Feeling Bad is Not the Same Thing As Being Sorry

CW: Discussion of Racism, Brock Turner, Abuse, Assault.

There is this concept that I was taught growing up Catholic. It’s basically this: in order to actually earn god’s forgiveness during the sacrament of confession, it wasn’t enough to simply perform a recitation of your sins. You had to truly be sorry which meant not only regretting having done it or “feeling bad”, but acknowledging and accepting that what you had done was wrong, as well as a determination to do what you could to not repeat the sin. Without these elements, one could not actually receive absolution – supernatural forgiveness.

I disagree with a LOT of Catholic doctrine and policies, not to mention the acts of the church itself, but there is a lesson in this concept, which when removed from its religious entanglements, has a lot of relevance to our modern society. It’s one, ironically enough, that many Catholics themselves forget as well.

Too often, we as a society act as though people are entitled to forgiveness, especially if they say that they’re sorry or demonstrate some sort of bad feeling about what they’ve done. Too often, the mental and emotional labour of a given conflict is forced on the injured party.

Despite having been the one initially harmed by the interaction or inciting event, the onus is still on the victim to solve the conflict through a demonstration of forgiveness, often while the initial harm remains unacknowledged or outright ignored in favour of prioritizing the transgressor’s bad feeling. Beyond that, there is this sentiment that even acknowledging that hurt was done, or in any way bringing up the result of the transgression is treated as an unfair attack on the inciting person.

College Humour made a humorous sketch video showing what is meant to be a hyperbolic example of this in a situation where a white man makes a racist joke “by accident” to a woman of colour during what appears to be a work party.

The other party attendees in reaction focus all their attention on the white man and how horrible he must feel over having made that mistake, and going out of their way to comfort him for that horrible feeling.

Meanwhile, the woman of colour, Rekha, is completely ignored, her feelings are dismissed, her hurt is unacknowledged except as a plot point in explaining the emotional trauma suffered by the white man for having made such a comment. She is offered no comfort whatsoever, not even in the recognition that the comment itself was fucked up. When she tries to bring up what just happened to at least receive some acknowledgement of the harm that was just done, and the fact that it was done TO her, the perception is that she is unjustifiably attacking the man who made the racist comment. The simple acknowledgement of harm done is perceived as being an act of harm in itself.

The fuss is made before even an apology is issued, and when an insincere apology IS offered, complete with eye roll, the act of just voicing acknowledgement of what occurred is treated as a complete act towards contrition.

While the video was obviously meant as parody, the actual circumstance it depicted is not actually uncommon on both micro and macro scales.

Situations where someone’s trust was violated, for example, where the violation of trust caused a disconnect from necessary support systems, and where revealing the identity of the boundary violator might be a step towards helping the person rebuild the necessary trust, the identity of the transgressor is instead protected because “they feel bad”. Or where the person is still welcomed into the community because “they feel bad about what they’ve done” with no consideration to how their inclusion makes the victim feel, or even where any expressed discomfort is punished as being unfair.

Similarly, when someone is physically hurt by someone else’s actions, making any mention of being in pain or referencing some related difficulty or need, is treated as an attack. The implication being that because the other person feels bad or apologized, making them aware of the realities of the situation they’ve caused or having to face the consequences of their actions is somehow unfair.  I don’t mean the abuse technique sometimes people face, where someone is intentionally trying to make the other person feel bad by bringing up past issues, or through performative exaggeration of their injury. But times when, for example, someone’s actions resulted in say increased back pain, and being accused of unfairly punishing someone for daring to make a noise of pain when having to bend over to pick something up, or worse still, ask for help in picking it up.

On a Macro scale, we see this trend in publicized cases of sexual assault, where the act of seeking a legal conviction for a rapist is seen as somehow victimizing the rapist. Where the expectation that someone who committed a crime such as rape be held responsible for breaking the law by subjecting them to the actually legally defined punishment for committing that act, is seen as being vindictive, or unfair. Where the person who committed the crime is treated as its victim, while the ACTUAL victim themselves is made out to be the attacker, the aggressor, the unreasonable one.

It’s important to note, that very often this behaviour is most often present in cases where the person who did the thing that needs apologizing for is privileged in some way or ways, over the person receiving the insult. In the video, the offending person is not only white while the person receiving the insult is a person of colour, the former is also male while the latter is female.

“Say You’re Sorry”

Part of the reason why stuff like this happens is through a misunderstanding that feeling bad is the same thing as being sorry, similarly, that apologizing is the same as actually BEING sorry. In order to actually BE SORRY, you have to feel bad for what you’ve done yes, but you also have to understand why what you did was a problem.  You have to feel bad for the right reason.

There are many reasons why someone might feel bad after the fact that has nothing to do with regretting their actions or their behaviour. For example, they may feel bad because they’re actually being made to face the consequences of their behaviour or because they know the social expectation is for them to feel bad. Someone who feels bad about what they did because they fear punishment for their actions, isn’t upset because they caused harm but because they were caught. A person like that has little motivation not to repeat the act if they can make sure that the consequences can be avoided.

This conflation of bad feeling and remorse starts in childhood, when teachers or babysitters force a child to apologize to another for some action, saying things like “don’t you feel bad?” without more clarification over why they should.  When we don’t make an effort to explain to children why something they’ve done is wrong, about why their action should carry remorse, then we teach children that the fear of getting caught is the same thing as remorse. That not wanting to face punishment is the same thing as believing that something is wrong. That not wanting to face the social consequences of believing a harmful thing is the same thing as not believing the harmful thing.

