apology vs. regret
February 7, 2014 8:04 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference between apology and regret? Can you meaningfully, honestly apologize for something you don't regret?

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.
posted by divined by radio to Human Relations (44 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, absolutely you can apologize for something you don't regret. You can be genuinely, heartfelt sorry for something you said or did, but have learned so much from the human frailty you encountered within yourself, and be so very grateful to have learned a lesson, that you have no regrets. You have grown. It was worth it, even if there was hurt involved.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:11 AM on February 7, 2014

You can sincerely apologize and feel regret about hurting someone, but not regret your decision as a whole. I don't think that makes the apology less valid or less honest.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:14 AM on February 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Perhaps you could break down the thing that you're apologizing for, at least in your head.

Let's say you broke up with someone via text right before their bar exam but after they had cheated on you.

You might regret that you had to break up.
You might apologize for breaking up with them by text, or for not waiting until after the bar, because you regretted not having been in a headspace to do something different and better.
I think you might conceivably apologize for something that was the best available option but not the best possible option, such as saying "I'm sorry I broke up with you by text when I was trapped in immigration while moving to Hong Kong - I could not find a real phone and the situation was urgent, but I am sorry I did it that way".

I think there's a lot of internet rhetoric around apologies that isn't very good for on-the-ground interpersonal relations - there's been a crystallization of "rules" for a lot of left-liberal cultural stuff like how to apologize, what is too passive-aggressive, when to enforce your "boundaries", when to cut "toxic people" out of your life....and those discussions all provide very interesting guidelines (particularly if you come into a situation at a total loss) , but as with manners discourse in general, they readily turn into "the rules" and people get very caught up in the nuances of "correct" apology, worrying about whether they are unconsciously too passive aggressive, etc. It all turns into an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin conversation, IMO, when really people need to be attentive not to some abstract definition of regret or apology but to the specifics of their relationship and their experience.

In your particular situation, I would be more interested in the power dynamics of the conversation with your friend. Like, what is between you that makes this conversation go this way? "You apologized but do you regret it" is a question that comes up only when there's either a weird logic-chopping situation or some underlying and unresolved pain/anger or maybe especially distrust in the questioner.

If I were responding to a friend I would be inclined to say "yes, of course I regret that I [caused you pain/whatever bad thing]; I wish I had been capable of finding another way to [achieve thing]. I wish [the situation had offered more options] OR I wish [I had been smarter and more self-aware, etc] so that I could have [achieved legitimate goal] without [doing dreadful thing]. I can't regret [achieving legitimate goal] because [reasons] but if it were possible I would take back in a minute [doing the part that hurt you]".

Because of course you regret hurting them. Of course you regret the chain of events that pushed you do do [thing].

I would be wary of dealing with someone who seemed so anxious to assign fault - either you really DID do something morally horrible and they just can't forgive you because it was too dreadful and it's not reasonable to ask them to do so*, or else they are not thinking of this as A Terrible Time When Difficult Decisions Were Taken By People Who Care About Each Other And We Should All Concentrate On Learning And Growing, but are instead thinking of it as "a situation where I should figure out exactly how much I should blame divined by radio".

*Like for instance, for a long time I was not ready to forgive my childhood bullies, not even the ones who had troubles of their own, and it would not have been right for them to ask me.
posted by Frowner at 8:20 AM on February 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I realize that there is a possibility that I may run into someone who was in my circle of friends who I unceremoniously cut out of my life. When that day comes, I will apologize, because I am very sorry for the hurt and confusion I know it caused. I did it very unskillfully.

But do I regret it? Heck no. They were not a healthy presence in my life. I don't even regret how unskillfully I did it. I'm not certain if cutting this person out of my life in the most skillful way possible (a conversation explaining what was going on for me, and why I was doing it) would have caused them less hurt or confusion. Because I don't think they would have accepted my version of events, or what was happening for me.

I'm sorry that it needed to be done. I'm sorry that the way I did it was hurtful. I'm sorry that they were hurt. But I don't regret my actions.

If I do regret anything, it's that they felt pain from my actions. But I'm not sure that could be helped. Someone told me that avoiding pain isn't necessarily the goal in life - and I remember that when I do something to take care of myself (like putting up boundaries) that ends up hurting someone else's feelings.
posted by anitanita at 8:20 AM on February 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

You can apologize without regret and mean it but as a receiver of that apology it would "not really count" in my mind (if I knew). This would be fine if it was the polite apology to end a friendship/relationship on "civil" terms but, in many situations, would be unacceptable to me if we remained in contact. To me not experiencing regret means that given a similar situation again you are likely to make the same hurtful choices. Fool me once and all that...
posted by saradarlin at 8:24 AM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think that you can totally apologize for things that as Frowner said r something that was the best available option but not the best possible option. I think that I often am in the situation of doing something I regret having to do.

