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When is it Helpful to Apologize?

By Dr. Margaret Paul
September 28, 2009



Discover when it is loving and appropriate to apologize and when it is a form of control.



"When it is helpful to apologize?" asked Patricia, a client of mine, in one of our phone sessions. Her husband, Brent, often expected her to apologize and she was confused about when it was appropriate.

The answer to this question is a little complex, because there are two different reasons that people apologize:

  • Sometimes people apologize to try to have control over the other person. If the other person has indicated that they expect an apology and you give it to them, whether or not you feel apologetic or feel that you have anything to apologize for, then you are trying to have control over how the other person feels about you.
The problem with apologizing with the intent to control is that you have to give yourself up to do it, and this will always make you feel badly inside. Giving yourself up gives yourself the message that how the other person feels about you is more important than being true to yourself. So, even if the other person is happy with you that you apologized, you may feel some depression as a result of compromising your own integrity.
  • The other reason people apologize is because they genuinely feel badly about something they did. They apologize because it is loving to themselves to acknowledge their own unloving behavior. They apologize out of caring for themselves and for the person they are apologizing to. This apology is coming from a sense of integrity and leads to feeling peaceful within.

"Patricia, while it may seem helpful to apologize to appease Brent, in the long run it is anything but helpful. While it may calm things for the moment, in the long run it sets up a codependent system where Brent is making you responsible for his feelings. You have to apologize for him to feel okay or feel loving toward you. It is not your responsibility to care-take his feelings.

"On the other hand, if you have behaved in a way that you are not happy with, then it is taking responsibility for your own feelings to sincerely apologize to Brent."

"So it is loving to apologize when I'm doing it for me, but not when I'm doing it for him?"

"Well, it is loving when you are doing it for both of you, but not just for him. When you are doing it just for him, then you are allowing him to control you and you are being compliant as a way to control him, which will never make you feel good inside or foster a loving relationship."

"But what if he demands an apology before he will be loving to me?"

"Then he is making you responsible for his feelings, and by apologizing, you are making him responsible for your feelings. You are abandoning yourself to try to get love, rather than being loving to yourself. If you genuinely feel that you didn't do anything for which you need to apologize, then it is loving to yourself to let go of whether or not he is being loving to you and accept the responsibility of being loving to yourself."

"Oh, I get it! If I apologize to get him to be loving to me, even when I feel that I haven't done anything wrong, then I am abandoning myself and trying to control him instead of being true to myself. No wonder I feel so badly when I do that! It's been confusing because it's very easy for me to apologize when I've been hurtful to him and it makes me feel good to do that, but apologizing when he is demanding it and I know that I have done nothing to apologize for makes me feel awful inside. Thanks for the clarity!"


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