What is the difference between apology and regret? Can you meaningfully, honestly apologize for something you don't regret?
posted by divined by radio to Human Relations (44 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I recently exchanged years-overdue apologies with a person I love very dearly. (Is there a word for the person with whom you have repeatedly engaged in the art of mutually assured destruction? Because yeah, that.) Although my apology was unequivocally sincere, I still feel completely sure that what I did was the right thing to do, even though it was incredibly painful and seriously life-altering for both of us.
A few weeks after I apologized, they shot back a query: Sure, I'd said I was sorry, but did I regret it? (Questioning whether or not they regretted what they had apologized for had not occurred to me; it isn't important to me.) I don't, and told them as much; I take full responsibility for my actions and readily acknowledge that they caused an incredible amount of emotional damage, but even if I was offered the opportunity to do so, I would not take them back. That was... not the answer they were looking for. Their reply, which arrived in the form of an exceedingly diplomatic just-realized-I'm-going-back-to-never-speaking-to-you-again-type missive, was a slight variation on, "If you don't regret it, what the hell are you even apologizing for?"
My world has been fairly upended by the possibility that you should not apologize for things unless or until you specifically want to take them back, but thinking about it a little more, the umbrage I feel toward that idea might be some kind of subconscious attempt to weasel out of responsibility, guilt, and fault on a technicality, like I might have been looking for the relief of an honestly offered apology without being crushed under the weight of regret. I've even taken to scouring Google to try to figure out if a distinct lack of regret axiomatically renders an apology moot, and what other people think the difference is between the two concepts. It seems like a lot of folks feel that standalone expressions of regret are more distancing and even a bit less sincere/meaningful than standalone expressions of apology, but there's also a lot of conflation of apologizing for something and regretting it, so I'm totally lost.
I've always thought that there's a self-evident disparity between feeling sorry that you've done something and wanting to take it all back. To my mind, apologizing for something means you feel completely terrible about it, but regretting something means you wish it could be undone, and that you would like the world to return to the way it was the moment before you made that decision; one does not automatically accompany the other. My go-to example of the contrast is breaking up with my partner of a decade and change, which was a ridiculously painful decision I'm very sorry to have needed to make, as well as one I would not ever take back even if you gave me a million bucks tucked inside a basket of puppies: I'm sorry, but I don't regret it.
* Does apologizing for something you don't regret automatically make the apology useless, or worse, intractably selfish and disingenuous?
* Is there ever a situation in which it is acceptable to apologize for something you don't regret, or is the best course of action to avoid apologizing at all unless it is accompanied by a sincere expression of regret?
* Is earnestly trying to apologize for something you don't regret an exercise in futility? Is it inherently selfish, dishonest, myopic, or stubbornly self-serving?
I am completely open to the possibility that everything I have ever believed or "known" about this topic is 100% wrong. I think I might even prefer it if I found out I was wrong, because I am completely sick over this, and I want to apologize even more if I've been operating under an erroneous presumption. I have been resolutely humbled by the experience and am more than willing to dig and invest much more deeply into humility. So I'm very interested in hearing from both sides of the aisle, pros and cons, reading papers and books about each side in comparison or contrast, and learning about specific meditative or therapeutic techiques meant to help bridge or eliminate the gap. Any advice or information you have about the space, or lack thereof, between apology and regret would be much appreciated. Requisite AskMe caveat: Yes, I am in therapy and yes, this is the topic du jour.
Thanks as always for your generosity, kindness, and insight.