So - if by a certain decision point, there are only bad options, you can totally make a choice that you regret having to make, but nonetheless, at that point, wouldn't want to make a different choice.

The the question is - do you regret that you got into that situation? I think that's where the regret comes in.
posted by mercredi at 8:26 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I once realized I had to cut off a FWB situation, but I did it in a really shitty way. I apologized for (and regret) the shittiness, but I don't regret the action.

It sounds like more like this other person is being pretty ingracious than it sounds like you have a personal misunderstanding of the word "regret".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:30 AM on February 7, 2014

Best answer: Does apologizing for something you don't regret automatically make the apology useless, or worse, intractably selfish and disingenuous?

I don't think it is automatically useless, but there are some challenges there. I don't think the following two items can coexist:
  • A sincere apology for an action, choice or behaviour
  • A belief that one would perform that same action, choice or behaviour again under the same circumstances
So if someone hurt me very badly and then apologized but made it clear that they would do the same thing again, I would take that apology for the bullshit it is. What would be even worse would be a pseudo-apology in the form of "I'm sorry you got hurt by my doing X" rather than "I'm sorry I did X". You can only apologize for your actions, not someone else's reaction, and if you don't feel the action was wrong, then you can't apologize with any real sincerity.

If it was a case of choosing the best of a bad set of choices, then it's still not appropriate to apologize because you did the best you could and there was no other way to get around. Apologies for that sort of situation come across as insincere mainly because it's very clear the apology is being made to soothe the conscience of the person apologizing.

Whether any of this applies to your circumstance is up to you.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:30 AM on February 7, 2014 [19 favorites]

Supposing one day you find yourself in an implausible philosophical exercise in which you can prevent the destruction of civilisation by throwing a particular individual under the bus.

Suppose you are 100% convinced that saving civilisation is the morally appropriate action in this instance and there is no reason you would change your mind afterwards.

I think it would be appropriate to offer a heartfelt and meaningful apology to this person before giving them a shove (although they might not be in the mood to take the apology). I don't see why the apology would be inherently selfish or dishonest, although it would certainly be futile; indeed it would seem self-centred in this incidence were you to chicken out of this apology and just close your eyes and shove.
posted by emilyw at 8:31 AM on February 7, 2014

regret is subjective and intrinsic. apology is just an extrinsic signal intended to move us past an unpleasant situation. it can be sincere and intended to promote a better relationship, or it can be "i'm sorry you feel that way."
posted by bruce at 8:31 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think that for me, an apology is tied up in regret, so you need to be sorry for the part you regret -- in your breakup example, you can be sorry you caused pain, and if you could have not caused the pain you would not have, but you aren't sorry you broke up. It's a fine line and hard to balance, but on the whole I am probably with your friend: you apologised for something but don't regret it -- so you'd do it all over again, which means what to the apology? To me it sounds entirely insincere. "I'm sorry I did this, but I would absolutely do it the exact same way again."

That doesn't mean you are insincere in your apology, or that they are being unkind. It just means that you have different meanings around what apologies are for.
posted by jeather at 8:32 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hmm...do you not regret hurting the other person? For me, that's the part where "sorry" comes from. Although I think you can still realize that your actions were overall the right thing. To me, a sorry is often, "I'm sorry that I hurt you", rather than "I'm sorry for what I did because I was wrong."

I do think your friend put you in a bit of a difficult position by asking this, as well.
posted by bearette at 8:46 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

To me, the notion of a sincere apology is "would you do something different next time?". In your case, I'm guessing that the portion that you'd do differently wasn't the "..incredibly painful and seriously life-altering.." action, but the events and behaviours that led up to that situation.

Do I regret a particular break-up? No. What I regret is that path that led us there, the not standing my ground earlier in the relationship, the compromises, the inability to make the harder choices earlier.

So, yeah, in my case I don't regret the bits we remember as painful. If we did it again, that's not what I'd change.

And then there's the acceptance that we made the best decisions we could with who we were then and what we knew then. Would we do it differently now? Hell yes, but we're different people now. It's not to us to regret, but to do it differently now based on what we've learned.
posted by straw at 8:48 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think also part of this is, as I see it from your friend's side.

You did something very hurtful. Many years later, you apologise, wanting to rekindle the friendship, but say you don't regret what you did. So in the future, why should this friend trust that you won't hurt them very badly again?

