I’m not saying I’ll never apologize. Indeed, it seems like I’ve spent half my life apologizing, sometimes just for existing. Even apologizing for apologizing, which I now realize must have been incredibly annoying. My self-esteem was hovering near zero, and I felt anything I did or said was somehow faulty and needed apologizing for.
What I am saying is it does no good to expect apologies from someone who hurt you in fundamental, serious and even soul-destroying ways. Abusers. Gaslighters. Narcissists. All types of people, including friends and family, perhaps even the well-meaning ones.
Those of us with mental disorders such as bipolar, depression and anxiety are particularly susceptible to sustaining those kinds of hurts. Years of self-doubt, bullying and out-of-kilter emotions had left me with no defenses against being hurt. As much as I had tried to put up walls, they were ineffective. I never learned to “just ignore it” when someone did or said something hurtful. And when it inevitably happened, no one — no one — ever apologized.
One reason for that is the essence of apologizing is taking responsibility for something — in these cases, the harm that was done. It happens in everyday life, never mind special situations with abusive people. Here’s how I see it typically happens: someone says something hurtful. You, being hurt, react — visually or verbally. The other person pooh-poohs it: “I didn’t mean it. It was just a joke.” In other words, there’s something wrong with you for feeling hurt.
I’ve tried to explain this to people. When you step on a person’s toe and cause physical pain, you apologize, even if you didn’t “mean” to do it. Ah, but sometimes the person replies, “When I step on your toe, I know I’ve caused you pain.” (As if only physical pain is “real” pain).
Then there’s the old, “I just made a statement. You chose to react by being hurt.” (As if we could choose our reactions and our feelings). Next comes a theoretical discussion of whether it is indeed possible to choose our reactions. I don’t know much about neurotypical people, but those of us with “glitchy” brains often use all our mental wherewithal just getting through the day. A hurtful remark can throw us seriously off-balance. It’s like being slapped in the face. You don’t “choose” to be hurt or offended by that. You just are. Maybe, just maybe, you can choose what you do about it, but even that is iffy. The immediate reaction, whether it be crying, anger or retreat, is just that: immediate. There’s no time to choose it.
Telling a person who’s been emotionally or psychologically hurt to “just brush it off” because the person “didn’t mean anything by it” is like telling a bullied child to “just ignore it.” It can’t be done. The thing, whatever it was, was said or done and caused pain.
Some people even attribute their insensitivity to childhood situations: “My mother made me say I was sorry for walking through the neighbor’s flower bed, and I resented it because I wasn’t sorry.” I say, if you react to hurting someone like a child, the fault is not in the person who is hurt.
However, a who person avoids taking responsibility for hurting you often feels no need to apologize because, in their mind, they have done nothing “wrong,” there’s nothing to apologize for. You can wait forever for that apology. It will likely not ever come. Even if you need that apology to begin healing the hurt, you may never get it.
Does this lead to lingering resentment? In my experience, of course it does. Does it keep gnawing at you? Yes. Is there anything you can do to make your sister or your lover or whoever apologize? I don’t think so. Is forgiveness the only path to healing? Well, that depends.
Sometimes the best you can do is not give the person another chance to hurt you — to break off your relationship with them. Not exposing yourself to that kind of pain is a valid choice. You can put the situation and the person behind you and try to move on. If you can forgive, great. If not, perhaps that’s not a choice you are able to make or consider. Perhaps it’s part of protecting yourself or rebuilding yourself.
It can be helpful to realize that apology may never come, even if you deserve one. Some people are not capable of realizing the hurt they cause, owning it and making amends. Getting away from such a person in your life is sometimes the best, or the only, thing you can do.