Bipolar & Forgiveness: I Beg Your Pardon

Last Updated: 15 Oct 2020

Mood symptoms such as overspending, hypersexuality, anger attacks, and self-isolation hurt those around us. A simple apology is just the starting point of making things right.

bipolar disorder forgiveness

When Our Actions during Bipolar Mood Episodes Harm Others

Olivia S. of Colorado got up one morning to unexpectedly find two of her four grown children in her living room. Her 30-year-old daughter had come from California, her 24-year-old son from Iowa. Her husband had called them, hoping they could help with a manic episode Olivia now says she’d refused to recognize.

The presence of her children, and her family’s close oversight over the next few days, made her feel  “smothered,” “embarrassed,” and “humiliated,” she recalls. In response, she said cruel things, things she wishes she could take back.

Olivia emerged from the mood episode with the help of a medication adjustment. In the aftermath, she was deeply worried she’d ruined her relationship with her children for good.

“I was really sorry for being hateful and pushing them away,” says Olivia. “Having bipolar isn’t an excuse to treat people badly, especially people who love you and are trying to help you.”

Bipolar episodes can spark a host of scenarios involving hurtful behavior—whether coming from a place of euphoria and invincibility, impulsivity, triggered trauma, irritability, or apathy and fatigue.

Some transgressions involve “real world” consequences that family has to deal with, such as brushes with the law or spending down savings during a manic spree. The emotional fallout from episode-driven actions can unravel relationships—the betrayal of infidelity due to hypersexuality, the harm and fear caused by physical aggression during an explosive burst of anger, the damage from tearing someone down with verbal abuse.

Then there are more insidious effects that arise from withdrawal and neglect during a depression—not showing up for important events as promised, for example—or from embarrassment caused by inappropriate behavior.

Asking for forgiveness, and thus exposing ourselves to the possibility of rejection, is no easy matter. As a matter of fact, it may be a drawn-out process of apologizing as often as needed, making amends, and attempting to earn back trust.

But the results can be worth it, whether repairing meaningful relationships or simply lifting a significant weight off our souls.

At the least, knowing that we did the best we could to right a wrong—to repair what was broken—can bring a certain level of inner peace and acceptance.

Sometimes that has to be enough, since we can’t expect forgiveness just because we crave it.

“The other person has to be at a place of readiness, and [waiting for] that can be really painful,” says Tasha Nadasdi, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Virginia.

“I see a lot of people who end up damaging the possibility of forgiveness because they can’t tolerate the waiting period, so they push boundaries in the interim.… That ends up being a second issue that compounds the original hurt.”

Knowing that we might face frustration and disappointment doesn’t mean we should shield ourselves from the process, though.

Nadasdi is no fan of the phrase “forgive and forget,” which she describes as a “magical idea” that doesn’t honor the injury.

“Something bad did happen that was very real, so frame asking for forgiveness as, ‘How do we move forward and heal?’ and not, ‘How do we forget and get over it?’”

The Risk and Reward of Apologizing

When Olivia set out to mend fences with her children after the accumulated toll of past manic and depressive episodes, she started with her daughter.

Rather than crafting a long plea or apology, Olivia texted a simple request: Download the song “One Thing Right,” by Marshmello and Kane Brown. The lyrics list one mistake made after another, with the chorus ending: “But I got one thing right, you.”

“I’ve made so many mistakes because of my bipolar,” says Olivia, “but our relationship is better because I took that step. I hope I have her admiration because I was able to admit I was wrong and I am trying my best to be better.”

After a similar conversation with her son, Olivia now realizes the weight of guilt and shame she was carrying around—equivalent to “a hefty bag of garbage,” she says.

“Good people feel bad when they do something that hurts someone else,” says Candyce Ossefort-Russell, LPC-S, a psychotherapist in Texas.

“If you’re remorseful, it still makes you nervous to ask for forgiveness because you don’t know how the other person will respond, but … it actually feels right because you are reaching out.”

Note that remorse differs from shame, which is a feeling that you are unworthy or a terrible person because of your actions. The distinction has to do with regret (a sign of a healthy introspection) versus inadequacy (a fertilizer for depression).

Even without shame, seeking forgiveness can make us feel overly exposed. Taking that step—and make no mistake, admitting to botching or completely blowing up a situation can feel like an overwhelmingly huge step—requires a willingness to make yourself vulnerable, plus some preparation regarding your future behavior.

