One of the first things we’re taught to say as children is, I’m sorry, yet some people refuse to apologize even when they’re clearly in the wrong. The question is, why?
Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
Elton John wasn’t kidding. 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 losing one. Although we might perceive the reluctance of non-apologists as simple defensiveness or pride, a far deeper psychological dynamic is often 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 GPS was correct—and then adamantly refuse to apologize (using excuses such as, “You take the wrong exit all the time too!” and “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 would quickly offer a sincere apology, both because one is deserved and because it’s the best way to garner forgiveness and alleviate the guilt we feel. But here too, non-apologists typically use excuses and denial to shirk their responsibility. Why?
Why Apologies Are Threatening to Non-Apologists
For non-apologists, saying ‘I’m sorry’ carries psychological ramifications that run far deeper than the words themselves imply as it elicits fundamental fears (either conscious or unconscious) they desperately attempt to avoid:
1. 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.
2. Apologizing might open the door to guilt for most of us, but for non-apologists, it can open the door to shame instead. 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.
3. While most of us consider apologies as opportunities to resolve interpersonal conflict, non-apologists 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.
4. Non-apologists fear that by apologizing they would assume full responsibility and relieve the other party of any culpability (e.g., if arguing with their spouse, they fear an apology would exempt their spouse from taking any blame for the disagreement—despite the fact that each member of a couple has at least some responsibility in most relationship arguments).
5. 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, making them powerless to stop it—and they might be correct too! 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 for them, and it can lead them to experience far deeper emotional closeness and trust toward the other person than they had before—thereby significantly deepening their relationship satisfaction.
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: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013)
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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
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