I think it's complicated, and I really don't think either of you are wrong on this, just perhaps incompatible world views.
posted by jeather at 8:50 AM on February 7, 2014 [8 favorites]


You mention it once in your question, but to me it is key here. Our actions affect others. I understand why your friend asked the question of regret. It suggests to me that your apology considered yourself in this exchange and your friend was part of the drama of absolving yourself, in a sense. But what about what she/he felt? Apology can be separated from regret as others have explained, but your friend was asking for humility and sincerity in that apology. Perhaps a heartfelt and honest explanation as to why you'd do it again may allow them to see a different perspective?
posted by 0 answers at 8:53 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow. These answers are incredibly instructive, fascinating, and wildly uncomfortable. A+ would ask again.

I've been struggling mightily to 'officially' come down on one side or the other -- it was either the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do -- but it honestly feels like both. I think, based on the responses so far, that I might actually regret what I did after all. Because I really do love this person to the ends of the earth and god, no, I did not want to hurt them. I think I felt like I had to, though, and then I think I was overly attached to my own version of events, maybe even subconsciously lionizing myself to create enough distance between my actions and their consequences that I could weasel out of some of the pain I caused. The amount of fault they are anxious to assign me is both completely disproportionate and completely understandable. There is an unbelievable amount of unresolved pain, anger, and distrust. They're not ever going to forgive me. That's OK; it has to be.

Your perspectives are rocking my worldview to its foundation, AskMe. Thank you so much.
posted by divined by radio at 9:04 AM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Does apologizing for something you don't regret automatically make the apology useless, or worse, intractably selfish and disingenuous?

No. There are no rules to this sort of thing. Human interaction is an intuitive process, not a procedural one.

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?


You don't regret whatever your actions were, but you do regret the pain that they caused and so on.

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?


Your interaction with this person sounds like it is fraught with a lot of history and feelings on both sides which may make it hard to take an objective look at what's happening. I would therefore caution strongly against trying to extrapolate something they said into the whole of human interaction.

It's possible that this person does not agree that the actions you took were the right ones. Without knowing either of you, I really can't say.

Thing is, if I had an exchange like yours, my internal response to it would be that apparently their values concerning an apology and associated regret did not line up with my own (or those of the people I know), and then I'd chalk that up to difference and move on. I don't know that the situation warrants the existential tailspin it seems to have thrown you into, where you're analyzing to death what the rules are regarding apologies and if the apology is technically valid if you don't regret what happened.

The answer to the question you typed is that you can absolutely apologize for the difficulty and pain experienced on the path towards doing the right thing, and not regret doing the right thing you did.

Furthermore, a better but still honest answer to the question of "do you regret it?" would have been, "I regret what happened and I very much regret all the pain caused by all of it, but, that said, I don't know what I would have done differently."

The answer to the underlying question is that your friend is not upset because you were wrong about the Apology Rules, and I'm willing to bet that your all-over-the-place feelings are not really coming from wondering if you might have been wrong all along about the Apology Rules. I do not know what the whole situation is and I don't have access to the written exchange, so it's kind of on you to figure out what they're really upset about here.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:05 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

An apology is a form of social lubricant. It's something you can decide to do, or not do. Its purpose is to make people feel better about the situation, whatever it is.

Regret is an emotion. It's not something you can decide to have, or not have. It has no purpose except maybe as an indicator of learned experience for next time.

I can think of plenty of situations where it would be reasonable to apologize for something I don't regret. (Your example of a difficult breakup is a great example.) I might feel sorrow for having had to have done whatever it is, because it's no fun to make people unhappy, but still feel like it was the right thing to do, and therefore not regret it.

I can also think of plenty of situations where being on the receiving end of such an apology would still hurt.

(I can think of very, very, very few situations in which continuing to pick at who was most at fault or who feels worse about something that happened years ago is useful or productive in any way.)

Not all problems have a solution that makes everyone happy.
posted by ook at 9:06 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like this person 1) wants you to feel bad about it 2) wants you to ascend to their reality / narrative.

This is a tough one, because their sense of satisfaction could hinge on you agreeing with their reality. (Which you don't.) But you need to show that their feelings matter to you. That being right isn't at issue here, but that you actually really care that they're hurt. I think that's what they're asking by checking in if you regret it. They're asking "do you care about me?"

5 Languages of Apology (because there's a concept for everything...) and here's a summary. But it actually is helpful in understanding what the person needs to hear in order to feel like restitution has been made.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:07 AM on February 7, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry and regret can be synonymous; I can be sorry that I hurt you, and I can regret that I hurt you. I can be sorry that circumstances led to an outcome, and I can regret that circumstances led to an outcome. I can be sorry for making the choices I made, and I can regret the choices I made. I can be sorry I can't attend, and I can regret that I can't attend.

