We all find ourselves in situations in which someone has done something that hurts us and it’s important to be able to distinguish whether or not their apologies ring true or not. I’m not being nit-picky when I say that we need to know just what to look for. In order to recognize if a wrong-doer’s response is genuine and meaningful, we must carefully observe what an individual says as well as what he or she subsequently does.
Take the phrase “I’m sorry,” which usually indicates that people feel regret or remorse for having caused someone pain: they wish they hadn’t done what they did or had done what they didn’t do. Examples include feeling: repentant for having had an affair, sad that they hadn’t taken you to the hospital when you said you had a stomach ache (which turned out to be appendicitis), or disappointed in themselves for resuming drinking when they said they would stop for good. With true regret, people experience a deep sense of shame for their words or actions. They think: How could I have done/said that! They’d snatch their words or actions back in a heartbeat if they could. They’d climb into a time machine to behave more appropriately.
This mindset is different from someone simply feeling guilt or guilty. That is, people can feel momentarily badly that they did something wrong, but not regret it. The guilt comes from recognizing that what they did was wrong (an affair, for example) or that they hurt you, but not from actually feeling sorry that it happened. Guilt often arises only because someone gets caught. You may feel guilty that you screamed at your mother, but not regret that you did it, feeling she deserved it. If there’s no regret or remorse, you might feel it’s okay to do the same thing again in the future—and likely will.
This situation often arises for clients in abusive relationships. They’re unable to identify what the abuser is feeling either because he or she covers it up or because it’s difficult to know from mere words what another person is experiencing. My take is that most of the time, abusers experience momentary guilt, but little more. Often, of course, they feel no accountability which is why their behavior fails to change for good.
Guilt or recognition of wrong-doing is not enough when an individual hurts someone. He or she also needs to feel sorry for the action (or inaction) and wish that he or she hadn’t done it. Moreover, true depth of feeling includes reparation or the commitment not to do whatever it is again. If someone repeatedly hurts you, that is be because there is momentary guilt but no true sense of remorse and repentance. This is the dynamic that commonly occurs in abusive relationships. When there is no diminishment of abuse, all the guilt or apologies in the world, won’t make a difference.