Saying Sorry Is a Privilege

tra tran

October 14, 2020

Often when people apologize for bad behavior, it’s actually a selfish act.

Collectively, we view “I’m sorry” as a service to the party who was harmed — and sometimes it is, because we want to know that person is experiencing remorse and taking responsibility.

But an apology, and especially a request for forgiveness, can also be a sneaky way for the person doing harm to attempt to feel better about themselves at the other person’s expense. That’s the reason it can feel awkward when someone asks you to accept their apology, either explicitly or implicitly. Even if their apology is sincere and genuine, it can feel like a self-serving act.

In a sense, it’s them saying:

Hey, you know how my selfish behavior just benefited me at your expense? Well now because of my actions I feel bad about it, so I’d like to continue using you for my benefit by asking you to make me feel better.

Even if someone isn’t asking you for forgiveness explicitly, the way “I’m sorry” often lands on the receiver is with this awkward pause where the only gracious thing to do is “accept” it, and say something to the effect of “it’s okay”.

But often — it’s not okay, and glossing over the harm that’s been done isn’t just insensitive, it’s a waste of an opportunity to learn from what happened.

Why It’s Good to Feel Bad

Thanks to our remarkable design, almost all humans experience things like guilt and remorse when our behavior harms someone else. We are wired to not hurt people, so guilt is a brilliant feedback mechanism that incentivizes us to better understand the consequences of our actions.

Let’s use a simple example from my life. I’m writing this during the Coronavirus quarantine, and my friend and community-mate is running virtual Qi-Gong classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9am on Zoom. He invited me to sit in on the classes in person so I’ve been doing that for the past week.

The last couple classes I’ve been a few minutes late, so he sent me a text, essentially saying “be on time, I don’t like it when you’re late”. What happened next was I felt guilty. I typically wake up around 9am, so I had been letting my morning laziness influence my lateness.

This morning however, the guilt I felt paid off. Instead of hitting snooze I effortlessly got out of bed, got dressed and walked into class before 9am. It was easier for me to be on time today, because I allowed the guilt to benefit me.

Guilt is potent medicine for behavior change.

So how does this go wrong? How does it happen that people do inconsiderate things over and over again without any noticeable change in their behavior? It has to do with shame.

Shame as an Avoidance Mechanism

We often use shame to avoid taking responsibility for our actions. Before I give examples of how, it’s important that we clearly distinguish between guilt and shame.

As Brené Brown says in her incredibly important TED talk “Listening to Shame”, guilt is “I did something wrong”, shame is “I am wrong”. Guilt is an indictment of our actions, shame is an indictment of our being.

As we’ve talked about, guilt is useful and can help us change, but shame is actually responsible for the opposite, and leads us to things like depression, addiction, violence and suicide.

If this is the first time you’re hearing this distinction, I absolutely recommend you watch Brown’s TED talk. It’s worth your time.


Shame is sneaky, it’s like a magician using sleight of hand. Shame deploys the art of manipulating someone’s attention, so they only notice what you want them to notice.

For example, watch these two sequences where someone takes the attention off their harmful actions and onto both the victim and/or themselves. Let’s use the example of Bob and Jesse, and in this example Jesse used Bob’s favorite guitar and accidentally left it outside in the rain.

Example 1 (turning the attention toward self):

Bob: Jesse, I’m really upset that you left my guitar out in the rain, it will never be the same.

Jesse: I’m so sorry Bob… ugh, I’m such an idiot! I always do this, and I suck at remembering to put things away after I use them. I’m such a bad person.

Bob: You’re not a bad person Jesse, you just did something dumb.

Jesse: No, I suck at life! I’m a bad person!

Example 2 (turning the attention toward other):

Bob: Jesse, I’m really upset that you left my guitar out in the rain, it will never be the same.

Jesse: I’m so sorry Bob… man, I really wish you had told me how important that guitar was to you, I would have never left it out.

Bob: What?!? You knew how important that guitar was to me? How could you do that?

Jesse: Hey — I’m a good person, so if I knew I wouldn’t have left it out.