I think it is common to use them with different meanings, though those meanings vary from person to person, and that's why we have things like your conversation with this person from your past, and people who give "weasel" apologies, and so on. If people would stick to one word or the other, or be more explicit, there would be less of this.

"I'm sorry that I hurt you, but I don't regret the choices I made that led to your pain, because ultimately I needed to make those decisions to protect myself" -- there's a sentence that uses them with different meanings, but with enough clarity to avoid misunderstanding. If you drop the last part -- as you did with your friend -- it can be taken as a contradiction: "I'm sorry that I hurt you, but I don't regret the choices I made that led to your pain."

It's that last little bit that connects the two, and often the part most people struggle with in circumstances like yours: the outcome was hurtful to [someone] but beneficial to [someone else]...was it worth the hurt to gain the benefit? If [someone] and [someone else] are another person and you, respectively, then you're going to get conflicting value judgments when you ask the person that got hurt. You might clearly see the benefit was worth it for you, but they will likely feel otherwise. Seeking validation from the hurt party that the benefit to you was worth the hurt to them, well, you're not likely to get that from most folks in most situations, so don't go seeking it.
posted by davejay at 9:14 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need have no regret if you are apologizing for the manner in which you delivered the message.

You do need to sincerely regret if you are apologizing for a behavior or a wrongful attitude.

For example, you need not regret you broke up with someone if you are apologizing for the manner in which you did so.

You had better regret it profoundly if you are apologizing for disrespecting, abusing, bullying, or otherwise mistreating someone.
posted by bearwife at 9:14 AM on February 7, 2014

Best answer: Regret is seeing the hurtful impact of your actions and now, knowing the result, wishing that you hadn't performed that action.

In this case it sounds like you just don't regret it but you have compassion and feel anguish over the suffering that it caused.

Absolutely you can sincerely, meaningfully apologize for something you don't regret. Apologies aren't so black and white as you paint it, in that one reality or point of view has to be ultimately the right one. Both points of view are valid and you made your choice.

By the way, painful disagreements like this one are rare and difficult, and you can see why some people would have a certain type of fight that the relationship never recovers from. These types of fights show fundamental differences in value systems and worldviews, and I guess it comes up to empathy, maturity and what sort of difference it was whether it can be overcome. And if your beloved person never forgives you it will always ache a little in your heart, you might always feel guilty or bad about it, but don't avoid that feeling. That's a healthy kind of feeling bad. It is a good feeling, it's the feeling that causes you to tread more carefully in the future when it comes to others. That ache IS the regret - it is the regret for the pain you caused, if not the action.

Oh and one tidbit I've also learned: in any decision, you are optimizing for one of three things: your personal integrity, your goal or the relationship. If your integrity is most important, honor that; if your relationship is more important then put your ego aside; if the goal is most important then do whatever it takes. I've found looking at it this way this helps me be brave or avoid undue stubbornness.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:18 AM on February 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

Pretend they said "When you apologised, it was hurtful because it dragged all this shit back up in my head when I thought I was over it and I was getting on with my life. It might be worth it if you were telling me you would never do it again, and we could maybe go back to where we were, but nope".

So I guess one could conclude that years-overdue apologies for something really hurtful, when the other person has moved on but not really forgiven you, and no reconciliation can come of it, cause more pain than gain. Perhaps your apology was more for you than them.
posted by emilyw at 9:22 AM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I was in high school, one of my closest male friends was dating this girl. I did not like his girlfriend and thought she was truly a pain in the ass. But because I was the only girl who hung out with these guys and wasn't a girlfriend, she latched on to me as friend. After a few months, I realized that it wasn't that she was a bad person, we just didn't have a whole lot in common.

Shortly after I realized she didn't suck, I found out that my friend was cheating on her. With multiple girls. Many of whom also thought of me as close friend and more than one of them confided in me how much they cared for him and how he'd assured them that he was soon to be dumping his girlfriend.

I was very torn. On one hand, I adored my friend and always knew he was a little sketchy with relationships (it was one reason why I never would agree to date him) and I valued our friendship. On the other hand, he was being a sleaze and these girls really cared about him and had trusted me.

At the time, I thought the best thing to do would be to tell the girlfriend in a very low-key way that she needed to have a discussion with her boyfriend. I did not tell her he was cheating, merely that there was some shit she needed to know.

Because it was high school it blew up in an epic way. All girls found out, friend found out that I was the leak, most of the girls stopped speaking to me, friend stopped speaking to me, and the other guys in the group called me out for picking the girls over them.

