the words, it has to do with the changes in myself.
Let's put this to an example:
My old boss once called me into her office because my coworkers were gossiping about her. While I didn't say anything, I sat in the room while they did it. Somehow she knew and the words she said to me years ago still stick with me today, “listening to gossip is gossiping.” OOF!
When I “shouldn't” apologize to her:
An unhealthy apologetic response to that situation would've been saying I'm sorry because I…
- Was afraid of losing my job
- Wanted to keep the peace in the situation and just get out of the confrontation
- Hoped it'd make things to go back to normal
When I think apology makes sense…
When I truly understood her perspective and took it to heart and planned on making a change in my life. I had never looked at listening to gossip as gossiping before, but she was totally right and it wasn't something I wanted to be a part of moving forward in my life for many reasons beyond this scenario.
I took the time listen to her pain and frustration, acknowledged it, and said I'm sorry – not for her, but for myself.
The really apology happened after I left her office: I made the decision to stop listening to gossip, knowing it could cause other's pain; but also because I didn't feel good in those situations OR their aftermath.
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I made the decision of how I'd do better in the future for myself and what felt best to me. And this situation it happened to aline with what she was saying.
The action based apology – my decision to stop listening to gossip moving forward – was never shared with her and that doesn't matter, because an apology is for ALL parties. It's for you to improve and forgive yourself if you find truth in what the person brought you about their experience. The person can do whatever they choose with the apology.
TIP: When someone brings you something, listen to it. Observe it. Don't react to it. There are times you'll find truth in what they are saying and times you won't. For me, I always know if there is truth in what the person is saying based on how I felt in the moment they are describing whatever I did. In this situation, I felt uncomfortable in the room. I didn't want to be there, which is why I kept my mouth shut, but I also didn't speak up, which felt uncomfortable for me too.
Now that's not to say I haven't fallen back at times and listened to gossip, but I've made a good faith effort since then to always say I don't want to talk about this, leave the room, or move on. I also never say anything about someone behind their back, I wouldn't say to their face; and when people start talking about others with me, I always make that clear to them: your secret is not safe with me. I am only in this conversation because I am comfortable having it with the person here too.
What happens if you apologize to someone you hurt and they don't accept it?
You move on. As long as you have looked at yourself, taken responsibility for what you've done, and found peace (whether by giving an apology or simply forgiving yourself), that's all you can do.
If someone keeps asking for an apology when you’ve already given it, that’s on them. We are responsible for how we feel and perceive things and it’s only through self acceptance, self love, and forgiveness can we truly move on from those things, so if they aren't accepting your apology, it's most likely because they haven't taken a look at themselves yet, including their role in the situation, have their own work to do.
Whatever you do, don't keep apologizing over and over again.
If you keep apologizing over and over, it's only a matter of time until you feel resentful or worse about yourself. It's unhealthy to take responsibility for other people's feelings or perceptions; that's an inside job for them.
That works the other way around too:
If you feel hurt, it's not someone else's job to take responsibility for your feelings. It's an inside job for you to take responsibility about how you got those hurt feelings in the first place. Were you giving from an empty cup when you didn't really want to? Did you let boundaries get violated? Could you have spoken up sooner? Were you self sabotaging? Was there a clarifying question you could've asked along the way to not torment yourself into pain because you were assuming things? Do you even actually FEEL hurt or do you think you feel hurt because it's what has been modeled for your subconscious mind so that's how you think you're supposed to react?
That last one is a BIG one. As I talked about in my post on the victim-perpetrator cycle, we are on “Record” essentially until the age of 6-7. Meaning we are just recording everything from the tv, news, media, our parents, ALL the things. This gets loaded into our subconscious mind that operates roughly 97% percent of our brain. So if we only “recorded” situations of people being hurt and reacting in a certain way, or other maladaptive wounded storylines, those are the things we'll operate from. We have the choice to create new paths forward though…. I'll be sharing more about this in my subconscious mind series of the podcast though.
