Challenges to Forgiveness: Admitting Wrongdoing


Sometimes the greatest challenge to forgiveness and reconciliation is accepting responsibility and admitting that you’re in the wrong.  Of course, it’s only natural to want to blame others for our actions to avoid taking responsibility: “Yes, I lashed out at him, but he provoked me!”  We’ve all been there.  Maybe some of us even think we shouldn’t apologize because we didn’t do anything wrong.  Sometimes that is true, but often times, even when someone else has done something to hurt us, we’re also guilty of how we reacted.

“But emotions are a natural response and I can’t help how I feel!”  That’s true, but we can control how we respond to others when our emotions overwhelm us.  Even when we are feeling hurt or angry, we can choose to control our urge to lash out, to inflict pain on the person that’s wronged us, or to make them pay for hurting us.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that sometimes, even mature adults fail to control their emotions when someone hurts them.  So what do we do to restore relationships when we’ve responded negatively towards someone when they’ve hurt us?

One option is to do nothing and hope the situation goes away.  That’s an okay option if you have no interest in restoring your relationship.  Another option is to hold out and wait for the other person to apologize first.  After all, if they started the conflict, surely they should be the first person to admit wrongdoing.  But that solution may lead to a very long cold war where both parties are waiting so long for the other to initiate peace talks that they have both forgotten what the initial point of contention was about!

A third option is to try to be the bigger person and to acknowledge your own faults: “When you said _________, I felt hurt, disappointed, angry (fill in the blank).  I let my emotions get the best of me and I lashed out on you.  I shouldn’t have responded that way.  I was wrong to speak to you that way and I’m sorry.” In this scenario, you are not accepting blame for causing the initial conflict, but importantly, you are also not blaming the other person for your response and behavior.  This is what it means to accept responsibility for your wrongs and demonstrate that a) you are sincere in your apology; and b) you desire to restore the relationship.

Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Jennifer Thomas describe this acceptance of responsibility as a type of apology language, noting that for some people, a sincere apology must demonstrate that the offender has accepted responsibility for how they hurt the offended.  They argue:

Mature adults learn to accept responsibility for their behavior, whereas immature adults continue with childish fantasies and tend to blame others for their mistakes (1).

If you’ve ever responded negatively toward someone who hurt you because you let your emotions got the best of you, consider the “Agree/Disagree Approach”:

I agree that I have a right to feel hurt, angry, disappointed, and frustrated or whatever else I may be feeling.  I don’t choose my feelings; I simply experience them.  On the other hand, I disagree with the idea that because of my feelings, I have the right to hurt someone else with my words or behaviors.  To hurt my [spouse, friend, etc.] because [they] hurt me is like declaring civil war, a war in which there are no winners (2).

In this way, even if you feel the other person has wronged you, you can walk away from the situation without causing additional damage to the relationship.  It is much easier to restore relationships when things have not regressed to tit-for-tat warfare.

Are you in the midst of a conflict that you didn’t start, but deep down you know that you also reacted wrongly by letting your emotions dictate your response?  If so, don’t enter a cold war waiting for the other person to apologize first.  Accept responsibility for how you behaved; apologize and see where that leads.  It might just be that by taking the first step, you’ll lean closer to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Have you found yourself in a situation like the one I’ve described here? Do you need to apologize for hurting someone but feel like you can’t do it? If so, what do you think is holding you back? Alternatively, have you apologized to someone for lashing out at them but they haven’t apologized to you for their behavior? If so, why do you think they are holding back? How does their lack of apology affect the restoration of the relationship?


1-2) Jennifer Thomas and Gary Chapman, The Five Language of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships. 2006. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.

About lkgraham

I am an academic who specializes in the field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. I am a lecturer in Peace and Justice Studies at Tufts University in Boston, MA, where I teach social justice, conflict resolution, human rights and genocide. I spent five years in Northern Ireland studying conflict resolution and peace processes, where I conducted my doctoral research on victim support groups arising as a result of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I live in New Jersey with my husband and dog. The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization or institution with whom I am affiliated.
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