Apologies vs. Changed Behavior

When I was in High School, I was sometimes a bit of a mean girl. Shocking, I know. I wasn’t always a good friend. I sometimes picked on the weak members of the herd. I laughed at comments that belittled those on the fringes.

I wasn’t even popular, at least not in my own mind. Being the only Mormon in your graduating class has a tendency to make you feel like a perpetual outsider, living a secret life, a weird religious life that nobody would understand, and you certainly don’t want to explain to them. I had a whole set of friends at Church who all went to different schools, and if I ever mentioned them, it sounded hollow to me, like I was claiming a fictional boyfriend in Canada.

A new girl moved into our school halfway through senior year, and she had a very unusual name. I had an unusual name as well, and was constantly teased about it throughout my school years. In French class, for example, my surname was converted to Le Scum. Making fun of people’s names or appearance was like mother’s milk to us back in the 1980s, although my kids assure me that today that stuff will get you in trouble for bullying. A nickname didn’t have to be particularly clever to stick, just memorable enough and close enough to one’s real name or appearance. Unfortunately, when I heard the new girl’s name, I blurted out a rather obscene and horrifying nickname that sounded a lot like her actual name, and that name stuck. I won’t print it here, but trust me, it wasn’t great, even if it was verbally clever.

Over the weeks, I noticed that she often sat alone and hadn’t really made any friends. Because we had moved a few times when I was younger, I knew how it was being the new girl. She was sitting behind me in an assembly, and I turned around and chatted her up, inviting her to sit with us. We became friends, not best friends, but we were friends all the same. I would sit with her sometimes at lunch, when I ate lunch (not often, this was the 80s when girls weren’t allowed to eat food), or I’d partner with her in gym class for tennis.

Our school wasn’t really that cliquish, certainly not like your average teen comedy portrays. Everyone knew everyone. If there was a party, everyone went: jocks, band kids, stoners, nerds. The kids who were most on the fringes were probably poor, neglected, or suffering from abuse at home, things we didn’t really understand at the time, and things that cause people to avoid social contact because they feel shame. I can recognize this as an adult, but as a teen, I really didn’t have a clue about the inner workings of other households.

After graduation, I was working at the local grocery store deli. I ran next door to the Pizza Hut (when Pizza Hut was kind of a big deal), and there she was, having lunch with her boyfriend. It was great to see her, and we caught up for a while. She pulled me aside and told me that people at that school had been awful to her (I felt a twinge of conscience), calling her the most awful name (another twinge), but that I was the only one who really befriended her and made her feel welcome and comfortable, and she would never forget that. We hugged and parted, wishing each other well. We never saw each other again. It’s no surprise she skipped our future high school reunions.

I thought about coming clean with her, telling her that I had made up that terrible nickname, but I didn’t. Maybe I was a coward. Maybe too much time had passed. Maybe I didn’t want to hurt her all over again. Maybe I knew how she felt–people at that school hadn’t always been great to me either, and I clung to the bright spots. Mostly I just didn’t want to ruin the one friendship she felt she had from our school, and I really did view her as a friend. What would knowing I had started that name have accomplished? Our time together was in the past. Our story wasn’t about the nickname; it was about the friendship.

Blogging earlier this week about the Wilcox scandal and ensuing hasty apologies has brought this incident back to my thoughts. I know my behavior was wrong, but apologizing might have made it worse. The thought I keep having is that an apology is always inadequate and usually partly for the benefit of the perpetrator of the wrong rather than the victim(s), to unburden their own conscience, to fall on the sword for their employer (and sometimes at their employer’s insistence), to redeem their own reputation (or their employer’s), or to foment support for themselves among their defenders. Apologies can be an important part of changing one’s behavior, of repentance, but they can also be used to deflect responsibility or instead of personal (or institutional) change. Too often we hear, particularly in our public discourse, “He’s apologized, for crying out loud! When will it be enough for you people?” as if an apology is a magical incantation that replaces real work, personal growth, and institutional accountability.

I still think apologies are important, but even a perfect apology is nowhere near enough to redress harm. If there can be only one thing between an apology and changed behavior, it’s clear which is the more important.

Never ruin an apology with an excuse.

Benjamin Franklin

I’ve also thought a bit about an apology I received in college from someone who had wronged me. This person flagged me down on the freeway, apologized for what he had done, and hugged me. This apology was damn near perfect. No excuses, no claims of misunderstanding. It was simply worded, and he said he had been through a lot in the wake of what had happened that caused him to re-evaluate what he had done, and he knew it was wrong. I freely forgave him and said not to worry about it, but I also did not have a desire to have this person in my life again. His changed behavior was not for my benefit, but for his own. The apology was unnecessary to preserve our extinct friendship, but welcome nonetheless. Maybe it was so good because our interactions would remain in the past, dead, incapable of further offense.

