Columns / Discourse / January 15, 2020

Pillowtalk: Knowing how and when to apologize

Hi Pillowtalk,


I just went through a breakup, and I’m the asshole. I know I messed up big time, and I know I deserve the consequences. I’m not trying to win them back or anything, but what do I do? Can I apologize, or do I just shut up and move on? How do I forgive myself, if I even should?


Congratulations! You’re a human being. You make mistakes. That’s normal, and it’s alright.

The part that sucks about making mistakes is the part where you hurt people. Even for people who are detached from those emotions, or don’t really care about the person they hurt, the social and cognitive toll of hurting someone else still stings. For example, cheating on someone you hate might still bother you, because it pulls your moral compass, impulse control, social group acceptance and insecurities into the limelight.

So, yeah, it blows to be the asshole, even if it’s pretty normal. As for what to do, I have a few suggestions:

First, be critical. Don’t insult yourself, don’t belittle yourself, but critique yourself. Where did you go wrong? Why? What were the other stressors in your life that could have caused this? What were you feeling? What active and passive decisions got you to where you are, and why did you choose them? Write this stuff down, or draw it out. Make a flowchart. Process it however you can, and then show your therapist (if you have one) for some extra credit.

(If you don’t have a therapist, try to move that up on your list of priorities. Counseling services are free at Knox, and desperately needed by assholes like us.)

Next, take those critiques, and try to identify any specific decisions or processes that seem to be trends in your life. Circle them. Identify your big insecurities: what would you hate the most if someone did that to you? Identify the insecurities of your close loved ones, excluding your ex-partner: who might you need to reassure, or be careful and considerate around?

Okay, now take all those little things you’ve circled and all the decisions you’ve made and all the stressors and influences and conversations involved, and figure out what you did right. Despite everything, what did you do okay at? Where did you draw the line for acceptable behavior? This is important. This has to do with your relationship with your own values. Think: why were these values so important that you upheld them under stress? Why were other values less important? Were the ones you left in the dust things you were taught, but never shown (maintaining boundaries, for example)? Were they values that had been a part of a belief system you’ve left behind? Are they still important to your personal understanding of morality, and if they are, how are you going to reincorporate them as actions?

Now that you know what you did right and wrong and why, you can start to consider what to do next time. How are you going to take steps to avoid being the asshole? What do you need to work on in your relationships, in your sense of values, in your decision-making? When you’re isolating yourself due to stress, what’s your escape route, how are you going to communicate that with others?

Only at this point can you start thinking about a genuine apology. But first, apologize to yourself. Say, “Dear self, I love and respect you. I understand what you did wrong, and I recognize your efforts to rectify that in the future. Your goodness is not dependent on your mistakes, but on your commitment not to repeat those mistakes. I’m trusting you to follow through on the commitments you’ve made to do better, and to consistently own these mistakes and accept their consequences.”

Then, identify the people around you who have supported you through this. Thank them, recognize your mistakes and reassure them that you’re working on yourself. Tell them how they can help, what they can do to help you check yourself as you continue to grow.

Consult the people who know the situation. Would a direct apology be helpful to your ex’s comfort and growth? If they’ve blocked you, don’t try to apologize. If they’ve told you not to talk to them, don’t try to apologize. Don’t post your apology on Twitter for everyone to see and retweet. Don’t send a Tumblr anon. If you think it’s a good idea, text them and say something like, “I understand if you don’t want to talk to me, and I won’t say anything more if you don’t respond. I’ve done a lot of critical thinking about my behavior and you deserve a real apology regarding my decisions, if you want one. I won’t ask for forgiveness, or sympathy, or offer an excuse; but I hurt you, and that was wrong. Let me know if you want to hear it.”

As for the apology, be genuine. Don’t give explanations: clearly and succinctly admit fault in your decision-making. Explain the steps you’re taking to grow. Don’t ask anything of them, or even mention the word “forgive.” Thank them for listening. Then, move on. And get a therapist.



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Elleri Scriver

Tags:  advice apology communication relationships romantic relationships

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