“If you say, ‘I know I have broken your trust and I want to re-earn your trust,’ that’s a very powerful opening,” says Ossefort-Russell. “Then you can say, ‘These are the boundaries I’m going to put in place,’ or ‘These are the practices I’m going to be using’” to maintain that trust.

“And then, because we always think we know what’s going to help somebody else, ask whether those things will help re-earn the trust,” she adds. “If you don’t get at the breach they felt from what you did, your actions aren’t going to make any repair with that person.”

Appreciating Impact & Aiming for Empathy

Understanding the difference between intent and impact is key in your approach, explains Nadasdi. Rather than seeking to explain or excuse what you did, try instead for empathy.

“Usually, the people who do the harm spend a lot of time focused on their intentions and wanting to prove themselves,” she says, “and what they need to do is understand the impact of what they did, regardless of their intentions. The impact is what matters interpersonally in our relationships.”

For instance, consider replacing, “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” with, “I am deeply sorry I caused you pain.”

That doesn’t mean you won’t get an earful. The other person may be bitter, suspicious, or raging mad.

If that’s the case, Ossefort-Russell suggests putting your hand over your heart to soothe and calm your nervous system, or noticing things around the room to get your thoughts moving from the internal to the external.

Having to bear witness to another person’s anger at something you did may feel nearly intolerable. For Evan C. of Ohio, “It’s like something really strong grabs my stomach, like one of those claw machines that pick up stuffed animals.”

Evan had to learn to be patient after his marriage ended and he wanted to make things right with his ex-wife. He spent years trying to earn back her trust, which had been broken for multiple reasons, some a direct result of manic behavior.

“I just had conversations in little doses, kind of like taking my medication, working up the dosage to where it was therapeutic,” he recalls. “My gut said, ‘I want to get it all out right now and be Mr. Fix-It,’ but my desire for instant gratification wasn’t going to work in this case.”

Those consistent conversations wound up paying off. Evan and his ex-wife now hang out as friends at least once a week.

The Other Side of the Forgiveness Equation

When repeated behavior has eroded trust and goodwill over time, it can feel chancy or even foolhardy for the person on the receiving end to forgive and move forward.

Not every breach can be repaired. Still, don’t abandon hope if your first attempts to apologize are brushed off with responses like, “I don’t want to listen to you,” or, “You’ve hurt me for the last time.”

“It’s easy to get discouraged, but it’s important to remember that people need time to process things,” says Tamara Auger, a licensed professional clinical counselor from New Mexico.

As long as “we can be totally vulnerable, acknowledge our wrongs, be clear about our intentions for how we’re going to be different in the future, and really do our best to stick to that, we may not get a positive response in the moment, but, over time, when people have a chance to reflect some, genuine change can happen.”

In addition to the basics of bipolar management—staying on medication, going to therapy regularly, daily self-care—think about safeguards against your particular patterns and triggers. An apology only goes so far unless strategies are in place for defusing anger, blocking a buying binge, staying faithful, or whatever your most common missteps might be.

Auger emphasizes that people on the receiving end of an apology need to understand that the most dogged attempts to rein in behavior can fail at times.

“When we are not managing our emotions well, we are going to do things we said we weren’t going to do. And that’s human,” she says.

Jacqueline G. of Delaware is open with her friends when she starts to feel unwell as a result of her bipolar I. When they call or email to check on her, though, she can be slow to respond, or she doesn’t respond at all.

Afterward, Jacqueline explains, “I’ll say, ‘It’s not personal. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you, but I can’t promise you it won’t happen again.’ And that’s a really hard thing sometimes.”

That has pushed some close friends into the acquaintance zone.

“While they say they’ve accepted the apology, it really doesn’t feel like it, because they keep harping on it again and again,” explains Jacqueline. “And it feels like somebody has punched me in the stomach, like their words will break me, because the disease already leaves me with a lot of insecurities.”

Drew Lightfoot, a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania, says individuals with bipolar certainly should look at “variables that maybe they have control over” when approaching a conversation with someone they’ve upset or affronted.

On the other hand, friends and family members need to remember “this isn’t about a moral character dilemma or a weakness. This is a medical issue and shouldn’t be confused with anything else,” he says.

In addition, he recommends that people on both sides of the forgiveness equation focus on feelings, rather than on specifics about a particular occasion.

Let’s say that after uncontrolled spending during a manic episode, the household went into debt. Instead of centering the conversation around buying habits or the household budget—easy topics for provoking frustration—turn instead to the feelings underneath that layer.