I later apologized profusely to my friend and the girlfriend. I honestly think I did the right thing but the wrong way. I should have let my friend make the decision to tell those girls. I should have clearly extricated myself from any wierd crossover of friendships with the girls and the guys. I've learned and while similiar issues have come up in my adult life, none of them have exploded in the way that this did.

My friend accepted my apology and understood why I felt I had to do it, but our friendship was never as close as it had been.
posted by teleri025 at 9:25 AM on February 7, 2014

Best answer: I think regret is necessary for a sincere apology; furthermore, at least the appearance of regret is necessary for an apology to be accepted as sincere.

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.

I'm going to put a different spin on this example: you regret that it was necessary to break up, but you do not regret breaking up—a subtle but important distinction. It's not appropriate to apologize for breaking up, because that's not something you regret. It's also not appropriate to apologize for the necessity of breaking up, but for a different reason: you are not responsible for the necessity of breaking up (I'm assuming; I don't know the details of your previous relationship, obviously). And you can express that regret, saying you are sorry for the necessity of breaking up, but that doesn't constitute an apology for the existence of that necessity (nor should you apologize for that necessity, unless it was your fault.)

Now, I'm not above feigning regret and apologizing for something I don't actually regret, for the sake of preserving a relationship. But if you're going to do this, you have to go all in and not fold when you're asked if you sincerely regret what you apologized for. If you're going to admit that you don't regret whatever you did, I think your friend is justified in calling out your apology as insincere.

I think of a proper apology as expressing Three and a Half R's:

1) Regret: "I'm sorry." "I wish that had not happened." "If it were possible to go back in time and prevent that thing from happening, I would."

2) Responsibility: "It was my fault." "I could have prevented the thing, and I did not."

3) Reform: "It won't happen again." "I'll do better in the future."

3.5) Repair...if possible: "I'll fix it." "I'll make it better."
(If you break someone's window, part of the apology is an offer to pay for the cost of replacing it, unless you are financially unable. But some things can't be undone, and if it's not possible to repair, the apologizer obviously can't offer to repair it, which is why I only count it as half an R.)

This is, of course, for apologies for Big Screw-Ups, and doesn't apply to little things like brushing someone's elbow on the sidewalk. But if an apology doesn't express these elements, whether explicitly or implicitly, I'm likely to question its sincerity.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:58 AM on February 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

I'm kind of in agreement with you - apology means that you are sad that the other person was hurt, and wish that they hadn't been hurt. You don't need to regret your action to apologize - you just need to regret that the other person was hurt by it.

I do think this is a worldview gap as strong as that between Ask and Guess, though - as evidenced by the multitude of opinions here. If I had to try to nail it down, I'd put it as between those who think that apologies are social lubrication, and those who feel apologies are admissions of guilt.
posted by corb at 10:01 AM on February 7, 2014

While you may not regret the initial action, it sounds like you genuinely regret the repercussions it has caused (which may include losing contact with this person). You're also seemingly regretting the time you took to apologize.

The other person sounds like they've carried this around as emotional baggage for years, and is hurt that you've been travelling light. Some people brood on things, others don't; neither group are bad people for the way they deal with it.

Everything that everyone has ever done (pretty much) seemed like a good idea at the time. What we can't foresee is consequences, and from them springs regret. But no amount of regret can ever undo what's done.
posted by scruss at 10:01 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Apology and regret are different because you and other people are different. That is, because you and other people are different, a thing that was the right thing for you to do may have hurt them. You can apologize for that: I am sorry I hurt you. That doesn't mean it wasn't the right thing for you to do. Sometimes we do things that hurt other people because they are not us and it's more important that we do what is right for us. It's okay to do this even if it hurts other people. I am wary of the narrative this person is seeming to try to get you to agree to. You can not regret it but still issue a totally sincere apology.

I apologize a lot. I inadvertently hurt people's feelings sometimes and other time I just have to do things that I know they will not like (as a moderator, as a computer teacher, as a family member) but that have to be done anyhow. It doesn't make my apologies less sincere. It just means I'm in a situation where difficult choices have needed to be made.
posted by jessamyn at 10:05 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes, you can sincerely apologize for something you know hurt the other person: you understand the other person's emotion, and apologize for having caused [part of] it.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with whether you yourself actually can, or should, feel that emotion yourself.

