Overapologizing and the Myth of Closure


Something that happens to me sometimes with guys* is they do something I find hurtful, I calmly tell them so, they apologize, I thank them and accept, and then…they keep apologizing. And apologizing. And talking about how they feel like “such a jerk now” and how they really are a nice person who doesn’t usually do things like this and they’re really so sorry and I keep saying that it’s fine, they apologized already and I accepted and it’s okay as long as it doesn’t happen again and…they just. keep. apologizing.

And then it occurs to me that, even if they don’t realize it, they’re asking for something from me. They want reassurance. Fucking up feels bad, and I’m the one with the supposed power to make them feel like good people again. So the endless apologizing is meant to extract those sorts of caring behaviors from me–“No, really, I really like you as a person, I know you didn’t mean it”–and perhaps, eventually, capitulation–“It’s okay, really, it wasn’t even that big a deal, I probably shouldn’t have even said anything about it.”

As I said, this is probably unintentional/subconscious; people who do this probably think that they’re just making sure the other person really has forgiven them. But since it’s based around a temporary loss of self-esteem, the only thing that can end the cycle of apologizing is to be convinced that they really are a good person–perhaps because the thing they did wrong wasn’t even that bad of a thing to do.

And there’s plausible deniability there, too. But they feel so bad! But they’re just showing you how much they care that they messed up! But…maybe it was juuust a little bit kinda really mean of you to make them feel so bad! And on it goes. It feels wrong to ask that someone stop apologizing, even if it’s making you feel bad. I think we’re meant to take over-apologizing as a sign of extra concern, or perhaps as a compliment. But, as with surprisingly many social interactions, over-apologizing may be more about the apologizer’s needs and wants rather than those of the person being apologized to.

We all have probably had times when we fucked up and apologized and just really needed to have that apology accepted immediately and to be reassured that we’re good people immediately. Some of this may tie into something that I’ve noticed before and that advice columnists like Captain Awkward and Doctor Nerdlove have discussed: the myth of closure.

Usually discussed in the context of breakups, the myth of closure is the idea that there’s something called “closure” that would really, really help us get over breakups, and that may even be owed us by the person who broke off the relationship. Sometimes it’s helpful to know why things ended, sometimes not, but regardless, nobody owes you that explanation. Sometimes, being an adult means sitting with the uncomfortable feelings and learning to overcome them by yourself, without the help of the person who caused or triggered them (but with, of course, the help of friends).

A similar thing happens in the context of fuckups and apologies. You fuck up, you feel bad, you apologize, and then you (may) think that you need to be absolved by guilt by the person you hurt. But sometimes people aren’t willing to accept your apology, and that’s okay. Sometimes they accept it, but they’re not interested in discussing the issue any longer. That’s okay too. They don’t owe you any closure. You may need to process your feelings about your fuckup without their help.

And then it occurs to me that it’s mainly women who are consistently asked and expected to do this–this emotional work. This soothing of hurt feelings, this rebuilding of lost self-esteem. Not only that, but it’s usually the woman who was hurt in the interaction who is expected to do it–at a time when she deserves the space to deal with what she experienced, she is drafted into your Feeling Okay Again Army.

In her wonderful piece which I linked to in my last roundup, Sarah writes about the conversations that often happen between men and women about sexism and sexual violence, and how they go wrong. In it, she links to an article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman about how to get support when bad things happen to someone you know:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.

[…]Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

Of course, the situations we’re talking about are not at all comparable to traumas like these in terms of their emotional salience and difficulty. But, as Sarah points out in her piece, having a Kvetching Order is still important for more minor situations, so that you’re not overburdening a person who is already burdened. In this case, if you’ve hurt someone and that’s hurting you, you need to go to an outer ring to kvetch about it. So, not the person you hurt (or their best friend or significant other), but a friend of yours who isn’t as close to the situation.

Sarah then brilliantly connects this back to gender: women sometimes discuss the shit they have to deal with, and men can feel frustrated, angry, or even vicariously traumatized as a result. But because of our crappy gender roles, men are less likely to have close friends that they can confide in than women are, and when they do have such friends, they’re most commonly women. This means that if men want to confide in someone about how crappy they feel in response to women’s stories of sexism, they may have nobody to share that with besides women. And women are in a smaller ring than men when it comes to the issue of sexism and sexual violence. Sarah writes:

If you are a man who is becoming upset/depressed/overwhelmed/hopeless/defensive when you listen to the women in the world/your life talk about their experiences, you need to talk about it.  With another man.