“Feelings of mistrust, or not being cared for … that’s where the common ground will be,” says Lightfoot.

Own Up to Bipolar-Related Missteps

Olivia, the mother from Colorado, admits it can be difficult to maintain control of her temper when she feels as though people are invalidating her feelings or experiences.

“However,” she cautions, “this is not a free pass to stomp on people, to squash them down, or to hurt them—whether intentionally or not. At the end of the day, you must pick up the results of your actions and own them.”

John S. of California had to do just that after a recent Bible study group held on Zoom, when he tried to make people laugh at the expense of someone else—something that tends to happen when he is hypomanic.

When the study group’s moderator asked people to turn off microphones when not speaking, John tossed off a comment about a relative newcomer: “Bob never contributes anyway.” Most of the others laughed, but John could see from the reaction of Bob’s wife that the remark crossed a line.

John texted the other man an apology that night. When no reply came, he texted again. Bob then wrote back to say he appreciated the apology and asked if they could talk about it the next day.

“We had a long discussion, and, through that, realized how much we have in common,” John says. “At the end, both of us realized we had just made a big step in our relationship. Who knows? Sometimes you do something insensitive like that and a really good thing can come out of it.”

* * * * *

“Amend-ments”—Tips for Making Amends

#1 Learn to Listen

“To sit and hear what someone has to say about how we’ve hurt them is a tremendous step in self-growth,” says Tamara Auger, LPCC. “To make an intentional decision not to disagree or defend yourself or argue, and instead truly take in and feel the pain of how you affected this person, takes a lot of strength.”

#2 Forgive Yourself

“While you may feel guilt or shame, beating yourself up won’t be helpful to you or the one you’ve hurt,” says clinical psychologist Tasha Nadasdi, PsyD. “You are a human who is going to mess up like everybody else. You can know you are a good person who deserves love and connection, and acknowledge that work needs to be done at the same time.”

#3 Resist Oversharing

If you are apologizing to a colleague or boss, you may not want to reveal your diagnosis. Keep it simple: “I’m dealing with some extenuating private circumstances that I’m not going to talk about here, but I think you should know that plays into what happened.”

If you don’t acknowledge that your behavior wasn’t in character, notes psychotherapist Candyce Ossefort-Russell, LPC-S, “people nonverbally can pick up that something is hidden, and that makes things feel yucky for everybody.”

Printed as “I Beg Your Pardon,” Fall 2020

About the author
Robin L. Flanigan is a national award-winning journalist for magazines and newspapers, and author of the children’s book M is for Mindful. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in language and literature from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she worked for eleven years in newsrooms including The Herald-Sun in Durham, North Carolina, and the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York. Her work has earned awards from the Education Writers Association, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, and elsewhere. She also authored a coffee-table book titled Rochester: High Performance for 175 Years. When not writing for work, Robin is usually writing for pleasure, hiking (she climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008), or searching for the nearest chocolate chip cookie. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and daughter, and can be found at or on Twitter: @thekineticpen.
  1. I would like to receive this info as a close family member is a sufferer

  2. I am leaving another comment – amends. Husband was on mobile with fellow alcoholics at a very upper class facility ($100,000). One person in treatment said he was trying to make amends with his kids. My
    husband commented that “ he doesn’t do that”!

  3. I’m the spouse of a [person with] BP2 . I am the person whose husband behaved inappropriately while hypersexual. The article was spot on when it referred to the wayward spouse not being patient while the betrayed is healing. My world was devastated and then blame was placed upon me for his behavior (while unmedicated). Healing is STILL taking place and it’s been 3 LONG years. I understand it is a medical condition and that is the only reason I could wrap my head around even thinking about staying. The memories haunt me daily. I wonder if they will ever quiet. Forgiveness feels like I’m surrendering my hurt and having to just live with it. I wonder often if he’s right and “I’ll never get by it”. Intimacy within marriage is sacred to me. Only time will tell.

  4. The people I know with bipolar never apologize. Never. If you try to bring it up they shut you down. What is that about? How hard is it to say two words: I’m sorry. It makes them seem even more indifferent and cruel than the cutting off did. If you don’t want people in your life that’s fine, but if you do then treat them like human beings instead of disposable garbage.

    1. I’ve apologized to my grown up children many times for their childhood. I don’t know how much I hey forgive me. My relationship with one is closer than the other. I don’t blame them, but there seems to be nothing more than I can say. I am now on meds that help, but sometimes it still is hard. I love them so much and still feel guilty.

