Even if you didn't mean it, you need to take steps to fix this sitch"


So, our bodies are insane. We have systems that monitor breathing so we automatically inhale extra oxygen when we’re running and less when we’re sleeping. We come with built-in warning sensors that stop us touching 'burny' things. We also have an amazing chemical reaction known as ‘guilt’ that switches on an error signal when we’ve crossed the line...

Sure, some people have their 'guiltometers' set to over-sensitive levels: If you’re still feeling bad about ‘a thought’ you had five years ago, it might be time to get over it. But when your words or actions have affected someone else and the guilt-sensor kicks in, you need to take notice. Like holding your breath, if you try to ignore these feelings – by making up excuses, blaming someone else or pretending that what we said wasn’t really that bad – the guilt-alarm will continue to flash. 

It doesn’t matter whether you meant to hurt someone or not, whether you think they’re being over-sensitive or even how long ago it happened. Their experience of being hurt is their experience and that has to be respected. We can’t control how other people feel, only our own behaviour. It’s not about being right or wrong, guilty or innocent. It’s about someone else being hurt as a result of something we said. Time to own it.

So, what line have you crossed? Did you:

  • Degrade or insult?
  • Control or harass?
  • Scare or intimidate?
  • Ignore or deny someone’s right to an opinion?
  • Humiliate or abuse someone – either publicly or online?
  • Try to pressure someone into sex or have sex without being sure they were consenting?
  • Physically assault someone?

If you’re not sure how serious your actions were, talk to 1800MYLINE – they’re an excellent advice service that’s free from most phones and completely confidential. They’ll advise you on whether you should sit down with the other person and talk it through, or seek legal advice/talk to police. You can also contact the Men’s Referral Service (1300 766 491) who offer anonymous and confidential telephone counselling, information and referrals to help men to stop using violent and controlling behaviour.

So, the hard part: apologising. Actually, that’s not that hard – the hard part is realising you need to apologise, then making the decision to do it. So by now you’re more than two-thirds of the way to completing your mission. Be sure the other person is going to be open to an apology. If you’re no longer on speaking terms with them, they may find your attempt to apologise more traumatic than just leaving them alone.

If you think they are up for an apology, it’s important to make sure your apology is genuine – Not one of those half-arsed apologies like, “I am sorry IF I hurt you”. Stand up, knowing that you’ve done wrong, and mean it. This simple act can help everyone start feeling better.

So, here’s a go-to checklist for when the guiltometer is red-lining:

  1. Recognise what it is you’ve done and how you’ve crossed the line
  2. Consider how the other person(s) may feel as a result of what you’ve done
  3. If you need to, seek info/advice on your situation and the best course of action – either from a trusted friend, from 1800MYLINE or by checking out some of the other services on our Get help page
  4. If appropriate, apologise – and mean it.
  5. Make a promise to yourself – and, if it’s appropriate, to the other person(s) – to never act that way again.

Now remember, just because you’ve apologised, doesn’t mean the event has been deleted from history. Whatever you did or said may stay with someone for a long time. Saying sorry won’t always make everything better, but it’s a damn good start. And even if you feel you may have hurt someone, but aren’t sure, apologising can be the best starting strategy. Chances are they’ll let you know how they feel and will usually be grateful that you’ve thought about them. Thanks, guilt!