I really, really mean this.  Not to complain about how crazy or uptight women are, please.  (I mean, personally, I don’t think that would help you or me very much at all).  But you absolutely need to talk to another guy.  A guy you are friends with and who you trust is ideal.  And if you don’t have that kind of guy in your life- and, seriously, you are not alone in that area- then you have the very hard, critical work of figuring out how to make that kind of friendship ahead of you.  If you are feeling a restless helplessness over all of this, that can be your challenge.  Because I think as women we really, really need you to form those relationships.  We really, really need you to have an emotional connection to each other.  And we need to know you guys can turn and talk each other through these hard things and support each other while you support us.

To bring it back to the over-apologizing thing, if a guy hurts his female friend and then feels bad about it, he’s not as likely to have other close friends–especially close male friends–to talk about it with. So the temptation is especially strong to talk to the friend that he hurt.

Fucking up feels bad, and it’s legitimate to want support when you feel bad, even if it’s because you did something wrong. That’s why it’s important to have other people or places you can go to get support when you feel bad. And when you do this, by the way, honor the person who you hurt and who helped you be better by retelling the story accurately. “I said something that I really shouldn’t have and hurt my friend. I apologized and she accepted, but I still feel really bad. I guess I’m just looking for some reassurance I’m not a terrible person even though I did this wrong thing.”

