When not to apologize

Often when I make a mistake, I feel foolish and sick at heart, and apologize all over myself.

I’m so sorry I did that! It was so dumb of me. I’m so stupid sometimes.

I’ve done this repeatedly in awkward situations or difficult relationships. When tension arises, I often take the blame and retreat.

But I’m realizing that sometimes I do this blame-absorbing out of a false sense of responsibility.

Several months ago, I started a new job at our local hospital. I hadn’t worked in a hospital setting for a while, so the learning curve was steep.

As I worked with skilled nurses who knew everything I didn’t, I found myself apologizing. I’m sorry I’m so slow. I’m sorry I don’t know how to do this. I’m sorry for being a pain. I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time.

The more I apologized, the clumsier I became. Instead of working confidently and efficiently, as I do at home, I made stupid mistakes. My fingers felt like thumbs and I wanted to cry with embarrasment when I dropped a tiny pill that wickedly wheeled out of sight.

Coming home from work one night, I scavenged for something to eat. I found some chips and salsa, and sank into a chair close to Will. He asked about my day, and I told him how clumsy and stupid I felt.

“Try this,” Will said. “Instead of apologizing for what you didn’t do right, thank the other person for how they helped you. This shifts you from a negative, inward focus to a positive, outward focus.”

I had a right to ask questions about things I needed to know for my job, he told me. Asking questions didn’t mean I was stupid, or infringing on the other nurses’ personal space.

In this case, I did not have the responsibility to apologize. I had not done anything morally wrong by asking the other nurses for help. Apologizing highlighted my insecurity and downplayed their kindness.

A few days later in the emergency room, I was working with my team to stabilize a critically ill patient when the doctor ordered a combination of drugs that I was unsure how to mix and administer.

Amid the flurry of activity, the doctor paused and carefully explained the drugs to me. I understood, and was able to carry out his orders.

My initial impulse was to apologize. “I’m sorry for taking up your time. I should have known how to do that.” But Will’s advice stuck in my mind and I stopped myself.

Instead, the next morning I slipped a note into the doctor’s office. Thank you for explaining the meds to me yesterday. When you take time to explain things I don’t understand, it helps me be a better nurse. I’m glad you are a doctor here.

The doctor came up for rounds later that day, and spied me. “Hey Rosina, thank you for the note!” he said. Of course I blushed a little, but seeing his pleasure made me happy.

“By the way,” he added, “have you used this piece of equipment? Let me show you how it works.”

I grinned inside, so glad that I hadn’t apologized.

The example I described here is a minor one, yet taking blame that isn’t mine leads to a snakepit of problems that I can hardly escape. For example, knowing when to take the blame is crucially important in understanding how to respond to different forms of abuse.

There are cases unlike what I described, when nothing praiseworthy can be found in what the other person has done. I need to be able to see each situation from God’s perspective.

Training my mind to look for God’s perspective of a situation instead of immediately blaming myself is not easy for me, so I came up with two questions to ask myself. These questions help define whether or not an apology is in order.

1. Do I need to repent, or am I apologizing out of a vague sense of self-condemnation?

running commentary of negative self-talk when I have not done wrong brings death to my spirit. Listening to unreliable sources–be it people in power, a religious system, or my own mind– that tell me everything is my fault is crippling. It is an unproductive grief that brings condemnation rather than the fruits of repentance and righteousness. 

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

2 Corinthians 7:10 (ESV)

2. Would I want someone else to apologize for the same thing to me?

Would I want someone else to apologize because she dropped a pill, or because she needed help with something? No, it would make me feel awful. I would wonder why this person felt so uneasy around me.

I don’t want anyone to apologize to me when they are struggling. I want to offer them a safe place and a helping hand.

Why is it so hard to believe that others might feel the same way toward me?

When talking about the right not to apologize, I’m not condoning being proud and refusing to take responsibility for wrong. If that is what you think, you have completely misunderstood this post.

I’m talking about living a life that is repentant, yet free. I’m talking about being free to enjoy receiving from others, and free to acknowledge that I am not always the one who is wrong.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2 (ESV)


This is the first post in a series I plan to write on rights and responsibilities from a Christian perspective. The posts will likely appear randomly, but when I am done I will group them all in order under a heading in the blog menu. 

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16 thoughts on “When not to apologize

    1. Perhaps a gentle reminder such as, “You don’t need to apologize” would be in order. Or, “it makes me feel bad when you apologize for something I know isn’t your fault.” Conversations like that are tough but hopefully can help our friends be more aware of their words and the underlying beliefs.

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  1. LRM

    Sometimes when I consider explaining and defending my action when it wasn’t the best choice. I decide in this situation it’s best to not to muddy the waters but just let the other person think it was my fault and let the matter rest.

    Also, when it was actually the other person’s fault, I sometimes spin it to make it look like my oversight. For example, if they forgot to mention a detail that they should have, I just say that I didn’t think to ask about…

    These aren’t one-size-fits-all suggestions, but for some situations…

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  2. Thanks so much for sharing on this topic. I just wrote an article on this same vein. I feel strongly that we need to know the difference between the whispers of our conscious that lead us to repentance, and the false voice of condemnation that we need to reject. Thanks for giving insight and examples to help clarify my thoughts.
    Gina

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  3. Rosina, This is such a practical subject and one I needed to read. I loved Will’s advice to you and I want to apply it to my own life. Naturally, I internalize my feeling of failure and condemn myself. When I say to myself how dumb I am, I have learned to ask the question- who says that? This has helped me identify truth and your advice helps to know where to go from there. Ironically, I have verbally thanked various people for helping me and I also like your idea of writing notes as well. Thank you for the good words you wrote!

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    1. “Who says that?”is a great question to ask! As you said, knowing where these thoughts come from is the first step to moving in a more positive direction. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Anonymous

    I find myself apologizing to my husband a lot for things that aren’t my fault and your article is a great starting point for me to start thinking about this. If, for example, my husband comes home an hour later then he said he would, I’m likely to apologize for the supper being cold. Something seems not quite right about that. Thanks for this thought-provoking article. I look forward to reading the rest of your series on this concept.

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    1. Knowing when to accept blame is tough, isn’t it? Sometimes it seems easier to absorb all the blame ourselves, but I don’t think it’s healthy in the long run. God bless your journey!

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  5. Lovina Baer

    This is good for me to think about, and I love the suggestion to thank people instead of apologizing. I find myself feeling guilty for taking space in other people’s busy lives, when that is the last thing on earth I’d want them to feel guilty for. What kind of twisted pride in my life makes me want to sacrifice for others but makes me unwilling to let them do the same for me?
    Thanks for sharing this.

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  6. Anonymous

    This hit home to me. I seriously have a problem in this area….and I’ve wondered why? Is it just pride? I really want to learn how I need to respond to the situations that come up, where i tend to blame myself and possibly shouldn’t. (Or at least not to the extent that i do sometimes.) I feel like I’m not understanding something &/or I don’t want to make the other person feel bad. (Maybe that’s a lil dif situation….?) Thank you (& God!) for this post, and I look forward to the ones coming.

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    1. Sometimes those of us who are shy and sensitive have a hard time with anything that feels like confrontation. It’s not always a character flaw–the world needs sensitive people–yet we need to be careful that we don’t descend into a largely negative way of thinking about ourselves.

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