Do you notice the sneaky ways Jesse diverted the attention away from his actions? In both cases, his shame took over (“I’m a bad person” and “I’m a good person”) and took attention away from a very black and white issue (the guitar being left out in the rain). He did this by re-directing the attention toward his character, which is much more open for interpretation and discussion, thereby killing the chance for resolution.

Did Jesse do this on purpose? Not consciously. Often when something triggers our shame this process happens unconsciously. Someone says something then all of a sudden we become defensive, like they’ve just insulted our mother. One of the things we can take away from this example is that Jesse probably feels insecure about being a “bad person”. If we could listen to his self-talk, we’d probably hear a lot of self judgement about his character.

Conversely, if Jesse were able to stay with the guilt instead of spiraling into shame, he would feel worse in the moment, but the result would have been a natural increase in his ability to care for other people’s belongings. It’s important also that we highlight the word “natural”, because guilt does the heavy lifting for us. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t need to “try harder” to be on time, I accomplished it with no increased effort. Allowing ourselves to feel guilty can result in a useful shot of motivation.

There’s No Apologizing in the Military

Now that we understand how useful guilt can be, let’s revisit the usefulness of an apology. A good apology acknowledges the harm done, but doesn’t fish for validation, doesn’t take the attention away from the matter at hand, and leaves the guilt right where it is, as uncomfortable as that might feel at the time.

I remember back when was a student at the Naval Academy, one of the things we learned as a freshman were the four basic responses. Here they are, in all their simplistic glory.

“Yes, sir/ma’am.”
“No, sir/ma’am.”
“I’ll find out, sir/ma’am.”
“No excuse, sir/ma’am.”

It was said that any new recruit could use these four responses to stay out of trouble with upper-class, and they really helped — especially “no excuse, sir”. I learned this lesson the hard way, because I loved to be defensive when confronted with something I failed to do. My superiors would make my life harder and harder until I finally arrived at the simple conclusion that I had “no excuse”, then they would accept my answer and let me go. What a great system! It forced us to sit with what we had done (or failed to do) and just experience the guilt of that.

There was no apologizing in the military. In my nine years I don’t think I ever heard someone encourage an apology from someone who did something wrong. It almost didn’t exist. All that happened was a simple acknowledgement about what happened, and a consequence, if that was appropriate.

There was no point in saying “sorry” because without demonstrating that the behavior had changed (something that takes time and effort), “sorry” is meaningless.

Saying “Sorry” Is a Privilege You Earn

When harm is done, it’s our job to acknowledge it, but an apology should actually come much later, if at all.

I believe if we all had a healthy relationship to guilt and shame, we would realize that a sincere apology could only happen after demonstrating that you learned from your mistake and have changed your behavior. Otherwise it’s not just meaningless, it’s self-serving.

Lately, I’ve changed my relationship to apologies. When someone acts insensitively in a way that impacts me, I’m happy to participate in a sincere moment of acknowledgement with them, but I don’t engage with their apology. I push back against their energy of wanting me to validate them, or tell them “it’s okay”.

I want them to feel the guilt, because I know it’s their best shot at being able to change the behavior that will likely cause more people harm in the future. Only by experiencing the consequences of their actions will they have a shot at changing.

I know this sounds cold, and in some ways it is, but it’s necessary if we want a different future with that person. It’s a huge departure from how we typically engage with apologies. It’s incredibly awkward to not “accept” someone’s apology, but that’s because it’s new behavior, and if it were easy we’d already be doing it.

Don’t tell me you’re sorry, show me you’re sorry.

Don’t show me you’re sorry by performing remorse at my feet, resolve to act differently and demonstrate that over time. It takes time to re-build trust.

Know that after you act insensitively, you will feel bad, and there’s nothing you should try and do to escape that.

After some time has passed, and you’ve demonstrated new behavior such that I’ve seen repeated examples of how you’re making different choices, then — and only then — can you apologize for the initial insensitive act, because then it will actually mean something.

But of course, at that point, no apology would be needed.

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