    2. Funny, I find the opposite. I have bipolar disorder, and when I forthrightly apologize, some people completely shut down. I’m sorry you have people in your life who can’t apologize. And I hope they have the opportunity to apologize when they are in their right minds – we can’t expect them to manage it when they are depressed, manic, or mixed-state

  5. IT’S BI POLAR DAY – 30/3/21
    I read many articles on line, about peoples struggles with Bi Polar. Thought maybe there was someone out there who needed to hear my story and receive the encouragement to do what’s best, for their own peace and happiness.

    I was quite old when diagnosed with BiPolar 11 years ago. I was 57 when I first tried to take my own life. Although I have suffered mania on a handful of occasions, I mainly suffer from severe depression. Many of the psychiatrists I’ve meet along the way, have explained I have experienced three components which may have very likely triggered my illness. Although never diagnosed my Mother and Grandmother displayed very similar behaviour to my own. Mum particularly could become terribly depressed at times but experienced more mania symptoms than myself. She received no treatment at all, as there was little known about BiPolar at this time. It was very difficult for the whole family to cope, as she switched from severe depression to mania quite frequently.
    At 8 years of age, I was sexually abused by my 16 year old brother. The episodes divided my family. My brother was very manipulative and told my Mother on several occasions, not to bother telling our Father as he would never believe her. Dad would often say “ your Mother is a good woman, but she’s mad”. My brother would often threaten to take my Mother’s life if she ever told anyone about his sexual abuse towards me. Mum and I kept his abuse secret, until she died. She did her best to protect me until I was married at 19. Our marriage wasn’t perfect, but three years later we had our first daughter. She was the perfect child and still is. Our second daughter who arrived two years later, was the complete opposite and our relationship was always very difficult. She could never live up to her sister,so deliberately chose to behave very badly to get her share of attention. I do prayer that she will never experience Bi Polar.
    It wasn’t until the age of 40 that my husband had his first affair. Although he returned home in 12 months our marriage suffered badly. We tried several counselling sessions, but I felt so betrayed, I never felt I could trust him again.
    My mother passed away, when I was 56, after a long illness with Alzheimer’s. We often thought it was the most peaceful she ever looked, having no memories of her tormented life. But it was particularly hard on my middle brother and myself. As she came to the end of her life, I became obsessed that the truth had to be told. I begged my eldest brother to come forward and tell the truth, about his sexual abuse and how he’d threatened my mother’s life, in order for her to keep her silence. He refused so I told our family what had really happened 48 years ago. My families reactions varied from disbelief, anger to revenge.
    My own husband was very angry that I’d never told him and that I may have put our own daughters at risk.
    We rarely saw this brother and made sure I never left my daughters alone with him. I was so confused by the varied reactions, I was starting to regret my decision to tell everyone the truth.
    Losing my mother, I had also lost my best friend, protector and only confidant. This was the begging of my Bi Polar journey. The next 10 years were the worst of my life and don’t really wish to dwell on it very much.
    During this time my relationships with my daughters and husband deteriorated badly. My daughters were so very confused and didn’t cope well with the changes in my behaviour. My husband was completely overwhelmed, trying to cope with the fluctuations in my moods.I‘d made 3 unsuccessful attempts to take my life during this time and spent quite a lot of time in physciatric hospitals. At first my husband was an enthusiastic carer but as my condition worsened he lost interest in me and we began drifting further and further apart. I begged him for more intimacy in our relationship, but during this time he had been involved in more affairs and had no physical need for me at all. I’d threatened to leave him several times, to which he laughed and stated “YOU WILL NEVER LEAVE ME, YOU COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT ME”. He was the trigger to my depressive episodes which had become more frequent. I spoke to my psychiatrists many times about leaving my husband, their only advice was to make sure I was feeling strong and had the determination to carry it through.
    I DID and I’m living proof, that people with BiPolar CAN live on their own and experience the peace, wellness and happiness they deserve. I’m not going to tell you it was easy.I had many hurdles to overcome and lots of new skills to learn. Even lost and regained my relationships with my two beautiful daughters. I tried 10 years ago to leave my husband and the toxic environment I was living. But it just wasn’t the right time, I didn’t have the strength and determination to see it through.


    1. I recently left my husband after years in an abusive relationship. It took years of planning but I am finally free.

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