To expand on the opening conversation:
Person demands an apology from me from something I did years ago (and had already apologized for in that moment). I declined to apologize when it was brought up again because they are really asking me to take responsibility for the reality they'd been choosing and living in for the last 3 years. They are even adding caveats like, “If it’s SINCERE I’ll CONSIDER forgiving you.” …talk about setting up hoops for me to jump through; I don't play that game anymore.
Fast forward, this person goes and spins a story about our exchange to someone else in our inner circle. The people listening, don’t just listen, but begin to jump on the bandwagon and say horrible things about me and my husband in agreeance… all while my husband and I are listening! (They accidentally answered my call instead of ignored it).
The 2 people who jumped on the bandwagon talking sh*t about us found out we were listening (at the end of the call, I said “Hi guys!” – Super awkward, kind of funny in retrospect). So these two people come over a couple of days later to “apologize” to us in person.
It was in their apology, I realized why apologies are manipulative and have become such a toxic part of our culture:
They sat down, looking sad, and jumped into an “apology” explaining no one intends to hurt others and so on. It became clear they wore their apology as an armor to circumvent the responsibility for what they’d done. It was like they wanted their apology to act as some sort of confession that absolved them of all responsibility.
And when I say responsibility, I don’t mean a responsibility to me; I mean a responsibility to themselves. They’d been living so dishonestly around us for years. Because when you are nice to someone's face, but talking trash about them behind their back, that's a lie.
In fact, I actually didn’t care what they said about me (and still don't). Honestly, I don't even know if I care about the broken trust that exists in our relationship today since they'd never said any of this to my face or gave me an inkling they’d felt that way for years. I think the only thing I cared about was the triangulation and group think I saw playing out (read more about that here). In fact, I forgave them the moment I heard the words leave their mouths.
Why do I think they weren't really taking responsibility and truly apologizing?
My husband asked them to say the things they'd said behind our back to our faces; we had them on recording (yes, I record conversations like this after being gaslit for years, but that's another story).
So we had them on recording saying these things, there was no hiding or mincing words. His request was an exercise in integrity. To see if they were willing to move from this divisive nature back to wholeness where we could trust what they were saying to our faces, given what was happening behind our backs.
Their response when he asked them to repeat what they'd been saying about us? Saying “nevermind” to the entire sit down and wanting to leave… “
So then what are you really apologizing for?” we asked
“Because we hurt your feelings…” they said…
— And that right there is where the toxic culture of apologies lie.
Too often I hear people saying, “I apologize if I hurt your feelings,” with no real acknowledgement, ownership, reflection, remorse, and all the other things I've already talked about in this post.
My husband changed his approach and said, “fine, let's just listen back to the recording of what you said” – yes, we recorded both calls between me and the initial person and the conversation we stumbled into between the three of them. I highly recommend doing this when dealing with toxic communicators to cut down on any “he said, she said” – especially if you're recovering from being gaslit most of your life like me! It's not a “gotchya trick” but rather a valuable exercise in personal growth and learning where YOUR wounding is coming up and helps move the healing process along in my experience.
They refused to listen back to the recording of themselves. I'm speaking on pure speculation here because when we asked why they didn't want to listen they just kept saying, “we don't want too!” – so my assumption can only be that it's too hard to be faced with the truth of one's actions and it's easier to give an apology that “band-aids” the discomfort.
We are failing as ourselves and as a society by allowing the manipulative apology to go on like this.
With that said, if you are still struggling with this, I want to switch gears and talk about how to heal yourself when someone won't apologize; or better yet, how to stop demanding people apologize to you and being a part of the manipulative apology cycle.
What to do when someone won't apologize / Why I no longer require apologies from people
Forgiveness is an inside job. When I was less aware of the toxic apology culture our society is living in, people would apologize to me for things over the years and I was CONVINCED they never apologized to me about. Today, I know that's because I wasn’t ready to hear it or forgive. I realized then that I’d been using an apology as a way to control a situation that I needed to heal and forgive; regardless of what the other person was doing or not doing.
The mindset shift you need to make if someone won't accept your apology:
It's not your problem. If someone chooses to not accept your apology, that's their choice. The only thing you can do is acknowledge that you are not responsible for healing others; only for healing yourself.
