When You Harm: How to Make Amends

I want to talk about being a work in progress. I am a work in progress. I used to be invested in respectability politics. I used to trust history books and I never questioned much.

I used to believe in boot straps and was ok with insensitive jokes about marginalized groups. I used to live my life thru the white gaze. I enjoy a lot of thin, light skin, cishetero privilege. I have used my privilege as weapons in a variety of ways. I have been ignorantly (willful or not) and recklessly violent with my words, while at the same time being a target of violence myself.

I was oblivious to my own oppression but privileged and problematic as fuck. Black women taught me a lot about myself and about the harm I was causing. Marginalized people in many spaces had the grace and the patience to teach me about myself.

I always knew better but, I never cared to care and it hurt to unpack that. It still hurts to unpack this lifetime of conditioning from the cishetero, white supremacist, Christian, patriarchy. The single, most important rule I have tried to abide by is:

I am capable of doing harm

The impact of our potential to harm is NEVER minimized by saying, “I didn’t mean it.” I surely hope not but, truthfully, you probably did for whatever unconscious reason you’ve yet to unpack. We do harm to other, usually, more vulnerable folks than us because we can and whether we admit it or not, it feels good to assert that power and privilege. What happens, though, when you don’t want to be a shitty person anymore?

Make amends:

The last few years have been an exercise in reckoning with my problematic ways and making amends for them. Everyone’s path to healing and wholeness is different but the concept of sorry is a lifetime commitment, more than a turn of phrase. Sorry in the context I mean it here, is a verb. To be actively sorry is to be constantly self-aware and doing my best not to repeat the patterns of behavior that lead to harm. It is understanding my own responsibility in the pain I’ve caused. It is sincerely feeling bad for hurting another individual and working to eradicate the toxicity that led to it. No one is under any obligation to accept my sorry but I should still be sorry anyway. Forgiveness is not for everyone and it isn’t a prerequisite to doing better after inflicting harm.

Avoid Self Victimization

The response to any harm done is never pretty. If someone has hurt me, they don’t get to tell me how to respond. If I have hurt someone, I don’t get to tell them how to respond. The worst thing I can do is turn that response into an attack on me. Self victimization attempts to erase the harm I’ve caused. It turns the tables on the situation and centers my reactive pain to someone’s visceral response to the harm they have endured. It may be true that their response hurts the person who harmed them, but that’s the consequence to having done someone harm. I must accept it and find a way to deal that doesn’t center my emotional state. If I never want to have that experience again, I’ll do my best not to be harmful in the future.

Apologize with Sincerity

Being sorry isn’t about obtaining forgiveness from the person I’ve harmed. It is about fully feeling empathy over the impact my actions have had and doing my absolute best to provide the most thoughtful response to that pain that I can give. It is about comfort. It might be the last loving act you are able to express to the person you harmed. It should come from a sincere place or do not bother. Fucking up an apology can do more harm. Don’t try it if you don’t actually mean it.

Shut up and Listen

Whether I have apologized or not, the next and final step is to shut my mouth and listen for a response. It may come right away, it may never come at all, but I should shut up about it and wait for as long as it takes. Not getting the response I was hoping for doesn’t mean I am now entitled to cause further harm with shit talk and spun narratives. If I am sincere in my quest to reduce my harm, I deal with the consequences as they are dealt and I do so with integrity.

If we’re treating each other terribly, and saying terrible things about each other [online] it doesn’t get us where we need to be. Patrisse Khan-Cullors with Vice magazine

It’s likely that at some point or another we’ve all treated someone(s) terribly. I know the truth of that sting. I have felt the pain and isolation myself. It hurts, at least I hope it does. Stay there and feel it. I had to sit in that pain fully and wrestle, reckon, and feel it authentically to truly make amends and heal.

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