I’ve heard many apologies over the years and most of them fall short. The simplest are often the best. The worst are the ones that feel focused primarily on the needs of the one apologizing rather than the person who was wronged. The fact that a good apology is difficult to execute probably shouldn’t prevent us, though. The sweet spot is actually learning from our errors, and that’s even more rare than a good apology.

Whether the person receiving the apology allows you to remain in their life is another matter entirely. A sincere apology doesn’t demand that the wronged party embrace the offender, nor that they allow the offender to retain the influence and power they once had. Changed behavior means you acknowledge that you were in the wrong, not that you demand a full restoration of your reputation, nor that you can pivot to “victim” if your apology is viewed with skepticism.

“Would ‘sorry’ have made any difference? Does it ever? It’s just a word. One word against a thousand actions.”

― Sarah Ockler, Bittersweet
  • What have you learned about apologizing from giving (or not) an apology to someone you wronged?
  • What have you learned about apologies from receiving one?



  1. In the mid-90s, the days of internet e-lists, I joined a group that was loosely billed as an internet Relief Society. The topic at one point was apologies and forgiveness.

    After a day or two of discussion, my contribution was that sometimes, in probably rare circumstances, someone had no right to apologize. My example was the neighbor who terrorized me for years, to the point not only of dreading walking out of my house or returning to it, always looking over my shoulder, but also of watching every step I took to be sure I didn’t step on another of his booby traps, the pieces of wood studded with nails that he sometimes half-buried in my yard. I said that I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where an apology from him would be appropriate, either then or years into the future, because whether he wrote, or called, or showed up at my door, the shock and fear his sudden contact would create in that moment would far outweigh the value of any apology, no matter how sincere, no matter how changed his behavior. It simply would have caused more harm than good. I suggested a few other similar circumstances, like, perhaps, an adult who had been molested as a child, suddenly being contacted by the monster she had thought was long out of her life.

    The e-list disagreed. Vehemently. For days. *I* was the monster in that scenario. I was under some divine obligation to forgive all men, no matter what. That may be true, I said, but unexpected contact, the expectation that I would listen to an apology and tell him all was forgiven, was not necessarily required. It didn’t matter, those on the e-list insisted; I had to listen to and accept an apology, should one be offered, or else that man’s sins were on my head.

    Baloney. Rotten, poisonous, reeking baloney.

    So, as unusual (I hope) such a situation is, that’s what I have learned about apologies. First, do no (further) harm. There are sins where restitution is not possible, and where an apology serves only the interests of the (former?) sinner, not the one who was wronged.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post Angela (and comment Ardis). I agree that the appropriateness of an apology is nuanced. In this specific context I have said I personally would like to see an apology, but mine is not the most important opinion. My understanding is that our faithful black saints have different views on this subject, so I think leaders should reach out and get the perspective of many of them and the make a decision based on that feedback.

  3. My comments don’t seem to be posting…so I apologize if folks eventually see this multiple times. Feel free to moderate the duplicates. :)

    I’m so glad, Angela, that you didn’t apologize to your friend. If I had been the friend, I’d have been mortified and scarred by that apology. Nobody needed that.
    I 100% agree with you and Ardis that there are situations where apologies are wholly unwarranted and would do more harm than good.
    That got me thinking about when apologies matter. For me, apologies, when they work, work because they demonstrate humility (personal or institutional) that can help a relationship move forward, and sometimes even strengthen it. But also, for an apology to work, I think some kind of positive history has to be there. When my husband apologizes to me, it means a lot, but that’s because I know he’s a good man who’s trying and we have a long, positive history together. If the church were to apologize for past hurtful practices, that would be powerful for me, but that’s because I still have reserves of goodwill toward the institution (they’re diminishing, though). Somebody who had different, more painful experiences from me might find the same apology ineffective or even hurtful. And I think that’s something important to think about: the same apology for the same action may be “enough” for me, but might not work at all for someone else.