You deserve to be supported and reassured when you’ve done something wrong and taken the right steps to fix it. But please don’t manipulate the person you hurt into doing this for you.

~~~

*Obligatory note that this can happen between people of any gender, but I notice it especially with men, and have spoken to several women who have noticed the same thing. So, while it probably happens with everyone, it probably happens more–or more intensely–with men apologizing to women. And, therefore:

DISCLAIMER: The Author in no sense intends to imply that All Men are responsible for the aforementioned Conflict(s) or Issue(s) as described in this Text. The Author reiterates that Not All Men commit the Offense(s) detailed in the Text, and that the Text is not intended to apply to or be addressed to All Men. The Author hereby disclaims any binding responsibility for the emotional well-being of such Men who erroneously apply the Entreaty(ies) contained within this Text to their own selves. The Reader hereby agrees to accept all responsibility for any emotional turbulence that arises as a result of the perusal of this Text.

Comments

  1. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    You deserve to be supported and reassured when you’ve done something wrong and taken the right steps to fix it. But please don’t manipulate the person you hurt into doing this for you.

    This right here!

    I’ve done exactly this in the past and not even realized it. Ugh. How do you apologize for manipulatively apologizing? (I’m guess that you don’t.)

    • Para says

      “I’m sorry, I realized I was (doing a thing that wasn’t very nice). I didn’t intend to cause you (more) stress(/pain/upset/whatever), and didn’t realize what I was doing. Now that I have, I’ll do my best not to do it anymore; if I mess up, please feel free to correct me about it. And now I’ll shut up about it, unless you want to talk about it more.” Then, either end comment, or change the subject (after a pause in case the person you’re talking to does want to respond, should this be real-time communication).

      Those exact words would come off as constructed and vague, of course, but that general structure is typically what I use when I’ve screwed up talking to friends, and I’d be very happy to hear such an apology as well. So adapt that to the situation (what exactly you’re apologizing for, if you realized because the other person pointed it out) and actually mean it, and that’s the best advice I can give.

  2. queequack says

    Regarding over-apologizing, yes people do this a lot. It has not been my experience that it’s gendered. Maybe other people have different experiences.

    The apology thing really does become a lot simpler when, as John Scalzi put it, you think of an apology as for yourself, not for others. I think I’ve apologized once or twice for things I’ve said on this blog (have I? I can’t really remember), but I’m not interested in fishing for absolution or whatever. If there are people who continue to dislike me, or who thought I was insincere, or whose exacting standards I didn’t meet, that’s their prerogative; I’m not saying I don’t give a shit, but it’s not for them or their opinion of me. It’s for my opinion of me, which is in general, I think, a healthier place to tie your ego.

    • says

      The reason I said that was because I’m pretty sure a woman has never done this to me. Too many men to count have. Obviously that doesn’t mean women don’t do it, just that I have a large sample size of apologies and a smaller but still fairly large sample size of overapologies, and while the number of non-overapologies is fairly evenly split between genders, the overapologies have all been from men.

      Yes, it’s anecdotal, but this isn’t a scientific article. Just one about my own experience.

      In any case, let’s not have this (like so many other comment sections) dissolve into a debate about whether or not something is “really” about gender. 1) I’m not interested in having that debate over and over, and 2) there are more interesting and relevant things to discuss here.

      • queequack says

        Yes I didn’t mean for that to be a challenge or anything, just an offhand note. I’m also a sample size of one (and it’s not like I keep a tally or anything).

    • says

      I agree that it’s useful to think of an apology as being for yourself, but it’s also useful as a signal to others: “I think this was a wrong thing to do and I’ll try not to do it again.”

      Apologies in which one doesn’t really believe that what they did was wrong, and/or doesn’t intend to stop doing the thing, are insincere and pointless.

  3. says

    I’m ashamed to admit that I nearly did this to Jamie Kilstein a while back over Twitter. Camille (Maniac Wrangler) stopped me from doing it. Long story short, I triggered him without realizing it, Camille explained what I did wrong to me over DMs, and I suddenly felt like The Worst Person in the World(TM). I wanted to apologize to him, but she told me not to… that I really should just drop it, and also educate myself as to why what I did was wrong.

    So I instead deleted the triggering tweets and took a break from Twitter and Citizen Radio for about three weeks. Come to find out about a month later that either Jamie forgave me or never blocked me, because he favorited a tweet of mine commenting about a CR podcast that had me in stitches from laughing so hard.

    I’ve had to learn over time that I have an insanely guilty conscience and that this is nobody’s problem but my own. When I fuck up and hurt someone, I not only want to apologize, but then make it up to the person I hurt a million-fold, even if what I did wasn’t all that bad (“I didn’t mean to splash that water on you! I’m so sorry!”). It took me a while to learn how and why this could actually make everything worse.

  4. hereandreal says

    Oooohhh…this post is just so amazingly spot on, and I think it’s helping to clarify some things I’ve recently been struggling to understand in both my interpersonal relationships and my own internal wranglings. After reading your insights, I think I may be on the verge of some new ones of my own. (They’re just hatchlings, but I’ll see where it leads me.) I do think there is an aspect of cultural norms and expectations at play in what you’re describing, and that it isn’t a coincidence that, even when we’ve been hurt and it’s been acknowledged, women more often than men (as you say you’ve noticed and I have as well) may end up dismissing or minimizing our hurt feelings (or anger, annoyance, etc.) to appease an over-apologizer. It brings to my mind the lovely tactic of claiming someone is racist for calling out something that actually is racist. If and when either of these tactics work, on a large or small scale, the result is to stifle the voice of the person speaking against the status quo.
