Can I Ask For An Apology? Settling an Old Score

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Reader’s Question

I want to ask a person to apologize for very old insults, which I can’t forget — can I do it?

Psychologist’s Reply

You can. But the outcome is definitely an unknown! The motivation and expectation that you bring to this, as well as how you go about doing it, will all likely affect how you feel after the fact.

If your motivation is to hear a particular thing from this person, such as contrition or an apology, one thing to consider before you act is that you might or might not get what you want. If you are deciding whether this would be a good idea, you might experiment with asking yourself how you would feel if you got the worst possible reaction. I am not sure what that would be: indifference? Anger? Derision? If you imagine that you are met with something other than, “I had no idea I affected you that way. I am so sorry” and you still want to ask for an apology, then you are not putting yourself at risk of feeling worse than you do now. If however, you find yourself hoping for (and counting on) an apology that will erase the hurt you feel, you could be at risk for feeling even worse if you do not get the response you want. If this is a current relationship, the relationship could change (for better or worse) based on you sharing this information. Only you can decide if you are in a place in your life in which that is a risk you can or want to take.

On the other hand, if the act of communicating that you are still hurt by the insults would feel satisfying in and of itself, then you stand to gain from asking for what you want. Regardless of whether the person apologizes, he or she will know that this has been something that has bothered you for a long time. And you will have unburdened yourself of something that you have been handling alone all this time.

I will add that the reaction you receive will depend in part on the way you approach the other person. Blaming and accusing typically creates more defensiveness in others than sharing your own vulnerability or emotional reactions. I do not know if you are interested in having a dialogue or trying to deepen or re-engage the relationship with this person, or if you just want to have a short interaction. Either way, if you share some of your reactions and use “I” statements before you ask for what you need, you might be more likely to get the apology that you seek. This might mean beginning with something like, “I want you to know that when you said XYZ it really hurt me. I have not been able to get past it since then.” Who knows, the other person might be inspired to apologize just based on learning that. Even if that is not the case, asking for what you need following a similar statement could set you up for the best chance of getting that apology.

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