  4. Suzanne Hanna says:

    Angela, There are so many opportunities for reflection in your post. I really appreciate your candor. Thank you for raising these issues. My experiences range from the personal to the professional. Personally, my parents each had a different way in which they apologized. Mom seemed to be trying too hard to be a good Mormon Mom. When she apologized, if she was tearful or overly humble, then I felt guilty for still being mad at her. Looking back, I can see that some of my reaction was because I didn’t have much of a voice in my family to begin with, and her apology lacked an opportunity for me to say how I felt. My Dad had PTSD and would get triggered by something and later apologize in the form of a confession, but I never felt like I needed to take care of him. In adulthood, when I’ve blundered and hurt someone’s feelings, it has been helpful when they’ve called me out and I could validate their position. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry and I’m glad you reminded me of those times in the past. I see how that put you in a bad position.”
    However, if I should apologize to someone who has not called me out, my family therapy training kicks in and I first consider the power differential that exists between myself and clients. As with my mother, I don’t want to be needy. Instead, I call myself out in a way that makes some space to exchange views. “You know, I think I was off base with ______. Did it feel that way to you? I’m thinking it would be better to back up and think this through. How was it for you?” When I take a one-down position in these situations, there seems to be a balance between authenticity, vulnerability and proactivity.
    Artis, I wish I could have had your back during that terrible shaming. As you have helped us see, although the theme here has been about apologies, there are also various levels of hurt, damage and threat that may be lurking in a relationship. Having worked with survivors of abuse, in faith communities, the issue is often couched as forgiveness. At the risk of heresy in a Christian setting, I think forgiveness has been over-emphasized and misunderstood. It can also over simplify the process of repentance for the offender and the needed safety for the survivor. Damage is a thin line away if a survivor of abuse has a community that encourages them to forgive their abuser. The real power differentials that exist between abusers and survivors can make or break the healing process. If an abuser asks someone to forgive them, it is one more thing forced upon someone who has already been violated. Even worse, if a community is encouraging that path, rather than affirming one’s right to decide, the person is now outnumbered and re-traumatized. No survivor should ever have to feel guilty about these issues couched as forgiveness. Rather than the offender saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” Survivors should not be put in a situation where the welfare of the offender hangs in the balance of their response. Regardless of how minor or severe the need for apology may be, I believe forgiveness is something beyond obligation that is a personal journey to give or withhold without retribution. Paradoxically, asking for it takes away the person’s opportunity to choose freely. Thus, forgiveness can be something we offer on our terms, but only God should be asked to grant it. Then, the offender can be left to measure their own growth by their degree of empathy for the position of the other. Most offenders really struggle with empathy for their victims.
    Also, as Angela mentioned, some apologies may not serve the offended. Will it make a person vulnerable when they already do not feel safe? One of my mentors was raised on a farm in South Carolina: “My grandma always said, if you stir a bucket of shit, it’s gonna stink!” Are some things better left unsaid? I think so. Whose welfare are we really after and how can we assess whether an apology will actually help the person? My rule of thumb is to consider the power differential first, then think about how well we actually understand that person’s vulnerabilities. The LDS Bible Dictionary gives this definition of repentance: “The Greek word of which this is a translation denotes a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world . . . a turning of the heart and will to God . . .” When I have this change of mind, I can apologize and share how I was wrong, rather than putting someone else on the spot and expecting them to respond. Angela, I’m glad you didn’t delve into your part of the label. You had moved beyond it and demonstrated your own change of heart. The friend was helped by your “repentance,” so what good would that have done?
    Issues of safety and vulnerability loom large over my own foibles with race. For sure, listening and listening and learning how to be quiet and walk in another’s shoes can lay a foundation for healing. But that’s just the first step. Then, I’ve learned the most from seeking out situations in which I was the only white-looking person in the room with no power differential. Then, others in the majority could call me out because they felt safe. Those times of being called out because of my privilege are solid gold. Those brothers and sisters are the experts of their experience. Don’t tell me what I seem to want. Teach me. I’m willing to struggle with it. A change of heart is worth a thousand apologies.

  5. Thank you Angela for this really thought-provoking post and also Ardis and Suzanne for your comments! You bring clarity to some aspects of apologies, repentance, and forgiveness that are so valuable.

  6. Important thoughts. Thanks, Angela.

  7. I have thought a lot about apologies the last two weeks post the BW fireside. Ultimately, an apology is only worth something if repentance goes with it. Words only matter if actions match them. We are all fallible, so apologies and repentance should be part of our daily practice.

  8. Shouldn’t the hierarchy for any apology be grounded in a violation of charity/love (sin) and then in repentance? If not, doesn’t it become a formal justification or defense, an explanation or excuse, or an inferior substitute? Isn’t that what I’m hearing in the stories and observations here and resulting from previous posts and comments?

    Was he/she/they charitable/loving? If not, did he/she/they repent? Finally, after a full recognition of wrongdoing, remorse, correction and change, should he/she/they apologize to be consistent with both repentance and charity/love?

    Isn’t that the correct order?

    Now who gets to call out sinners?

  9. @Suzanne Hanna – thank you for that comment explaining the power differential in apologies, especially in situations involving abuse. I’ve never heard it explained that clearly before.

  10. I appreciate the vulnerability in this post and comments. Real stories help us understand the true power of apologies.

    The apologies that have been most healing to me, whether I was the offender or the offended, were simple: a realization of how the offended feels, remorse for making them feel that way, and a resolve to do better. I think the best apology I received was one where they put words to my pain that even I couldn’t find; they clearly had sat in my shoes for some time and really understood how they had hurt me.

    Few apologies ever run this deep. But hopefully practice makes us better.