    My tendency to dismiss/deny/suppress hurt or angry feelings is definitely more active with some people than with others, and it’s in direct relation to how respected and safe I feel in a relationship. In less stable or safe relationships, I realize that I’ve skipped right over the part where I’d tell the person they’ve hurt/annoyed/pissed me off, because the idea of voicing those feelings fuels my often already heightened anxiety/panic about possible abandonment or rejection; but it may also be because (and this is the new insight part) I know on some level that the person is going to either apologize X infinity or belittle my feelings, both of which are likely to result in my “retracting” (and maybe even apologizing for) my original complaint anyway. If that’s the case, then, in these relationships rooted in unequal power, why bother with the extra steps, which can be annoying at best (like in an average online comment situation) or outright dangerous at worst, when the end result will be the dulling or muting of your voice anyway?
    Of course, the answer here – large and small scale alike – lies in standing in one’s own power and identifying, expressing, and standing by one’s own feelings (one’s own lived experience), and not taking on the other person’s discomfort, attempting to alleviate it at your own expense. Like you said, Miri, that’s exactly why the sorry X infinity (with endless sadface emoticons for good measure if in comments or online dating) really is manipulative. Its purpose isn’t just to make the apologizer feel better, but also to make the person who spoke up feel guilty and, ultimately, hesitant to speak up again in the future.
    Some olive branches do have thorns! (Thank you for this post – I’m really enjoying getting into your work lately!)

  5. Bruce says

    I think this is an extremely valid article.
    My blind guess is that one factor could be that some men feel so insecure about their emotions that they can’t admit any emotional challenges, and most strongly they can’t admit them to THEMSELVES. Thus, many men literally both have no idea what they’re talking about, and also have no idea that they have no idea.
    It’s sort of a male Dunning-Kruger phenomenon of emotional intelligence, or the lack thereof.
    Miri, does that sound like it might make some sense on this?

  6. hoary puccoon says

    And It cannot be emphasized too much– please, people, do not apologize for something you either have no intention of stopping, or every intention of doing again in the future. An apology is not a Get Out of Jail Free card.

  7. says

    Brilliant thanks, learning to find closer by yourself away from the one who hurt you – yep that’s me right now. Only it’s not going so well.

  8. jonmoles says

    I’m more interested in the myth of closure aspect than the overapologizing, although I know I have engaged in that behavior on occasion in the past. I think the most difficult thing and why I also believe that closure is a myth is that it’s always been most difficult for me to forgive myself. Once the realization dawns on me that I have wronged someone the reflex is to attempt to rationalize the behavior and shift blame, but I find that taking a moment ususally helps avoid this behavior (when I have control of my faculties, i.e. I’m not too angry). Once my mind is right I know that it is meaningful to the other person to admit that I did something hurtful and that I am sorry for it, but at that point I think it is up to them to decide what they make of the apology. I may feel it is warranted that I take some further action action to rectify the wrong, but that may be unwelcome so it is a potential minefield of missteps as well. The main lesson to take away is to attempt to not repeat the behavior in the future. Where I believe closure is a myth is that even if the person harmed is quick to forgive and forget, I usually am not, but at some point you have to quit beating yourself up. I think it helps to realize that not forgiving yourself may also lead to infantilizing the person you wronged as someone who can’t decide for themselves if they have forgiven you, but it seems like there are very few people who have the kind of open and honest communications that would alleviate this issue. It’s thorny, we’re human, and we just have to try to keep these things in mind the best we can.

  9. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Great post. Boy, where was this advice ten years ago when I really could have used it? I’ve definitely been that guy many times. I’ve gotten better about it but it’s still a very deeply wired response that I have to be careful to avoid. I definitely think self-worth and insecurity play a major role. I’ve definitely noticed that for me it only is an issue in romantic (or potential) relationships. With my guy friends, family and platonic friendships with women, my mind never seems to go there the way it does with girlfriends. I had crappy luck in romantic relationships in my younger years (never really had a girlfriend until I was 30) and I definitely had alot of insecurity/fear about possibly messing up something good or losing a girl’s interest by doing something wrong. I was extremely hard on myself when I did screw up and unfortunately let that splash over onto the girl. In my mid-late 30’s I had more romantic success, grew up a little and now have a very solid relationship with my wife so this sort of thing is much less of a battle. But your article is a great for understanding the real issue and a great reminder to be mindful of falling back into old habits going forward.

  10. smhll says

    I’m a woman who over apologizes to her husband and son. I think it corelates with me being an over-talker who finds it hard to stop. I’m more likely to talk too much when I am stressed.

    My mom did bring me up to fight fair and “own my own stuff”, so I would like to believe I’m not gaslighting the people I interact with or trying to rewrite their memories.

    I guess I understand not wanting to talk to someone who had done something unforgivable, or to “debate” with someone who was trying to undo a needed breakup. I have a much shallower understanding (since I’m not introverted) about people who want to stop a conversation (a one sided conversation) and continue the relationship. (I’m fortunate that my husband is very mellow. This isn’t random, though. I loathe domineering men (with maybe a once a week exception for sex play) and haven’t been in a relationship with someone who verbally twists my arm).

    I do agree that “Please stop” or even “Stop” is a complete sentence that isn’t up for debate.

    The apology dance is depicted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (just after the Lover’s Walk episode) when Willow wants to put virtual apology coins in Oz’s ear slots and have him dispense insta-forgiveness. I think it’s handled pretty well, but it does gender flip the pattern you wrote about.

  11. qwints says

