What to Do When You Say Something Hurtful That You Can't Take Back

How to Mend a Friendship When You've Gone Too Far With Your Words

man and woman arguing
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Did you just say something you can't take back? We've all done it at least once with a friend. These aren't momentary "oops" statements (in which you say something dumb and hurtful without meaning to cause harm), but nasty, negative things (even if they are true) that you know are going to cause your friend hurt or heartache.

You may, for example, tell your friend's secret in front of a group, make a snarky comment that should have been kept in, or expose a confidence that will embarrass your friend.

As a friend, you know the hot buttons in your friend's life​ and should do all you can to avoid setting them off.

Once you say something like this, you can't just say "I was kidding" or "I didn't really mean it." Your friend will know better. You also can't turn it around and try and accuse your friend of taking it the wrong way.

You most likely know the things that will set your friend off, and when you bring them up you need to take responsibility for trying to cause emotional pain for your friend. Perhaps there is a reason you feel the need to do this. Maybe you are angry at them for something or feel that they have been careless in the way they've treated you. You don't have to accept behavior that bothers you, but saying something hurtful to even the score isn't the way to go.

Here's what to do if you've already crossed the line.

Apologize

A sincere apology is key to getting beyond a verbal faux pas.

You can't pretend that you didn't know your friend was going to be offended at what you said or that you hadn't meant it negatively. A good apology can help you both get beyond whatever is holding you back from being sincere, connected friends.

Before you apologize, take a deep breath. Give it a few moments, so you apologize from the heart and don't simply react to what's happening between you and your friend.

Don't Make Excuses

The one place friends usually mess up when it comes to moving forward after saying the wrong thing is after the apology. They might take responsibility and provide a sincere apology and then follow it up with an excuse, like:

  • "Well, you know what I said was true."
  • "I was just mad, I didn't really mean it."
  • "You've said things like that to me."
  • "I didn't realize you were going to get so upset about it."

Don't sully your apology with an excuse. If your friend won't accept the apology, then you have to work through things until that can happen.

Give Your Friend Some Time to Process Their Reaction

Sometimes a friend will react immediately when you say something wrong, and other times it takes a bit. Everyone is different. Never expect your friend to just "get over it" as quickly as you think you would have if the situation were reversed. Everyone is different. Introverts, especially, may need some time just to think about what's happened before they truly know how they feel about it.

You might instantly realize you said something wrong and apologize, only to have your friend nod in agreement. You might then think it's over, but perhaps it really isn't. Give your friend some time to process everything, from what was said to your apology and any discussion that might have happened after that.

But not too much time! If your friend begins to pull away from you, make an effort to put things right.

Accept That Your Friendship May Change Permanently

It'd be nice if we could always mend our friendships, but there are some things that once said, do irreparable harm to the relationship. If this is the case, your friend may decide not to continue with the friendship, or keep you at arm's length.

Accept that at the very least, your friend might need to build up trust with you again. Perhaps they will be more guarded for a while and not share their secrets or true feelings about certain things until they're sure you won't throw it back at them again at some point.

It can be frustrating when you are sorry for something you did and yet your friend still can't forgive you. Or even when they forgive but they can't totally forget what went on.

But give it time, and continue to show your friend that you value their friendship and want to treat them with respect.