I’m sorry is one of the first things we’re taught to say as children, yet some adults refuse to apologize even when they’re clearly in the wrong. The question is: Why?
Elton John wasn’t kidding: Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Some people find it so hard to apologize that getting them to admit to even the smallest wrongdoing involves a major battle—and often a fruitless one. Although we might perceive the reluctance of these non-apologists as simple defensiveness or pride, often a far deeper psychological dynamic is at play: Refusing to apologize often reflects efforts to protect a fragile sense of self.
Apologies can vary greatly in their significance. When non-apologists bump into someone in a crowd, they might mumble a quick "I’m sorry" without giving it another thought. But the same person arguing about with their spouse about directions might yell, “I’m telling you the GPS is wrong, take this left!” only to find out the satellite system was correct—and still adamantly refuse to apologize, perhaps calling on excuses such as, “You take the wrong exit all the time, too!” or “That GPS is wrong half the time anyway—it’s not my fault!”
Similarly, when our actions or inactions cause someone actual harm, real emotional distress, or significant inconvenience, most of us quickly offer a sincere apology, both because it is deserved and because it’s the best way to garner forgiveness and alleviate the guilt we feel. But in these situations, too, non-apologists typically use excuses and denial to shirk their responsibility. Why?
Why Apologies Threaten Non-Apologists
For non-apologists, saying "I’m sorry" carries psychological ramifications that run far deeper than the words themselves imply; it elicits fundamental fears (either conscious or unconscious) they desperately want to avoid:
- Admissions of wrong doing are incredibly threatening for non-apologists because they have trouble separating their actions from their character. If they did something bad, they must be bad people; if they were neglectful, they must be fundamentally selfish and uncaring; if they were wrong, they must be ignorant or stupid, etc. Therefore, apologies represent a major threat to their basic sense of identity and self-esteem.
- Apologizing might open the door to guilt for most of us, but for non-apologists, it can open the door instead to shame. While guilt makes us feel bad about our actions, shame makes them feel bad about their selves—who they are—which makes shame a far more toxic emotion than guilt.
- While most of us consider apologies as opportunities to resolve interpersonal conflict, non-apologists may fear their apology will only open the floodgates to further accusations and conflict. Once they admit to one wrongdoing, surely the other person will pounce on the opportunity to pile on all the previous offenses for which they refused to apologize as well.
- Non-apologists fear that by apologizing, they would assume full responsibility and relieve the other party of any culpability—if arguing with a spouse, for example, they might fear an apology would exempt the spouse from taking any blame for a disagreement, despite the fact that each member of a couple has at least some responsibility in most arguments.
- By refusing to apologize, non-apologists are trying to manage their emotions. They are often comfortable with anger, irritability, and emotional distance, and experience emotional closeness and vulnerability to be extremely threatening. They fear that lowering their guard even slightly will make their psychological defenses crumble and open the floodgates to a well of sadness and despair that will pour out of them, leaving them powerless to stop it. They might be correct. However, they are incorrect in assuming that exhibiting these deep and pent-up emotions (as long as they get support, love, and caring when they do—which fortunately, is often the case), will be traumatic and damaging. Opening up in such a way is often incredibly therapeutic and empowering, and it can lead them to experience far deeper emotional closeness and trust toward the other person, significantly deepening their relationship satisfaction.
View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
You might be interested in: The Science of Effective Apologies
For more about how apologies impact relationships, as well as how to manage feelings of guilt, check out my new book: Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014)
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