I used to be someone who thought that I couldn’t move forward, until the other person had apologized. They did me wrong, they failed me, they knew better yet didn’t do better—and, the cherry on top of a big pile o’ shit? They refused to apologize, or they offered a paltry, half-hearted, completely disingenuous apology after I told them about the impact of their behavior.
I got into Zen in my mid-20s. I heard the teachings about how anger is like holding a hot coal in your own hand, hoping the other person will burn; resentment is like taking a sip of poison, and hoping the other person will die. I stared at walls and tried to breathe (and, unwittingly, tried to bypass my way into forgiveness).
I could get some of the way there, but then—oh, then I’d remember how I’d told the person that they’d harmed me, and still they had either not apologized or had offered a weak, pointless apology where it was clear that they were hoping I’d just hurry up n’ get over it.
(You know that kind of apology, right? It’s the kind of boilerplate nonsense that PR companies put out after a scandal, in the hopes that everyone will just forget about what happened).
When You Get Tired
And finally, something clicked and I realized that the resentment I was holding in my own body, in my own mind, at a cellular level—it felt positively awful to carry. I was tired of carrying it.
It occurred to me that I might never get the apology that I had desired, and that I could spend a lifetime carrying around that resentment and the only person who would be hurt, was me.
The energy spent on resenting the person or situation where I’d been done wrong, was doing nothing more than siphoning off my energy.
I wanted that energy back. I wanted that energy funneled into different things, into something other than waiting for the other person to do the right thing and behave with integrity and make amends (all things that, I self-righteously reminded myself, I had been willing to do—so why couldn’t they?).
When you get tired of carrying the anger and want to use it differently, you come to realize that your healing from the harm cannot be dependent on their apology. Or on their amends. Or on waiting for them to do the right thing. They might never do the right thing.
Is that how you want to live, waiting for that? Or do you want to use your energy for something else?
Bypass? Also Not Helpful
Where we initially go when we realize that we want to drop the resentment…is the polar opposite of resentment: LET’S BE COMPASSIONATE, SO SO SO FORGIVING AND LOVING AND NOT AT ALL RESENTFUL!
And that? That’s bypass. That’s not helpful, either. It’s the other extreme of expecting your healing to come from an apology…it’s expecting your healing to come because you pretend the harm never happened. That’s a rampant attitude in self-help. It almost always sets someone up for a boomerang return of the pain that they’d tried to push away and bypass, only now the pain is multiplied.
I had to learn that while my healing couldn’t be dependent on the apology, my healing also wasn’t dependent on pretending that no harm had ever taken place. Harm does take place; it does need to be named; it does need to be clear. Especially when someone is chronically harmful, boundaries are important, which is how I invoke my very favorite Iyanla VanZant quote:
“Boundaries are like drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Beyond here you cannot come; beyond here I will not go.’ ”
We Are Not So Different
Perhaps the most illuminating part of this process came when I was the one called on to apologize…and I was resistant. At first? I literally did not see how I’d done wrong. It was so so so obvious to the other person—but me? I did not see it. I was not pretending, at that time, not to see it. I honestly, truly, down to my bones though that they were absolutely nuts to be saying that I had done something wrong.
(So, there was my first hint that perhaps sometimes when I was calling on someone else to apologize, and they didn’t want to? Maybe they truly didn’t see what I was seeing).
Once a little tiny worry began to appear that perhaps the other person had a point, perhaps I could have done that differently…the justifications began. I’d had XYZ super difficult circumstances. I’d had a lot going on. I’d never before realized how they felt about the situation; what, was I just supposed to snap my fingers and agree with them simply because they said I did wrong?
Then, insert heavy sigh, Okay fine, I’ll fire off an apology, so that they’ll just calm down, already! Of course, that apology really didn’t do much for the person I was apologizing to.
(So, there was a hint that perhaps sometimes when I was calling on someone else to acknowledge the impact of their behavior on me, and they went to their justifications? Maybe I wasn’t so perfect, myself. Maybe it’s pretty normal human behavior to want to list the reasons why we failed, because we feel ashamed and like we, ourselves, are failures. Maybe even people who try to practice courage and integrity and compassion will still do kinda jerk-face things like…not want to own up to their behavior. Maybe, when we feel really limited in our skill-set around acknowledging what we did wrong, we turn to “fix it” behaviors like boilerplate apologies that don’t really mean anything).