  11. Toward the end of my mission I was teaching a guy I really liked who had committed to baptism. At the end of one discussion I made a slightly flippant comment in response to a sincere concern he had. He met with us a few days later and informed us that my comment has poisoned the relationship and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to learn the gospel from me and get baptized. I was sad to lose an investigator and sad to lose a friend. I spent days thinking about what to do. It took everything my introverted soul could muster to eventually go back and knock on his door and sincerely apologize for what I had said. He seemed genuinely happy to see me and to mend the relationship. We never really finished the discussions. He never got baptized. He continued to show up at church occasionally. A couple of months later when I reached the end of my mission, we parted as friends, and he brought me a bit of artwork he had made for me. That artwork still hangs on my wall nearly 30 years later, a reminder of a friendship I valued, and the power of apologizing as a way to heal that friendship.

  12. What always comes hard is the apology without an explanation. There is almost always an explanation for bad behavior. When an apology is extended that explanation readily comes to mind. It is helpful to yourself to hear that explanation. (I was young and stupid… I was raised in a racist household… I have ADS and do not think of personal things… I have ADD and forget… I am getting old and forget…) What is difficult for me is to shut up and not verbalize the explanation to the offended party.

    I suppose that to some people the explanation is there to soften the blow and make forgiveness easier? But in apology, I suppose, we want to extract the maximum penance from the person making the apology. Therefore no explanation. Do not treat the explanation as an excuse.

    With regard to Ardis, I generally agree. But in her case forgiveness is for the wellbeing of the forgiver. It is a way of being able to, internally, draw the line and move on. In this case you turn over vengeance to the Lord and hope that He is extremely unmerciful. Thus the need for purgatory.

  13. We don’t apologize. It’s that simple.

  14. Step 9: “We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

  15. I have been the recipient for one of those apologies for horrendous things, under the watchful eye of LDS family services. My father apologized for sexually abusing me. So, I am wondering years later why it felt like more abuse?

    I think for an apology to be sincere there needs to be some understanding of how damaging the act was. Well, no that isn’t it either, because it can be a sincere partial apology. Maybe it has more to do with reestablishing a relationship, and I didn’t want any relationship with him. I hadn’t seen that he had changed enough that I wanted to have a father/daughter relationship with him. He violated everything about that relationship, so why would I want to reestablish it? And even listening to him was more of a relationship than I wanted.

    But his therapist thought it would be good for him, and there is that attitude in the church that Ardis mentioned where the church expects that the victim OWES it to the offender to accept their apology and be reconciled and all that crap. So, it once again put me in a position of being forced into something I didn’t want.

  16. I have never, ever been very athletic. And when I was much younger, I was much smaller. I started college weighing 90 pounds. Within the first month, I went to a family home evening activity that was a soccer game. My first instinct was to beg off, but I decided I should try to participate and be a good sport.

    Partway through, I made a very serious mistake. I got between a freshman boy and the ball. He smashed into me and I went flying through the air and landed full length on the ground. The grass was very wet from a recent rain, so I started to get up, but then my field of vision narrowed and went crinkly around the edges. Phooey! I was going to faint. I lay back down on the ground in hopes of avoiding that, but I wasn’t quick enough.

    I regained consciousness to the sound of the boy who knocked me down saying, “I SAID I was sorry. Get up! Don’t hold a grudge.”

    I vaguely thought, “You idiot. Do you really think I’m lying on the muddy ground just to make you look bad?” Then I didn’t think about him again until much, much later. I slowly got up and some of my roommates took me home. I didn’t suffer any other ill effects, and I have no other memories of that kid, even though we must have been in the same ward for the rest of the year.

    But it did give me some interesting thoughts about forgiveness. I wasn’t refusing to get up because I was holding a grudge or wanted to make him look bad. I have a predisposition to fainting (which is under control now) and slamming me into the ground like that triggered it. If I had tried to get up, I would have been more obvious in passing out, someone would have called an ambulance, and he would have been known as the boy who knocked a girl out, instead off the boy who knocked a girl down. He was just a stupid freshman boy who was probably used to playing soccer with boys his own age and size. And as I later learned, faking injuries is a thing in men’s soccer. So he probably didn’t understand why I didn’t just bounce up. And anyway, his brain wasn’t fully developed.

    But I couldn’t get up because I had been knocked out. I wasn’t holding a grudge. I was suffering the effects of his action. While forgiveness is a choice, experiencing the effects of someone else’s actions is not. In too many cases, the person who appears to be “unforgiving” is simply experiencing the consequences of the action . If you kick someone and they limp, it’s pretty nasty to claim they’re only limping to hold a grudge, and they must stop limping immediately to make you feel better..

  17. Thank you for the thoughtful post and comments. LauraN I love how you used your college soccer story to show the dynamic between apologizes and forgiveness.

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