When someone apologises or says that they are sorry they usually are expressing regret for something that they have said or done that has adversely impacted another person (or other people). It may be that the apologising person did something that he or she did not intend or was not aware of doing. Conversely, it may be that the person saying sorry had undertaken and action with full awareness yet later feels regret.
When someone says sorry to us, we may also assume that this means that the person will not engage in the same behaviour again. However, "I'm sorry" said by itself does not mean that things will change. While apologies seem to imply that an action or verbal exchange will not be repeated, often it is really difficult for individuals to change their behaviours.
Often we hear or say "If you were really sorry about that, then you would not do it again" or "you would stop doing it". The logic may be true, but the reality may not be that simple. For example, if someone habitually drinks excessively and loses control, he or she may also hurt people including family and friends. Afterwards, in sobriety, the person could feel immense sorrow, regret and guilt for his or her actions. The person may even vow to change. However, if that person drinks alcohol to excess again, then the same set of behaviours will most likely occur. This does not necessarily mean that the person was not sincere in their previous apology. Rather, it means that there is perhaps a deeper-seated problem with what motivates or triggers the behaviour and that the person does not know how to stop or change it.
In another example, a person might be verbally abusive to someone when he or she feels anger and rage. When that person calms down and realises how his or her words have impacted the recipient of the abuse, he or she may apologise. However, when the person feels anger or rage again, he or she may resort to the personally well-known coping strategy of verbally denigrating and belittling another person. The action is repeated because the person does not know how to cope with his or her feelings of rage in an alternative, more healthy way.
For someone who is regretful of their actions or words, it can be helpful to be clear in addressing these feelings. Offering an apology or saying "I am sorry" if that is true is a healthy first step. If someone wants and intends to change their behaviour, the next step is to say something like "I want to change my behaviour as well and will try to do this". Understanding that the two parts are related but separate can help each party to understand how to resolve the past and find a way forward. It may also become clearer that help or support for intended changes in behaviour is needed. Taking away the assumption that the behaviour will change with the "I'm sorry" can create space for the reality of "I'm not sure I can change, I may need help" or "I would like to change, but I do not know how".
Most people who have been hurt by someone do appreciate an apology. They usually also appreciate acknowledgment and empathy for how they have been impacted. It can be helpful to be clear about what you are accepting from a person that has apologised to you. It can be useful to say something like "I accept your apology for your actions last night". This can be followed up by saying, for example, "And I would really like to see you change that behaviour because I feel hurt by it and would like it to stop."
When we find ourselves or someone we know saying "I'm sorry" for a behaviour that is engaged in repeatedly when change is desired then it might be time to seek help from a professional. In working with a professional, we are able to explore what happens and how we think and feel in our experiences with other people. Usually, when we have greater awareness about why we behave or act in a particular way, we are closer to changing that behaviour. In exploring and experimenting with alternative behaviours and by healing from the past, we are more likely to have longer-lasting relationships that feel healthy and more satisfying.
You may know someone who has suffered with childhood sexual abuse or assault. What do you say to them? How do you listen and unpack this with them if you are interested in being supportive?
There are many ways to help someone that you care about who has trusted you enough to tell you that they have been abused or assaulted sexually as children, adolescents or young adults. The most impactful thing you can do is to encourage the person to seek professional help with a psychotherapist, counsellor or psychologist. You can even offer to help them find a therapist and consider helping them arrive at and leave from the first appointment. Another thing that you can do is to listen when the person wants to talk. It can be helpful to understand that the person will be experiencing stress, sadness and grief periodically as they recall what has happened to them - whether they are speaking out-loud about it or are experiencing it internally, silently. Often the person that has experienced this trauma is not in control of when, where and how the bad memories appear in his or her current life.
In my opinion, as a therapist, one thing you should not say to the person is "Why didn't you tell someone?" Though it seems like a naturally curious or reasonable question to ask, the reason to not ask this question is that it is exactly what the person who has suffered with the sexual assault or abuse does not want people to say and why they often do not talk to other people about it. In fact they often wonder as adults "Why didn't I say anything?" and then think that there is something wrong with them for never speaking-up as a child. The feelings of shame and guilt that are associated with this questioning of past actions is nearly insurmountable. The emotions are so strong and so confusing that it can actually feel quite damaging for someone to hear this question when they are trying to share their story about their trauma.
The main reason why children, adolescents and young adults do not speak-up and say anything to the adults that are around them when they are being sexually abused or assaulted (or have been) is that they simply can't do it. This is not because they are weak or something is wrong with them. They simply do not have the words for nor the capacity to articulate the sheer horror they have experienced or are experiencing. They also usually have extreme fear of what might happen for speaking-up. Usually they have been strongly coerced and threatened by the perpetrator that they fear for their own safety or other loved ones' safety. Often they have been manipulated into a secret pact with the perpetrator that they can't fully comprehend or navigate their way through to security. Some victims will worry about the domino-effect-type consequences of what might happen in telling. Some victims will worry about what their parents will think and how this news might destroy them, especially if the perpetrator is a family member (like a sibling), an extended family member (an aunt, uncle, grandparent or in-law), a family friend, religious leader, neighbour or school staff member. Sometimes the perpetrator is the parent and when this is the case, it is virtually impossible for the victim to speak-up because of the sacred nature of the parent-child bond and the significance this carries for the child/adolescent/young adult.
The human brain grows and changes as people do. The mental, reasoning and cognitive abilities of a child or young person are not the same as they are for an adult. As an example, the prefrontal cortex, an important part of our brain that is responsible for executive functioning (important decision making), does not fully develop in males until around the age of 28. Yet, we as adults look back at what happened in the past, whether we are the ones that suffered the sexual assault/abuse or we are the ones that are trying to support someone that has been assaulted/abused and wonder "why they didn't do back then what they can do now?" The answer, once again, is because they could not. They now have more tools, power, mental faculties and support as adults than they did when the trauma was occurring. This is why young people are so vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault.
Of course, as a supportive person, you do not intend to impede the therapeutic process for the person that you know who is a victim. So, don't ask that question, "Why didn't you tell someone?". It only adds to the feelings of shame and guilt that the victim feels and gets in the way of the important grief processing and healing that they desperately need. It also detracts from the help you are generously trying to provide.
Blogging about mental health topics that are relevant to counselling and psychotherapy. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.