It’s not just outside observers, or the victim, who get fooled because of this lesson, but individuals themselves. Those doing the hurtful act may honestly believe that they are sorry because they’re scared of the social consequence of doing the wrong thing. They may honestly believe that because social consequence keeps them from making certain comments or jokes, that that is the same thing as thinking that those comments or jokes are bad.

Since the fear of social punishment is seen as the same as remorse, when someone is made to face the reality of what it is they did and then legitimately feels bad about THAT, it’s seen as an attack, because they already felt bad so why did you have to go and hurt their feelings too.

Because their actions are guided not out of genuine remorse but out of fear, the actions that follow their expression of remorse don’t support that expression. The apology seems insincere because it’s not based on genuine regret for pain caused but rather regret for unpleasantness received. Eventually a pattern forms whereby the apologies appear performative rather than genuine, and the person is written off as being bigoted and unwilling to face their own privilege.

From the perspective of the person written off, however, it appears that they were dropped for no apparent reason, or that they are being punished for simply making a mistake. In reality, it wasn’t one mistake, but a pattern of mistakes from which you were unwilling to learn more deeply than superficially understanding just enough to avoid making that specific mistake again, but not well enough to understand the underlying issue and so address the actual root of the problem. It is the difference between understanding the rules and understanding the game, or rather, it is the difference between “How can I avoid getting in trouble?” and “How can I avoid doing harm?”

This is not to say that someone with genuine remorse won’t be afraid of the social consequences of their actions. There is an element of this that is human instinct; there is a naturally selfish component to every individuals way of thinking, it has to do with the fight for survival. But the mark of someone who is legitimately trying to be good, is in being able to also prioritize the need s of another individual in the understanding that as a social animal species, we may survive on our own, but we THRIVE together, and so work towards reducing overall harm.

What the hell does all that mean?

When you’re legitimately sorry, you want to do what you can to make sure that you won’t hurt the other person again. Let’s use the example of the video which for simplicity we’ll call “making a racist comment by accident.”

If you legitimately feel bad for what you’ve done, your prioritized concern should be the individual you harmed directly. This means first of all, addressing that you understand that what just happened is wrong and that you don’t take it lightly. This is where intent versus impact comes into play.

Did the guy, right before giving his answer, think to himself: “Hmmm I’m going to make a racist remark right now.” No. Nor did he think “What is the best way to cause Rekha pain right now”. No.
((Ok, realistically we don’t know that and current events have shown us that in day to day situations we CANNOT go with the benefit of the doubt because people are legit dying. However, in this case in order to address the most common way I’ve seen it play out between friends rather than between individuals, and for the sake of simplifying the post, I’m going with the benefit of the doubt. Though I plan on bringing up the other later in the post?))

Regardless of whether that was his intention or not though, the result was that a comment was made which had heavy racist implications given the person to whom they were said, and that Rekha was hurt.  It doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to hurt her, that he doesn’t actually believe WHAT he said, he STILL SAID IT.

The remorse one feels for having done that, is NOTHING in comparison to the pain of having had it done to you.

His failure to stop the other people’s fawning only made it clear that he didn’t understand that fact. That neither did any of those who witnessed the interaction. To them, Brian’s pain was most valid, more real, than Rekha’s pain.

He could have demonstrated his understanding of that fact by:
a. Rather than letting the silence drag on, immediately address the fact that what just happened was wrong.

b. When the others began to fawn over him, it was his responsibility in that moment to take on the burden of making it clear that the blame for his bad feelings was his own actions while Rekha’s bad feelings were not of her own making but again his fault. He had a responsibility to point out how the act of prioritizing his feeling over hers in that moment was itself ALSO racist.

c. If he didn’t understand all that, he could still have made an effort to make amends to Rekha. He could have apologized right away and asked what he could do to make it up to her or to make her feel more comfortable again – including by offering to remove himself from the situation. Once he was on his own, however, it’s his responsibility to think about how and why the mistake happened, because ultimately this is the most important part of actually being sorry.

He needed to take a moment to understand that the problem wasn’t just that the comment was made. For the comment to be made in error in such a way, the thought behind it not only has to exist, but be so internalized as to not pop out at you as out of the ordinary in a relaxed state. Does that mean you are a racist person? Not necessarily. What it means is that you are a product of a racist society and so have internalized social messages and stereotypes. If you don’t want to BE a racist, then it’s your job to educate yourself on what those internalized perceptions are and to learn how to be on guard against their influence.

You might not be able to stop yourself from having the thought pop into your mind, but you can control what happens from there. If you know that sometimes you can say something before even realizing what it is you are saying, than part of being sorry means working on that. It means creating an internal sense of rejection and revulsion of those thoughts, even when you know no one else can hear them simply because YOU reject them. It might not be easy at first, but the more you work on it, the more it can become a habit. It just has to matter to you.

Because ultimately that is what it comes down to, how much does not doing the bad thing again matter to you? How much do you care about the harm done? It’s asking yourself WHAT can I do to prevent this happening again, rather than just asking if there is something you can do.

It’s not enough just to feel bad, you have to want to change and make an honest effort to do so, and be willing to start working on it right away. You have to be willing to make it about someone other than yourself.

It’s not enough to just want to be different than people who are racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but who toe the line of social convention, you have to actively be different. Otherwise, your results are the same, and the person on the receiving end has no way to tell the difference until it’s too late.

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Feeling Bad is Not the Same Thing As Being Sorry
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