I used to think if people didn't accept my apology, it was my fault. If I just felt more guilty, jumped through more hoops, and did more of what they'd ask, eventually I'd earn my way back into their good graces. I’ve finally realized, that I’m not the problem in situations like the one above! Yes, I do have problems, but I’m not THE problem.
I am not the person with the hurt feelings problem either. If they feel hurt, it's because they allowed the behavior to play out in their life. It takes two to tango and we all play a role in situations; even abusive ones. People who hurt me are not my problem, I am my own problem.
Today, if my feelings are hurt, I don’t bring it to people because it’s an inside job. I can’t ask you to change for me; that’s control and manipulation.
I once heard something like “look at how hard it is to change yourself, why I are asking others to do it then?” … that always stayed with me.
When someone agitates me today, I thank them for showing me an opportunity for personal growth in my life. I use my feelings of hurt or discomfort as a guide to love myself and accept myself more. I know when I do this, I embody that change I want to see in the world. In healing myself, I truly believe I heal others. I'll share more on this below.
We all need to start taking responsibility for the judgements we are casting on others and look inside.
What I’ve come to realize is that people are shifting their blame onto others for their own self-abandonment and self-harm tendencies. Family members accusing me of judging them, when in fact, their very accusation shows they are judging me (and more likely silently judging themselves). The friends who complained that I didn’t take an interest in them, were always the ones who didn't honor their own interests or path and instead complain about where they are at… something I'd only realize years later when I STILL saw them complaining about their SAME situation years later on social media.
The external world we perceive is a reflection of our internal reality. If we always think others are judging us, then we are judging ourselves. If we never feel seen or heard, then we are not honoring ourselves. Every criticism you feel, you are choosing for yourself.
Of course all of this always brings up the question:
How will I teach my daughter about apologies?
Honestly, it’s hard to say. Currently, I think I’m going to teach her that if she harms someone, she does some reflection on how she got to the place of harming them, and then she apologizes to them initially.
The reality is, children’s brain waves are on record the first 6 years of their life. She won’t have the brain capacity for discernment really until after 7. So I’ll start with the basics rooted in values and morals: you lied, you need to apologize; and then layer on as she gets older. After 6 or 7, I'll go into teaching her more about responsibility, discernment, remorse, and forgiveness. With that said, I'll continue to model that behavior and explain to her what I'm doing in my own apologies as I've done since the day she was born.
* And for those wondering, yes she ended up in the room of that exchange I mentioned earlier with the 2 people talking about my husband and I behind our backs. She woke up about halfway through. I picked her up and narrated what was happening (in kids terms obviously and focusing on the highest most loving light). Fortunately it was after the 2 people kept wanting to leave. I held my daughter in her arms and explained that these people had made a mistake, and we're working on owning it. I explained to her the importance of honesty and transparency in relationships. I told her that when we mess up, family is a safe space to come together and be honest so we don't need to carry shame or uncomfortable feelings alone. That family can heal this when we acknowledge it and pull it all out into the middle of the room, and things like that. I didn't give her nitty gritty details but framed the energy in the room in a positive light rooted in love, growth, healing, and expansion with the goal being, that if a similar situation ever came up in our lives in the future, we would come together and not run away.
What to do when people demand an apology but you are not wrong and it wasn't your fault:
An apology is not a band-aid or a cureall. It will not make a situation go away. If you don’t really feel sorry or ownership over whatever the person is throwing at you then you should not apologize. If you do apologize, you are only apologizing so the person won’t be mad at you (see earlier list).
The idea of apologizing when you don't feel sorry, is disrespectful to both you and the other person.
When you give an apology but don't believe in it, you are disrespecting yourself…
…by allowing yourself to be controlled and manipulated by another person. In doing so, you diminish yourself, so the other person can feel more comfortable in themselves.
It reminds me of this TV show I once watched where the person intentionally lost a basketball game because their cousin was on the opposing team and the cousin just needed a “win” in his life. The person who threw the game, later felt horrible and regretted the decision. It's the same thing. You are intentionally losing yourself in order to boost the other person up which leads me to why it's disrespectful to them…
When you don't believe in the apology you're giving, it's disrespectful to the other person…
It's an act of codependency.
