I want you to get used to saying, “I do not accept your apology.”
Why? Because most apologies aren’t real apologies. Let me explain.
There are several things that a real apology should be. It should be sincere. It should be specific about the harms that were done. A real apology should give you the opportunity to tell the other person exactly how their behavior made you feel, so that they can give you a specific apology for that, too. It should also be given without tears. If a person is apologizing through tears, it indicates that they are still feeling their own feelings. They shouldn’t apologize until they have finished processing their feelings and are ready to focus exclusively on yours.
It seems like this kind of real apology is rare these days, almost as if we’ve forgotten how to do it. Too many apologies are self-serving, or an attempt for someone to get themselves out of trouble. They are given flippantly, without any real self-reflection. Sometimes, the “apologies” are really just a fancy way of telling you all the ways it wasn’t their fault.
Why do we accept these apologies?
So, why do we feel obligated to accept these apologies? Why do we say it’s okay when really it’s not? Why do we so often find ourselves comforting them after they apologize, when we’re still hurting over the thing they apologized for? I think that, for a lot of us, this is what we were taught as children. Our parents and teachers chided us and said, “now, Amber, she apologized. You need to tell her it’s alright and give her a hug.”
I don’t think this was necessarily a bad thing for us to learn. It is good to forgive others when they sincerely apologize. I just feel like our caretakers didn’t do a great job teaching us the difference between a sincere apology, and one given insincerely. Frankly speaking, I think those two types of apologies deserve very different responses.
How should we respond to fake, insincere apologies?
First, we need to get good and comfortable saying, “I don’t accept your apology.” That first step is the hardest, I know. It feels wrong. But these hard things are what help us teach people how to treat us. What helped me get better at saying “I don’t accept your apology” was to learn the difference between forgiveness and accepting an apology.
Forgiveness is for you. You can forgive at any time, at your own will, with or without an apology from the other person. You choose to forgive when you are ready to stop letting that harm weigh you down. You do it for your own peace. And if the other person never apologizes, they have no need to know you forgave them.
Accepting an apology, on the other hand, is about reconciliation — getting back in right standing with each other. Accepting the apology is more for them than it is for you because it is as external thing. It’s about releasing them from accountability for what they did because they recognized the harm and apologized to you.
I believe you can accept an apology before you have forgiven. In this case, you are telling the other person that you are willing to put the relationship back in good standing, but you will need to sort through your feelings before you can forgive them. Alternatively, you can also forgive without accepting the apology. In this case, you have already forgiven for your own peace, but you don’t believe the other person has shown that they deserve to be back in good standing with you. They have more work to do.
This is where the second step comes in. The second step is telling them why you do not accept the apology. This means telling them that you are not ready to put the relationship back into right standing, but leaving the door open for them to try again.
I recently had to do this with a friend who hurt my feelings in a heated argument. They sent me an apology via video messaging. In their apology, they were crying, speaking a lot about their own shame and embarrassment. They weren’t specific about the harm they caused, saying only that they “didn’t like how they showed up.” At the end, they told me they didn’t expect a response, and if I did leave one, they were not going to listen to it.
This violated just about every precedent I have for accepting an apology. I had already forgiven them because I at least understood that the pain they caused me came from a place of their own pain. I would rather not hang on to those negative feelings, so I forgave. But I wasn’t ready to restore the friendship yet, based on that apology. So, I said (to paraphrase):
Thank you for your apology and acknowledging that you hurt me. I am surprised to hear that you won’t listen to my response. What is an apology if you won’t listen to the person you’re apologizing to when they respond? So, I can’t accept the apology right now because apologies and forgiveness require a conversation. It doesn’t sound like you’re ready for that. So, why don’t you take a few days and think it over. If you’re ready to have that conversation, please let me know. Don’t say you’re ready now. Take the time.”
Your response will be different, based on the circumstances, but this general road map can help you craft your response. The folks who are sincere in their apology will take the time to think it through and try again to restore the relationship. The ones who were insincere will vanish.
Learn to be okay with that, too.