Amid all of this, the person who was upset with me was unleashing their anger on me. I’d love to say that I simply took their anger as a legitimate response to what I’d done…but instead, it only shoved me back into questioning whether or not I’d done anything wrong from the get-go. After all, they were the ones insulting me, acting out based on their anger.
Once I realized that I would need to apologize, then there was both the apology to contend with, as well as my own shame sandwich: I had royally effed up. Me. And I had piled more crap onto the situation by refusing to apologize when they had asked me to, which meant that I felt shame about what I had done, plus shame on top of shame about my inability to just own it, with integrity, from the get-go. I was absolutely cringing, mortified, embarrassed, deep in shame about my behavior.
I would like to say that I am someone who just snapped her fingers and made right. I would love to be able to tell you that after more than a decade of listening to client stories about conflicts in their lives, that most people who need to own up to their behavior just do it—because then it would mean that there was a set, right standard for behavior that most humans abide by, and the rare exceptions need to get on board.
But it’s not. Most humans who do something wrong need time, to realize that they did something wrong (if they ever have any interest in doing that self-inquiry, in the first place). Most humans who finally realize that they need to make an amends, take months or years to finally reconcile themselves.
It’s actually the very very very rare human who is both authentically AND quickly comes to a place of offering an apology after making a mistake.
It’s a super-super-super human who is able to hear someone who is angry with them demand an apology, hear past the display of anger and hurt and all the way down to the words, and not get lost in the weeds of getting defensive—and then still do enough self-inquiry to both authentically AND quickly know that they need to offer an apology.
And that, my friends, is the biggest reason why putting your healing on hold, until the apology is received, only disempowers you. People are people. They are fallible. The majority of them don’t like hearing that they did something wrong, and have any number of defenses to avoid hearing that they did wrong. No one changes overnight, and it will take time for them to a.) see clearly the impact you’re trying to get the person to see, especially if you were angry when you told them what they did wrong, and b.) let another human being go through a process of self-inquiry so that they can authentically realize what has transpired, and c.) let them get past their own shame about their behavior as well as any resistance they’ve had.
What We Truly Want
When we are hurting, we do not want superficial apologies. We want people to truly see our pain. If someone is willing to do enough self-examination to listen to you and see your pain…chances are very low that they are also a super-super-super human who will quickly do that self-examination, see you clearly, see their part, and offer a genuine apology.
Most of the time, we are already winning the lottery just if someone is willing to do a self-examination of their behavior and what went down between the two of you. Expecting it to all happen quickly? Probably expecting too much. I wish it was different; I really do. But from observing humans and hearing the intimate details of their lives for more than a decade now? Most humans just aren’t.
So…we cannot wait. You cannot let your healing be dependent on that person, realizing that they did harm.
We can spend our lives angry that people aren’t different, or that the realizations and amends weren’t offered as soon as we told them that we’d been hurt, or that the person took so long to realize what they did to us (or that they never realized, at all).
Or, we can decide to stop waiting on our healing. We can process our own pain about the situation, be direct and honest about the impact of their behavior, and we can go forward with clear boundaries.
We can also decide to BECOME people who recognize how hard this stuff is, when we are called upon to make right, by someone else. We can train like warriors to try not to do the same things to others, that we dislike having done, to us. That’s been the biggest thing, for me—realizing that if I don’t like it when someone wants me to hurry up and realize my part in a conflict and apologize and make it all better…I can’t expect that of others.
In other words, we can learn.
We cannot make people feel empathy that they do not feel.
We cannot guilt them into it, shout them into it…unleashing our pain onto them probably only complicates the situation and delays the thing we actually want (again, do I wish that this were different? Of course. But is it different? Not usually).
We cannot make people rush through the process of realizing what they did, any faster.
We cannot make people realize what they did, if they aren’t into self-inquiry.
Which means that the point of our greatest power is in deciding that this moment right here and right now, is when you heal—that your sovereignty, your own internal sense of power, cannot dependent on them making right.
I’m not saying that apologies can never help to heal. I’m saying they aren’t what we should depend on. I’m saying that we can acknowledge the humanness within all of us, the defenses that we all erect, the imperfections that we all contain, and we can decide that we, that our lives, are worth far, far more than waiting on someone else to change. We can decide that we, ourselves, will change. We, ourselves, will do it differently and do it better, because we are the ones seeing clearly.