(What I'm seeing in your example is a confusion between rational and emotional responses, and that's what made the whole thing problematic. Asking you whether you regret something you said sorry for addresses the emotional part of the problem. To answer in the same (emotional) spirit, one needs to be selective if one doesn't want to add new hurt to the old one. You answered sincerely, but mainly rationally. From the other perspective, then, "rational" could be interpreted as unproductive, since your answer apparently hurt the person again.)
posted by Namlit at 10:11 AM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

* Does apologizing for something you don't regret automatically make the apology useless, or worse, intractably selfish and disingenuous?

Yes, because you're implicitly asking for forgiveness. How can you be forgiven for something you don't think is a wrong?

* 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?
Sure. When you're five, and your mom makes you apologize to your cousin because you are their cake. I bet you don't regret eating the cake. Because cake. But your mom will be mad at you, and you might get a timeout. So apologize, and keep it moving. (But I don't think you're five.)

* 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?
This is the same as your first question. I still say yes. Maybe you should think about why you're fixating on this being a SELFISH decision vs. a HEALTHY decision. You don't need to apologize for choosing yourself -- and at the same time, your ex doesn't need to validate your choosing to take care of yourself at their expense (either by doing so hurtfully or cruelly). They get to choose themselves too.


You know, just because you apologize doesn't mean the other person needs to be cool with you, and that they need to forgive you/talk to you again.
posted by spunweb at 11:24 AM on February 7, 2014

Best answer: My preschooler does this thing right now, where he does a thing he regrets instantly (like hitting), but even though he's sad and guilty and freaked-out, he staunchy refuses to apologize until he's had some space to breathe, anywhere between 5 minutes and 2 days, even if the lack of apology means not getting the thing he wants.

Apologies are powerful even to kids just learning the words. If a friend hurt me deeply, and later apologized, and later than that said they would have done everything over again, that person would be clearly telling me that an apology from them means, in essence, "I feel bad that my actions have consequences." If the error didn't teach them anything, why would I remain friends with them and go through the pain of being their teacher again?

That said, I have apologized for the circumstances surrounding a decision without apologizing for the decision itself. I was disorganized, I could have phrased it better, I left someone else with a responsibility that should have been mine. That, I'll apologize for, even if the overall path would have been the same. It's not clear to me from your question whether you fall into the former or the latter camp with your apology.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:24 AM on February 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sternmeyer: "I don't think the following two items can coexist:
A sincere apology for an action, choice or behaviour
A belief that one would perform that same action, choice or behaviour again under the same circumstances
So if someone hurt me very badly and then apologized but made it clear that they would do the same thing again

I was recently in a situation where I was in a position of leadership and had to make a decision that, in either case, was going to directly affect and hurt people and disrupt people's lives. (If it matters, I was not part of the creation of the dispute, I was just one of the people tasked to make a decision about it.) I will call the two sides of the dispute Team Edward and Team Jacob for ease of reference. I decided in favor of Team Jacob.

The people from Team Edward are utterly furious; many of them have taken the decision as a personal affront or attack. Their lives have been disrupted and some of them very negatively impacted, and I feel terrible about it. I have apologized many times over it, and I am really, really sorry. It's a terrible situation. But I don't regret the action I took, and I would take the same action again; I regret that the situation came to that, and I'm very sorry for causing people pain and wish it were otherwise, but I don't regret my actions.

I don't know, apologies and regret are a really complex topic. I'd agree that many times they go together, but I think you can also be very sincerely sorry that someone was affected negatively while still as a general thing thinking you would take the same action again. I feel like I can't make a definitive call about whether any specific apology needs regret or not without knowing the circumstances; sometimes when I've wanted an apology, I've really wanted a recognition that I was hurt by something even if I understood the reasons for the action and that the actions were reasonable and not regrettable.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:32 AM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Don't participate when somebody else overthinks their plate of beans, and don't get too involved in doing it to yourself. If you regret causing someone pain, say so. If you hurt someone because you had to do something, and didn't know how to do it without collateral damage, say so. If you took action that hurt someone who was damaging you, then bringing it up is not useful. I built very strong boundaries to contain my Mom's manipulation, toxic behavior, alcoholism. It hurt her, and it took a long time for us to have a decent relationship. I'm not sorry for my actions. I'm sorry they hurt her, but I didn't so much do anything to her as to prevent her from doing things to me. She was hurt by her own demons.

If you want to overthink anything, I'd consider why you chose to re-open the issue at this point.

You can change your own mind and your own behavior. You can't change anybody else's. This person thinks you are wrong. You'll feel better if you recognize that you and person can view the situation differently.

