The 3 Elements of an Apology Important to Me as an Abuse Survivor
When we’re children, one of the first lessons we learn is to say, “I’m sorry.” Those two little words seemingly remedy any situation. You stole a toy from the boy next to you, you ate the last popsicle, you said something unkind to your sister. We’re taught that as long as we say the two words, the person has to forgive us and move on.
As a trauma survivor, I’ve been working in therapy on learning what types of behaviors feel toxic to me. I’ve begun to realize that apologies that only contain those two words alone are not enough for me anymore.
As adults, we often apologize in roundabout ways. We say things like “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt,” or “I’m sorry you’re angry.” These apologies are so frustrating to me because the person is not saying they regret their own actions, simply that they regret you’re in need of an apology. People often apologize in ways that demonstrate the only real goal is to smooth things over, to get the offended person to acquiesce so things can just go back to normal.
I’m so tired of hearing these types of apologies. They all but ensure that things will never change, that I will be locked into a pattern of getting hurt, hearing a half-hearted apology, forgiving and then waiting for the cycle to begin all over again.
I recently read “It Wasn’t Your Fault” by Beverly Engel, LMFT. In it, she writes about how to make a meaningful apology to someone that includes the three R’s. So going forward, in the interest of protecting my heart (and my sanity), I will only accept apologies that contain the following elements:
Regret: The person must show genuine remorse for what they have done wrong. It requires them to feel some sort of empathy — they should put themselves in the other person’s shoes and imagine how they would feel if the tables had been turned. So many apologies forget this crucial step.
Responsibility: The person must understand their role in however the hurt person is feeling. Taking honest responsibility in an apology demonstrates that it was their own actions that caused the hurt to take place, not the person whose feelings hurt. This means it’s an apology with zero excuses.
Remedy: To me, this is the most important aspect of a true apology. This is a statement where they offer a promise to not repeat the behavior in the future. The person can’t go back and undo what they did or said, but they sure can avoid making the same choice going forward.
Now if someone apologizes to me and these three elements are not there, I’m not going to completely cut off contact or reject the person. It’s just a great reminder to myself that I need to be more careful around this person — perhaps I need to spend less time with them or I need to add a little extra armor around my heart when they’re near.
As someone with a history of abuse, my brain is incredibly used to accepting hurt and internalizing it as something I’m deserving of. Refusing to accept apologies that only contain two words and absolutely no promise that the hurt won’t just keep coming will be my new way of showing myself I don’t deserve to be in pain. If something happens resulting in me feeling hurt, I deserve to be around people who will work their hardest to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
In the same vein, I’m going to work on apologizing to myself — showing myself empathy for the own hurt I’ve brought into my life and working to promise myself I’ll do a better job in the future to protect my heart from others. From now on, I’m deciding that I no longer deserve to be hurt — I won’t be stuck in a cycle of pain just because someone never learned it takes more than two words to make a true apology.