Codependency is a behavioral condition in a relationship where one person enables another person's addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity.
In other words, you are trying to take care of the reality they’re creating rather than letting them learn to take care of it themselves. It's like handing a man a fish, instead of teaching him to fish. Moreover, in doing this, you are subconsciously saying to them, “I think you're weak and don't think you are strong/capable/able enough to handle this on your own, so I'm going to do this for you.” It subconsciously annihilates self esteem and self worth.
People need to learn to heal their own hurt, and not try to get others to heal it for them with an apology.
Here's an example of what I mean that…
Too often, people have demanded I apologize to them because they had a feeling around me after I stood up for what I believe in. Standing up for what you believe in is not a bad thing. Just because someone is uncomfortable or disagrees with my position on something, does not mean I need to apologize to them. In fact, if I were to apologize, that's like me saying to the person, “hey, thanks for playing victim, I’m going to apologize here because your approval of me means more than honoring and respecting myself!”
Now don’t get me wrong, learning to stop apologizing for who I am took time. I felt guilty initially for not apologizing in situations like the one above. Not because I thought I was wrong for speaking my truth, but because society has taught us that if we hurt someone’s feelings we should do everything in our power to make it right; even if we did nothing “wrong.”
I finally stopped feeling guilty for not apologizing…
After a dear friend offer me a different perspective to this, if we hurt someone’s feelings we tell them you’re welcome. We’ve just shown a light on what they need to heal in themselves. We are all walking around this planet agitating one another because we all have open wounds that can be agitated. But when we heal those wounds, the things people do that once agitated us, won’t agitate us anymore.
#1 Way Apologies Have Become Manipulative: The Sincerity Police
If someone apologizes and you don’t feel it’s sincere, guess what: it’s not your place to judge that!
If you are judging whether or not someone’s apology is sincere, then you are being controlling and manipulative. Only the person delivering the apology can feel if it’s genuine in their hearts. Instead of judging sincerity, focus on how you plan to move forward. Remember, forgiveness is the gift you give yourself, and an apology is the gift they give themselves (or vice versa depending your role in the situation – or honestly, no apology is needed because everyone is doing their own work!).
Too often, people are walking around trying to control others rather than offer unconditional love. The only way to know if you’re standing in love is by how you feel. If you apologize, but feel empty inside, you did it out of fear.
If you received an apology but still felt empty inside, it’s likely because you either
- know deep down you played a role in the situation and haven’t forgiven (or looked at) yourself for that yet (because it always takes 2 to tango!), or
- Because you’re trying to control the situation to create a sense of safety/security/superiority/(fill in the blank) rather than forgive it and let it go.
Please go back and re-read that section (and probably this entire post, because I know it's a lot to take in).
What to do when someone won't apologize to you:
Forgive & thank. Today, when my feelings get hurt, I’m grateful – exhausted, but grateful. I recognize it’s an area of myself that I haven’t accepted or loved on yet. I'm grateful the exchange has brought an area of growth to light for me. I make a note to do the work on myself rather than taking the person emotionally hostage. Then I get to forgiving. I work on forgiving the person/situation, myself, and whatever old wound got ruffled in the exchange.
And I really want to stress that: forgive whatever old wound got ruffled in the exchange.
Remember, I said wayyyyy earlier that so much of our perceived need for apologies comes from the subconscious programming we picked up while on record from the wounded adults/world around us at the time. It's not a blame game, it's just how the world has worked up until this point. In order to break this cycle, I believe we must acknowledge it and move forward by taking responsibility for ourselves and CHOOSING new reactions to situations.
I believe the apology is an outdated construct that exerts power/authority over others. It puts one person as a winner and another as a loser. I don't believe there needs to be an apology in order to forgive. In fact, when I googled, “are apologies helpful in forgiveness” I found 1 article from Psychology Today in 2002 saying it was helpful – you guys, that’s almost TWENTY years ago!!! More recently, Psychology Today published in 2018 that apologies are not necessary for forgiveness. And that’s the paradigm we are shifting towards.