Apologize carefully. I'm sorry I hurt you by breaking contact abruptly. I didn't know how else to do what I needed to do. You're not sorry for the behavior, just the aftermath.
posted by theora55 at 11:41 AM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think in interpersonal relationships the desire for an apology WITH regret is usually desired by the wronged party when the wronged party believes in their bones that the thing that was done is fundamentally morally repugnant or hurtful, and/or may be repeated again.

When something is a mistake but not morally repugnant, an apology suffices and regret is superfluous, because it was a mistake--implying the action lacked intent.

HOWEVER, if an action had intent--as in all went as the doer planned--and was not a mistake in the least, AND that action was harmful to the wronged party, I can totally see why the wronged party would want not only an apology but ALSO regret from the doer. Because otherwise, offering only an apology amounts to: "I'm sorry you were hurt by what I did, but I would totally do it again and hurt you again if given the chance."

posted by whimsicalnymph at 11:47 AM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The more responses roll in, the more I'm starting to realize that I fucked this one situation up more royally than I've ever fucked up anything in my life and that there is significantly more room than I could have possibly imagined for subtlety, shade, and nuance when it comes to apologies and regret (I am a recovering black-and-white thinker). It seems the "vs." in the title doesn't really need to be there at all.

The person mentioned in the OP is the most prominent figure in my personal history by a huge degree, hence the garment-rending/universalizing/existential tone.

And I can't express how much I wish I had just waited to respond until I had asked about this, because my perspective on the matter has changed so profoundly over the past handful of hours -- now there's something I know I'll always regret. But what's done is done.

Honestly, every single answer has been unbelievably, outrageously helpful. The ones I marked as best have been the ones that instantly made me feel like I'd just been socked in the gut with righteous truth. This has been such an eye-opening Ask, and you all have my sincerest gratitude.
posted by divined by radio at 12:09 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

This link may not work because I'm at work and thus filtered, but Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers has an excellent video on the topic.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:14 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

While you might not regret the specific thing you did, there is almost always going to be much to regret in the bigger picture of how it all to come to that.

Taking the breaking-up example that people seem to be using, while you might not regret that you broke up with the person, there could be any number of things in the background that likely could and should be cause for regret. Things such as...

- Regret that you let them develop such deep feelings for you before making it clear that you didn't share those feelings
- Regret that you did not share your own deep feelings for them, before things had gone to pieces and there was no way back
- Regret that you lacked the maturity to make a go a of the relationship
- Regret that you lacked the wisdom to see from the beginning that you were not right for each other

Not many of us have managed to act with perfect wisdom, integrity and love throughout the course of a relationship, so if you're telling yourself that you are completely innocent and without fault for the hurt that's been caused, most likely you are kidding yourself.

There are circumstances in which it's appropriate to express sorrow rather than apology or regret, but when it comes to long-term relationships those are far fewer than people let themselves think.
posted by philipy at 12:53 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not totally down with your increasingly-self-beating-up comments in this thread, though.

Not knowing what this was, I can't say just how justified all the rending is - maybe you did something super-epic where you cost this person their job or their relationship or their housing or their health or a huge amount of money, in which case a lot of rending is in order. If you just mean that younger divined by radio was kind of a thoughtless asshole and made someone feel really bad...well, look, people do that. It's unfortunate. But at the same time, the person you hurt is, to a degree, responsible for their own feelings.
And the degree to which you hurt them may be out of all proportion to the degree of intent you had and the degree of control over the outcome that you had.

I don't know how to put this so that it comes out right, but people can overreact. You can hurt someone pretty badly and they can still overreact. You can hurt someone pretty badly and they can still be kind of jerks about it. One of those "internet truths" that I really don't like goes something like "when you've hurt someone intent does not matter and there is no metric for assessing what an appropriate degree of rage/hurt is for them, no matter what you did". Now of course, people have the feelings that they have....but I get this feeling from your comments here and in general that you're too hard on yourself.

Also, all this business about shade and nuance...look, it's great to be thoughtful, but the bar for being a decent person is not "being a super sophisticated emotional ninja who never misses a trick in terms of the very finest points of feeling". (On a personal level, I get kind of creeped out by the Mature Radical Activist types I meet who are always managing everyone's feelings and being all wise - I feel like I never know them, I only know the emotional ninja).

I don't know - maybe you did romp blithely over someone else's interests just because it seemed fun, and thus you Ruined Everything Because You Were Terrible. That's not the vibe I'm getting here, though. I'm getting a vibe that you did something kind of awful during a difficult situation but that there's also a difficult person and a difficult relationship involved.
posted by Frowner at 1:14 PM on February 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Last one, I swear!

...maybe you did something super-epic where you cost this person their job or their relationship or their housing or their health or a huge amount of money, in which case a lot of rending is in order.

