A Case For Not Saying Sorry

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What’s your policy on apologies for epic bad behavior, like 10 years after the fact? I just had a debate about this with someone who suggested it’s actually selfish when you contact someone you’ve lost touch with for an apology, sincere as it might be, because you’re doing it for you and not them. I have seen this go both ways recently, and, as a result, I’m feeling confused.

On the one hand, a friend in AA had very positive experiences making amends, which might have been facilitated by people’s familiarity with this being one of the steps. On the other hand, a friend who’s a trans guy had written a genuinely sincere letter apologizing to a woman he’d known as a teenager (before his transition), whom he’d bullied in quite a misogynistic manner due to his issues with his own gender. She was very angry with him for reminding her of a sore subject and said he was only doing it for himself — and he naturally felt terrible for upsetting her. Is a late apology a risk worth taking?


Well, now, I don’t know. I am not an ethicist, nor do I particularly care to weigh in as one, and I’m not in the business of making blanket statements without specifics, generally. (I definitely am in that business occasionally; see below.) But, here goes nothing!

If you are in AA, by all means, go ahead and make amends when it is appropriate to do so. As you say, this ritual has become enough a part of the culture that people understand what's going on. I don’t know how much relief it brings to those who were feeling wronged for years on end; my guess would be that it varies. But, note that AA uses the language of “making amends” rather than “apologizing” and clarifies that you may want to skip this step if it would cause recipients of such amend-making further pain and suffering. This is a helpful, though non-AA-affiliated, primer on the amends process.

If you’re going through a time of personal transition, even one that doesn’t come with a widely-familiar cultural script, I get why you would want to do this. And, if you decide you want to go forward with it, consider examining carefully the AA stipulations and thinking long and hard about how to proceed. They might provide a useful guide.

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Hesitate before you do anything involving anyone who isn’t currently, or has never been, a meaningful presence in your life. Apologizing in person to your sister-in-law for some long-ago “epic bad behavior,” as you say, while talking honestly about your experiences and the ways in which your perspective has changed over time, all while leaving the door open for her to tell you that she still thinks you’re a complete dope? Could conceivably be really productive and enhance Thanksgiving dinners for decades to come.

Facebook messaging the girl you called a lobster (why a lobster?) on the bus in elementary school? Not really about her. Definitely about you. And, not really productive. Will you be repairing a potentially important relationship? No way! She hates you, or has forgotten you exist, or feels a vague antipathy whenever she drives by your parents’ puce-colored house whilst visiting her parents for a few nights accompanied by her handsome spouse and charming children (all of whom are en route to Hawaii, where she is the keynote speaker at a conference on a fascinating and surprisingly lucrative topic, in case you were wondering).

Be warned, too, that in the absence of a real relationship, such “apologies” can make the apologizer look doggedly single-minded and self-absorbed to the point of eccentricity. Or, in fact, mental illness. Something to think about.

NEXT: Accepting An Apology: There's A Way To Do It Well
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