When someone harms or upsets us and they then apologise, it’s easy to assume that’s the end of it. Problem solved. Let’s move on. We’ve learned that getting an apology is what matters. So when we sometimes feel more hurt and upset after receiving an apology, this can be super confusing. We, and possibly the other party, might wonder what’s ‘wrong’ with us. But the simple reason for why we feel worse after the apology is that, well, we may have received a problematic apology. This includes backhanded, non-apologies that essentially giveth with one hand and taketh with the other. At the very least, how the person apologised compounded how we felt and made the situation worse, not better.

Problematic apologies, including backhanded/non-apologies, always feature some or all of the following:

  • Centering themselves
  • Manipulation, including gaslighting and emotional blackmail
  • Lack of empathy, integrity and responsibility
  • Insincerity
  • Clinging to image, intentions or even past good deeds instead of acknowledging impact
  • Defensiveness
  • Minimising your feelings, experience, impact

Here’s why someone’s apology may have upset and harmed you further instead of paving the way to the restoration and repair of the relationship:

  • Now that you think back on it, they didn’t actually say the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologise”.
  • It was an empty apology. Sure they said the words but there was so little energy, feeling and content, they could have been talking to a cardboard cut-out. Their apology was more of a ticking-box exercise.
  • It was a generalised apology that avoided specifics. In your subsequent dealings with this person, it’s become increasingly clear that they didn’t know what they were apologising for.
  • By saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you’re offended/upset” instead of straight-up apologising, they made your response and reaction the issue, not what they said or did. For bonus points, they may have claimed that you’re “too sensitive” or that you have a “chip on your shoulder”. Note, this is a form of gaslighting.
  • They got upset or took offence at you having an issue. e.g. Saying you mustn’t think too highly of them if you’re upset. Casting aspersions on your character. Suggesting your reaction to their overstep is disrespectful. I know, I know! Make it make sense!

With problematic apologies, instead of acknowledging what was harmful/upsetting/over the line, the person centres their feelings, intentions and image.

  • They’re more upset about how you and others perceive them than the impact of their actions. Instead of acknowledging what was harmful/upsetting/over the line, they centred their feelings, intentions and image. e.g. They say something racist even if it wasn’t what they intended. Rather than acknowledge the harm and address it, it’s “I’m not a racist!” Next thing, they want an apology from you.
  • Their attitude to raising the issue compounded and exacerbated the original harm and hurt. e.g. After raising the issue, they refused to take responsibility and blamed you. Or, after briefly acknowledging the issue, they told you all about yourself. They took it as an opportunity to voice criticisms and concerns they’d sat on.
  • They keep saying “That’s not what I meant” but haven’t clarified what they did mean. They might even claim that you “wouldn’t understand anyway”.
  • Their comments prompted you to second-guess and shame yourself. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing over that put-down over my weight.
  • Your energy is devoted to placating their upset over hurting you and reassuring them that they’re not a terrible person. Um, hello! What about you?
  • They’ve pressed the reset button and are acting as if nothing happened. It’s not that you want to drag things out; you’ve noticed tension though, and you’re walking on eggshells because they’re avoiding the topic.
  • They pressured you to accept the apology or forgive them even though you weren’t ready.
  • Or, you prematurely forgave them because you felt guilty for being upset or feared you’d lose them.

Don’t make how someone does or doesn’t apologise about you being “good enough”.

Whether someone apologises or how they do it has nothing to do with your worthiness.

No matter how good and nice you are; no matter how wronged you are by the other party, you can’t ‘make’ someone make amends.

A lack of apology or how you feel afterwards isn’t a reflection of the validity of the issue and the impact of their behaviour or words.

How people do or don’t apologise is about their relationship with responsibility, empathy, and apologising. We all have emotional baggage, including positive and negative associations with, well, everything, based on past experiences. You’re not, for instance, going to get much of an apology out of someone who believes they were blamed unfairly in the past or who has learned to prioritise image over actions. If someone learned to apologise by being forced into it, for instance, as a child, again, it’s not going to be a sincere apology.

Acknowledging that you feel worse despite receiving an apology is crucial. This nugget of info is your prompt to practise self-care, including self-validating and creating healthy boundaries. Don’t deny your feelings or what’s happened to cosign to this person’s version of events. Suppressing and repressing your feelings and experience will lead to resentment and harm your well-being.

Recognise where you might be gaslighting yourself or focusing too much on what they’re thinking and feeling. If you get to address the issue with them again, stick to facts. You said… You did…and repeat what they said or factually describe what they did. Or, use awareness of why it was a problematic issue as a jump-off point. e.g. I know you think you apologised, but you didn’t. Instead, you blamed me by saying X, and that’s not cool.

When you tell yourself the truth, you have the boundaries to lovingly support yourself instead of people pleasing and beating yourself up due to other people’s feelings and behaviour. While it’s not going to erase the harm, keeping it real and taking care of yourself limits the impact.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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