My friend’s ex girlfriend messaged him the other day, apologizing for how she behaved in their relationship. Like any good friend, he sent me screenshots of the conversation. And, like any good friend, I poured over them and gave them a thorough analysis. And, like any good friendship, we eventually talked on the phone and debriefed about what she was articulating and how both of them handled the situation. (10/10 recommend all the above.)
Over the course of the messages, it became increasingly transparent that apologizing wasn’t really the intent. She was looking for closure, which she acknowledged, and, digging deeper into the words she didn’t say, I think she was looking for validation that the relationship meant something to him, that she meant something to him. She dredged up the past because she couldn’t move on and she wanted to know if he too still found treasure in the wreckage.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know my thoughts on closure, particularly in regard to relationships, so I won’t repeat myself here.
This one is about apologies. And how they’re dumb.
There are different types of apologies and some of them I find valuable, but what I’m interested in are two bottom-of-the-barrel types of apologies: the confessional and the performative.
The confessional apology is the same as a typical confessional in that it’s about the person confessing, not the person receiving. There’s an embedded narcissism in it, something sticky and rank. Apology as catharsis. Apology as ego-soother. As a confessional, this apology is offered not as a balm to the wounded but as a salve to the self. The confessor/apologizer has less interest in healing the hurt and is more interested in forgiveness, words to assuage their guilt.
I was first introduced to this apology many years ago when I was hanging out with an ex boyfriend and he told me that he’d cheated on his girlfriend. He was conflicted on whether or not to tell her what he’d done. He said he couldn’t imagine not telling her; however, some of his friends had told him that telling her was pointless, that his brief fling was over and that the act of confessing would give him relief but would only give her hurt. He ended up telling her, and though they stayed together for a while after that, they ended up breaking up because of it. She never trusted me the same, he told me.
I’ve thought about his friends’ advice for years. Apologies as absolution. That’s what it is.
And honesty is laudable, I suppose, but there are no heroics in an apology of this type. Confessing isn’t brave; it’s the work that comes after that does or does not deserve applause.
And then there’s the performative. The rote apology. The I Am Sorry TM.
To give you an illustrative example, another one of my friends texted me that she was angry with her partner. He did something insensitive—an action which they’ve talked about in-depth before—and when she called him out on it, he apologized. But then she asked, Don’t you feel bad?
And he said no.
He said no!
I would argue that performative apologies make up the bulk of apologies (I am guilty of many). And this why a lot of apologies are dumb. Because they’re lip service. Perfunctory guilt. People apologize because they know they should, but there is no deeper feeling attached, no larger action required of them. You get to say “I’m sorry” and move on. But what about the person you’ve hurt? What does your apology change? They are left with their frustration and your words, but the emotional work remains on the wounded, to feel better, to heal, to always be the one to articulate their pain or their feelings and to ask for more.
One of my all-time, gold-star, shove-your-head-in-an-oven favorite apologies is I’m sorry you feel that way. I received one of those this year and it ruined my entire week, maybe even month. I’m sorry you feel that way. That is lowest possible form of apology. It is an apology in name only. It is the same as when a two year old scribbles with crayons on the dining room table and you call it “art.” I’m sorry you feel that way. An apology like that claims no responsibility. The person is not acknowledging that they’ve done anything wrong. There is no reflection. No change. It is arguably the same as saying, Ope! Bummer to have feelings, eh? It is decisively making the hurt a *you* problem. They are washing their hands clean of it.
I am tired of apologies because I am tired of feeling like I deserve a genuine one. I am tired of carefully crafting my feelings into something palatable and saying you’ve hurt me and them saying sorry and then doing the same things again and again. I am tired of people believing that apologies are all you have to do to fix something. I am tired of people not putting in the emotional work to better develop empathy for others.
And I understand that my feelings aren’t someone else’s problem, that how I feel is within my control and I am in charge of managing my feelings in a healthy way. And in some ways, yeah, the I’m sorry you feel that way apology is really valid. I get that. But I see this narrative of “other people’s feelings aren’t your responsibility” being used as a way to skirt accountability for shitty actions, mainly among men. It’s like they watched a single therapy TikTok, internalized this mantra, and apply it to all of their relationships. They toss around this phrase and never reflect on how they are causing this hurt, intentional or not. It’d be like if I ran over their dog and then said I’m sorry if you’re sad. The point is that I ran over their dog, that, whether or not I meant to, I caused them hurt, and what I should really be apologizing for are my actions and the hurt I caused. I feel like this nuance is lost in many conversations, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of the way we perceive women, how we always see them as emotional and often their emotions as inconsequential. Empathy is a “soft” skill. It’s not something many people put time into. And it shows. It fucking shows.
This season I led several restorative justice circles for students where we model accountability, community, and honoring individual voices and perspectives (one was for pranking someone by shoving poison oak in their face, and the other was for throwing someone’s pet lizard irretrievably beyond the fence. Kids. Incredible.). In those circles, we talk about what makes a good apology. The apologies are rarely spectacular. Kids mutter I’m sorry to their feet. They don’t make eye contact. Sometimes they giggle. But we try. And they’re kids. They’re still learning.
I don’t have any solutions for how to make an apology mean something, to have it go beyond mere lip service. I think at the heart of it is how do you make people care, how do you make them see that other people’s feelings are as real as their own. I don’t know.
If anything, I’m sorry for not being more empathetic, my friend wrote to his ex girlfriend.
I genuinely appreciate the apology. It actually means a lot, she wrote back.