So this is actually exactly what I did, and although I did not romp blithely at all, and I was naive, stupid, or just straight-up blissfully ignorant of the gravity of the situation I was in to a degree I'm still trying to figure out. The person I wounded so grievously is secure in their belief that everything that happened required specific malicious intent on my part, which is a point upon which we just sort of had to agree to disagree.

That all sort of ties back to the mantra of "when you've hurt someone, intent does not matter and there is no metric for assessing what an appropriate degree of rage/hurt is for them, no matter what you did," although in this case I'd argue that they are feeling an entirely appropriate degree of rage and hurt. Moreover, I understand that it is psychologically protective to believe that the person who hurt you so much must have only done so because they specifically intended and wanted to hurt you -- because the alternative, the idea that they might have done it unintentionally or accidentally or reflexively or from a position of ignorance, is too horrible to contemplate. It probably even seems impossible. So this sort of situation seems to render a standalone apology inherently insincere from the get-go, and places the receipt of an honest, earnest expression of regret in a (the) position of primary importance. I didn't really understand that until I came here and asked y'all about it.

I've always been extremely hard on myself as a matter of course, but yes, this is definitely a mea maxima culpa situation in which any/all accompanying garment-rending is fully warranted. Big, big hearts, AskMe. I owe you one.
posted by divined by radio at 1:47 PM on February 7, 2014

It sounds like you do regret that this thing happened then? But didn't do it on purpose. Maybe that's the tack to take if you're going to pursue this - that it was accidental but knowing what you know now you totally regret what you did, even if you couldn't have forseen the consequences (or even if you could have forseen them if you'd thought about it, but didn't).

Imagine if you accidentally caused an avalanche that killed people. You didn't do it on purpose, but you'd certainly regret it.

That's slightly different from what people are saying above, where you maliciously did something, and then apologise while saying "I was still totally in the right though!", which definitely does NOT count as an apology. One particular person keeps trying to apologise like that to me for something they did a few months ago, and every time they do it the forgiveness counter goes back to zero. "I'm sorry you're so sensitive" is not an apology.
posted by tinkletown at 2:10 PM on February 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm with st peepsburg; this is one of those situations where if the relationship is worth any thing to me I just lie my ass off. Of course I regret it, I've never regretted anything more on my life. If my goal is to show contrition and make the other person feel better, they don't need to know that I secretly thought I was right all along. I can believe that and not sharing it hurts no one. Sharing it hurts them, and impedes the whole point of the apology.

However, my sister, for example, would never ever do that. She has like a commitment to the truth or something. Had to share her feelings no matter what. That's another viewpoint, sure, but guess who has more broken friendships and fractious relationships in general?

Something amorphous and abstract is not worth that, to me. And I kinda feel it renders an apology a bit shittier: apologies should be about the other person, and their feelings of being wronged, making it about me and my feelings is a bit antithetical to that.

Then again this is a deep part of a person's personality I think. Others may regard my take as insincere or duplicitous. I dunno, I give and receive apologies easily; I feel it's made me and people around me happier. Apologies are powerful, they are empowering, really, but people tend not to see that, I don't know why.
posted by smoke at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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

I don't agree with that at all.

Sometimes you have to make a choice, and each of your options has something regrettable about it. Even if you feel like you made the right decision there's regrets about it, or regrets that the decision had to be made.
posted by yohko at 4:41 PM on February 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I haven't read all the answers here so apologies if this is repetitive.

I don't have much time for regret, actually. It doesn't mean I don't take responsibility and acknowledge that my actions sometimes cause hurt and pain. It doesn't mean I don't learn from my mistakes and don't change, don't decide that something was such a colossally wrong thing to do that I will go to insane lengths to avoid ever doing that again.

When I apologise, for me it means I am taking responsibility and acknowledging that I have done wrong or contributed to some bad situation somehow. It does not include regret in the sense of wishing I could go back in time and undo it - this is not possible, what is the point in wishing for it? I realise that sounds very logical but honestly, we are human, we fuck up. We learn. We do better. If we could erase our mistakes, it would mean erasing an awful lot of things we've learnt, undoing any good that comes out of the horrible mistakes.

But for me an apology does include regret in the sense of wishing I were a better person who would not do that thing, whatever it was, as well as a sense that I will try to do better in the future.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:13 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should say also that I think that intention comes across in the apology, as I think people do take my apologies as sincere (which they are!) But there's been a lot of food for thought in this thread and I am going to try to be more aware of what others need from an apology rather than what I think I am doing with my apology. Because yeah, that's what matters.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:21 AM on February 8, 2014

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