Waiting for Forgiveness or Waiting for an Apology

By Jeff Levy

Sometimes we seek therapy because we are trying to understand and manage hurts that have accumulated over the years or even recent hurts that feel powerful and pervasive.  Of course it’s also true that we may seek therapy for hurts we have caused others in the distant past, recent past, or in the present.  Whether we have been hurt, have caused hurt, or are dealing with both, we may hold in our hearts the wish for an apology or the desire to be forgiven.

Waiting for an Apology

When we have been hurt and yearn for an apology, it’s possible that a great deal of our energy is spent waiting and hoping.  When the pain is old and feels as though it has become a part of who we are, it may even feel impossible to move on until the person or people who have hurt us apologize.  This can become even more complicated when the person from whom we need the apology lives miles away or is no longer living.  If this is the case, it may feel like the opportunity to have our pain acknowledged by the one who caused it is lost, and if the opportunity is lost, then we may wonder if our pain will be a permanent companion in our lives.

We may desire an apology yet at the same time, not be open to hearing it; that any kind of contact with the person who hurt us is too difficult and we have learned to survive through creating a firm and impermeable boundary to avoid on-going and/or future hurts.  We may feel caught between wanting an apology but fearing that we will be allowing the person that hurt us “off the hook” if the apology comes with some expectation of forgiveness.

Waiting for Forgiveness

And there are those of us who wish to be forgiven.  We see hurts we have caused that we couldn’t acknowledge when they occurred because acknowledging them at the time might have felt insurmountable or might have tapped into our own vulnerabilities and fears.  If we acknowledge having hurt someone we care about, does that somehow make us “bad” or evoke a sense of shame?  And like those who seek an apology from someone far away or no longer alive, we may have a desire to apologize to someone from whom we have cut off, or who is no longer on this earth.

Whether we desire an apology or seek to apologize, we are traversing the path of forgiveness.  We may want to forgive.  We may fear forgiving.  We may want to be forgiven.  We may fear being forgiven.  Forgiveness becomes FORGIVENESS.  It feels huge, static, permanent, and often insurmountable.  In some cases, so much of our energy is spent contemplating FORGIVENESS, that all other healing in our lives stops, waiting for the magic that will come from someone asking for our FORGIVENESS or from our desire to ask for FORGIVENESS.

Waiting and Expectations

I am reminded of a young man—a former client of mine—who experienced severe physical abuse from his mother growing up.  The only way he learned to survive was to cut off from his mother and his father, since he saw his father’s silence as complicit in the abuse he endured.  When his father died, his mother reached out to him.  And this young man reached back, hoping that finally his mother would apologize.  Instead, his mother minimized the abuse he experienced, said he should “get over it” and move on with his life.  My client received letters from his mother, phone calls, and pleas to repair their relationship.  While my client wanted a relationship with his mother, he wanted his mother to acknowledge the pain she had caused.  He wanted an apology.

After many months of discussion, he invited his mother to one of his therapy sessions.  My client spent hours deliberating about what he wanted to say to her, writing it down, editing, re-editing, and eventually writing something he felt accurately described his experiences as a child and what he wanted from his mother.  Much to his surprise, when he shared this with his mother in our session, his mother looked directly at him, acknowledged the pain she had caused, and asked for his forgiveness.

Before the request for forgiveness fully registered, his mother also requested that he let go of his anger and re-engage with her as she grew older and infirm. The apology was received, yet the message felt the same as it did in years past; a dismissal of the impact and magnitude of the pain she had caused.  He wanted more.  He wanted his mother to feel remorseful and to express this remorse.  After weeks of discussion following this session, my client realized that he had put his healing “on hold”, thinking he was waiting for an apology, when what he was really waiting for was his mother to change.   Ultimately, he came to the place where he didn’t need the apology to forgive.  He decided to forgive in order to “let go” of the power his mother held over him.  He also found that forgiving his mother was not FORGIVENESS.

Together we discovered more about the desire to apologize and the desire to forgive.  Forgiveness is not a static, one-time event.  It is a daily decision to reclaim power that has been lost over time.  Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, though forgiveness when followed by acts of empathy and remorse can heal.  We also realized that apologizing is not a static, one-time event.  The immediate relief that comes from apologizing may not be followed by long term relief unless the apology is followed by acts of empathy and remorse which can also heal.

Forgiveness and Freedom

We learned that forgiving another may set us free, does not mean that the other is no longer accountable for past hurts, and may not even require an apology.  And we learned that apologizing may set us free, does not mean we are not accountable for past hurts, and may not even require forgiveness.

Forgiving and apologizing are not one time healing events.  We can choose to forgive and we can choose to apologize even when the person on the receiving end does not change or is no longer available to us.

Perhaps forgiving and apologizing are more about claiming our own freedom than waiting to receive something from someone else.

“We are swimming with the snakes
At the bottom of the well
So silent and peaceful in the darkness where we fell
But we are not snakes and what’s more
We never will be
And if we stay swimming here forever we will
Never be free”

—Patty Griffin, “Forgiveness”

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 25, 2017