So I’ve been seeing this quote from Louis C.K. floating around on my social media streams a lot recently:
It reads, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”
When I read this the first time, I thought, “Hell yeah!” because I, like most of the people who are sharing this meme, have been hurt by people who have then denied responsibility for hurting my feelings or completely negated the fact that I had any valid reason to be hurt in the first place. I think that’s why so many people are identifying with this statement — we all just want to feel validated. To have the person or persons responsible for our hurt to apologize to us, or if not apologize, simply own the fact that they perpetrated some action that caused us pain, whether intentional or unintentional, is a fairly universal desire. We all just want to feel that we have been heard.
I believe that Louis C.K., a comedian and writer whom I respect very much, penned these words to illustrate that simple fact: sometimes, whether or not we mean to, we hurt people, and when that happens, the decent thing to do is show respect for and acknowledge their feelings, particularly in light of how vulnerable one becomes when admitting their emotional experience. Perhaps you could even apologize, if you’re able. Again, as a person who has been hurt by another’s careless or ignorant actions, I can vouch for the emotional validity of Louis’ statement.
That being said, the more I have seen this phrase being tossed around — screen-capped on Whisper, added to a image of foggy trees in the background, written in flowery text — the more degraded the original message seems to have become. I’ve seen these words captioned, “Hell yes!” and “You know who!”, as if the poster were making an accusation or a demand — “You hurt me, so you owe me an apology! And whatever else I choose to take from you in recompense for having hurt my feelings!”
Whoa… slow your roll, there. You mean to tell me that just because your feelings got hurt, you’re entitled to an apology? No, no, no. Victimization and malicious intent notwithstanding, I don’t think that’s how this works.
You see, the way I learned it is that if you’ve done something wrong, you apologize. I was always very comfortable with that simple rule, which much like the Golden Rule (treat others the way you wish to be treated), doesn’t lend itself to much interpretation. However, now we’ve added an element of entitlement to the clause, implying that a.) if you have been hurt, you are indisputably in the right, despite whatever situation preceded your being “wronged”, and b.) if you are hurt, you are unequivocally entitled to an apology, regardless of the other person’s intentions or lack thereof.
This is a very slippery slope for a person like me.
First of all, I am SORRY. I’m sorry all the time. I’m sorry for burdening you, for being a nuisance, for drawing attention onto myself. I’m sorry that I’m making waves, making you uncomfortable, making you think. I’m sorry that I exist and that my mere existence has even the slightest chance of harming you one day. My id will entice me to apologize for literally anything, even things that I didn’t do or couldn’t help, unless my ego steps in to draw the line. And it must. It really must, because otherwise I will turn into a quivering ball of jelly, so desperate to please every one that I dither away into nothing.
Secondly, being the people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding, self-doubting gal that I am, I have been known to apologize for things I didn’t really feel sorry for, just as a way to smooth things over or avoid a conflict. This includes those things that I either didn’t have a hand in, or couldn’t help to begin with. I’m an apology-monger; I’ll just hand those babies out anywhere if it seems at all appropriate or desired. This is not unique to me: women are stereotypically guilty of applying the “gratuitous” or “assertive” apology, due to our collectively warped sense of politeness which requires that we preface our requests or opinions with “I’m sorry, but…”, which is supposed to make whatever comes after the “but” sound nicer, but really just forces us to undermine ourselves from the get-go. “Uh, if you’re sorry about it, then why are you even bringing it up?” Excellent question!
Knowing that I am an apology-monger, I’ve tried to become very judicious about how I use the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”. Like, I’m only going to say it if I really mean it. To that end, some people have gotten mighty pissed with me when, due to my own carelessness or perhaps even a simple difference of opinion, I didn’t apologize either for my actions nor for how they felt. My reasoning was thus: “I didn’t mean to hurt you, offend you, or make you angry. I recognize and respect that my actions (or lack thereof) came off the wrong way, and that despite my good intentions, you were hurt. That is undoubtedly unfortunate, and I regret that it happened.” Period. End the incessant babbling that may lead me to utter an insincere apology. Even as I write this, the entirety of my being wants so badly to append that statement with “I’m sorry” — but what am I sorry for? If it was an honest mistake that caused the other person to be hurt, if there were no cruel intentions, what am I really apologizing for? That someone’s feelings were hurt?
As far as I’m concerned, the meaning of “I’m sorry” or of any apology is to admit and accept responsibility for some wrong-doing. This is where my issue with the above meme comes into play: I don’t think that, just because someone’s feelings were hurt, that the person who ostensibly did the hurting is truly responsible for that. Responsibility implies that someone actually did or was supposed to do something; to take some action. But it seems to me that when people are identifying with and extemporizing this meme, they are actually angry at someone for either unknowingly making a mistake, or simply failing to act in a way that they (the hurt-person) wanted or expected.
If I have done something shitty, then of course, I ought to apologize. Hopefully, this isn’t a point of contention or confusion for people. Generally, I think that if you’ve done something shitty, you know it. And if you know you’ve done something wrong, you ought to feel compelled to apologize. This is probably Utopian wishful thinking, to rely on a person’s innate understanding of morality and the honor system to dictate when and where sincere apologies should be doled out. I can already hear my detractors unleashing streams of misanthropic vitriol about how sociopaths and perhaps even your average person has no innate morality at all. But I’m an optimist (most days), so I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt: If you know you’re wrong, you should also know you need to apologize. If, however, you are merely regretful to have inadvertently caused someone pain, I’m not entirely sure an apology is warranted — and to offer one in that instance would be disingenuous.
I recognize that the shoe has often been on the other foot: I have, through carelessness or ignorance, hurt the people that I love. In that case, I am compelled to apologize, and I will do so in order to make amends. That is how I want to be treated. However, reading that quote from Louis C.K. made me uneasy, not only because (when taken out of context) it implies the entitlement to an apology, but also because it places the burden of responsibility entirely on the perpetrator, regardless of what actions or intentions predicated the hurt. And what if, as has often been my experience, the perpetrator was simply trying to do right by themselves?
Suppose a woman leaves an abusive marriage, and in the course of saving her own life, her mother-in-law asks her How could you do this to our family? I am so hurt by your actions. Should that woman apologize for her actions, for saving her own life? Is she actually responsible for her mother-in-laws feelings?
This is where I absolutely have to draw the line. If you accidentally cause someone emotional pain in the course of doing right by yourself, you are not responsible for that person’s hurt or for their feelings of disappointment. You are not more beholden to the feelings of another than you are to yourself.
You are allowed to put yourself first. You are allowed to continue to develop your inner being, even if your development begins to contradict who you used to be. You are entitled to love yourself first and foremost. Being impeccable with your word, holding yourself to realistic standards, and assuming good intentions is part of the agreement that you make with yourself to be the best possible person you can be.
If we have been inconsiderate, that’s one thing. If we have merely made a mistake, that is quite another. Before we start beating eachother’s doors down for apologies and retributions that we think we’re owed, let’s stop to consider our expectations and which associated intentions precipitated our ire. After all, isn’t that how you would wish to be treated?