    I’m bothered by the whole concept of the kvetching order. It clashes violently with my ideas about open communication and my personal experience. I’ve hurt people close to me when I was hurting, and they told me that my words hurt them. I think that was okay. I don’t think that being in pain gave me the right to say anything I want to anyone. I’ve had friends who were emotionally abused by people who were in pain.

    There’s a difference between emphasizing empathy and telling people to consider the consequences of their words and establishing orders of whose feelings matter.

  12. lorn says

    I’m familiar with that configuration and the damage that it does. It is a good interpretation and explanation.

    But then I figured out it is an adaptation of the standard kiss-up-kick-down linear hierarchy where mental, emotional and financial problems migrate down while the benefits migrate up, and it is ‘good to be king’. Yes. it loses some of the nuance but I think you will find that a lot of it returns when you have multiple hierarchies and nested hierarchies.

  13. Lee1 says

    I’m a man and I’ve had considerably more women over-apologize to me than other men. I asked a few friends/colleagues and they have a similar experience, and I’ve also seen it happen a fair bit first-hand with women over-apologizing to other men – although I’ve certainly seen the reverse as well. This makes me wonder if it is about gender, but in the sense that people are more likely to do it to someone of a different gender regardless of their own gender.

    Even if that’s true, it’s my (anecdotal, small sample size) impression that women often do it to men for a different reason than the one you’re describing for men who do it to women – I feel like it’s more often motivated by fear of some form of reprisal from someone who has some sort of power over them (either institutional or more informal social, and also in some cases either real or perceived). If that’s the case, then it would certainly be about gender in a very asymmetrical way.

    • John Horstman says

      My experience is similar to Lee1’s, and his suggested reasoning conforms with my experience of the world generally and knowledge of social gender systems specifically. I strongly suspect the behavior plays out in gendered patterns, even if the specific superficial action is undertaken by more than one gender.

  14. John Horstman says

    But, as with surprisingly many social interactions, over-apologizing may be more about the apologizer’s needs and wants rather than those of the person being apologized to.

    Word to the maximum. Once the apology has been made, it’s up to the person to validate it or not as ze sees fit (and perhaps wait for evidence that the person who is apologizing is actually trying to do better, and for more than five minutes); continually apologizing, then, is necessarily about the person who is apologizing wanting to feel exonerated, or at least make sure the status quo of the relationship remains intact. (As noted above, it can be a self-protective behavior, perhaps with a gendered pattern, though I still think it’s problematic.)

  15. says

    Well said! This also happens to me a lot with cis people when they apologize for misgendering me.

    “Oh man, I’m sorry I used she for you. I totally meant they.”
    “I accept your apology.”

    Cis people, please, let it end there. Too many people go on to try to explain to me how they came to make this error as an attempt to feel better about the mistake. And all that does is put trans people on the spot to make cis people feel better about doing that thing.

    Overapologizing is basically one of the most awkward things ever.

    • says

      Someone in my Facebook thread about this also pointed out how this happens to trans people a lot. It definitely seems like they get how shitty it can be to be misgendered, but then they don’t get that the trans person doesn’t owe it to them to make them feel better about having done it.

  16. scenario says

    I know I over apologize with some women because I know that a simple I’m sorry doesn’t seem to count as an apology with them. Over the years I’ve had many conversations like this :

    I say something wrong. Woman is offended and hurt.

    I say something like, “You’re right. I was completely wrong to say that. I’m sorry that I hurt you. I’ll try not to say something that insensitive again.”

    Three days later I’m talking to the same person and they’re still mad at me. I ask why and I get something like, “You hurt me the other day and you didn’t even apologize.” I’d be fine with “I’m still mad at you for what you said.” They are not obligated to accept my apology. But refusing to acknowledge that I attempted to apologize is annoying.

    I’ve found that with some women a short and to the point apology doesn’t count. If I don’t go on for at least a minute or two it somehow doesn’t count as an apology. I just want to point out that it was always the same few women who did this. It is not a common response.

  17. geocatherder says

    With over-apologizers, I’ve found I can usually carry off a self-deprecating grin and a quick “you’re forgiven. Full stop.” It ostensibly says that I’ve forgiven you without reservation. But the phrasing also suggests that maybe it’s time for a change of subject. If it pisses off the offender, they’ve always hidden it well.

  18. Rabecca says

    I have seen women do this far, far more than men. This coming from a woman as well.

    I don’t think it’s an expectation to be absolved. It is to ensure that they mean it when they say the apology is accepted, as it is incredibly common for people to say “it’s okay” when they don’t mean it.

    Furthermore, no, no one is obligated to supply others with closure. However, one can’t just say “I’m cutting you out of my life, how you feel about that is your responsibility, and I owe you nothing”. It takes to people to form a relationship and I think it is basic respect to answer someone’s questions about it– to a limit, of course. You don’t have to answer to someone who is trying to salvage something that you want Gone, but if you have spent many years in some form of relationship with someone, I think you do owe a degree of explanation as to why your behavior toward them has changed. Again, you don’t HAVE to give closure. But I think it is a respect that many people–not all people–but many people deserve.

    Furthermore your “not all men” disclaimer might actually mean something if it wasn’t so obviously patronizing. When you say “no, not all men, but most men”, it really doesn’t help. If I say “No, no all women are cheaters, but most are”…wouldn’t you take offense to that?

    • says

      When you say “no, not all men, but most men”, it really doesn’t help.

      Where the hell did I say that?

      I said that, in my experience, men do it more than women. In your experience, women do it more than men. I don’t see how that matters, or why this needs to be argued about.

      “Most of the people who do this to me are men” is not the same as “Most men in general do this,” and I think you know that.