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Forgiveness

How to Stop Blaming Yourself for Other People’s Problems

New research suggests how to avoid self-blame for the misfortune of others.

Key points

  • The tendency to blame yourself for everything, or "over-apologizing," can lead you to feel unnecessarily distressed.
  • New research shows what elements of a situation lead people to take the perspective of someone who's been wronged.
  • By scaling back your automatic empathy and looking more objectively at situations, you avoid the tendency to apologize for everything.
Vlad Valinurov/Shutterstock
Source: Vlad Valinurov/Shutterstock

How many times do you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” for something that is not at all your fault? Perhaps you saw your partner leaving the house wearing shoes intended for indoor wear. An hour later, you receive a distressed call from your partner who’s just fallen down on the sidewalk, resulting in a twisted ankle. You blame yourself for not having prevented your partner from changing shoes and apologize profusely.

Consider another scenario. A friend receives a diagnosis of a serious illness and shares this information with you. “I’m sorry” is your first response. It's a natural enough expression, but in reality, what should you actually be sorry for? Indeed, when you stop and think about it, do you tend to say you’re sorry on a pretty frequent basis, including the many instances when someone lets you know of bad news? Similarly, how much personal responsibility do you tend to take when someone else makes a mistake that, theoretically, you could have prevented?

These situations beg the question of whether your immediate expression of sorrow is rational when you are in no way to blame for an outcome. On the other hand, might you honestly feel so much empathy for the other person that the response isn’t automatic at all? You’ve put yourself in the other person’s place and can vividly imagine what it’s like to become hurt or sick.

Indeed, it might not even take something going wrong to stimulate your apology. Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone else receiving harsh treatment through a verbal lashing from someone else. It aches as you identify with the victim. In reality, the unfortunate situation has nothing to do with you directly, but you can’t stop yourself from imagining how that poorly treated individual is feeling.

Self-Blame, Self-Criticism, Regret, and Empathy

There is surprisingly little research on apologies made for events that people didn’t cause. The literature instead focuses on self-criticism as a component of depression indicating that the tendency to regard yourself as the cause of other people’s woes can place you at risk for chronic feelings of sadness. Similarly, researchers approach self-blame as a feature of the depressed person’s tendency to focus criticism inward. Studies on regret for bad behavior don’t apply to the over-apologizer, because such research involves situations in which you did harm someone else.

To understand the mindset of the chronic apologizer, it can be helpful to turn to the topic of empathy, in which your tendency to feel bad when others do can be part of a larger tendency to put yourself in other people’s places in situations involving the expression of emotions. Looking specifically at this phenomenon in workplace settings, London School of Economics' Tara Reich and colleagues (2021) sought to investigate what happens to observers when they are the unintended witness to the harsh treatment of an employee by a supervisor. Their research can help explain why some people’s tendency to see the world from other people’s eyes can trigger an empathy-motivated apology.

According to the LSE-led research team, “An incident of mistreatment is often theorized as a moral transgression that violates socially accepted norms of appropriate behavior and evokes emotions in observers that are congruent with targets’ emotions” (p. 1). But not all witnesses support the underdog or take steps to try to help. Whether they try to rush in and fix things (or even say they’re sorry) can depend on the process known as “interpersonal sensemaking,” in which people decide who they should root for. You could, according to this view, take the side of the person meting out the negative consequences if you felt that target was in the wrong.

As Reich et al. propose, there’s a difference between perspective-taking, or this ability to see things from another person’s point of view, and empathy, or being concerned about how that person is feeling because you feel the same emotion they do. From this standpoint, perspective-taking is a cognitive process, and empathy is an emotional, or affective, process. Compassion and concern for the other person require that both processes are invoked.

What Influences People to Feel Sorry When Watching Someone Else’s Behavior?

If it’s true that you can feel empathy toward a person who isn’t necessarily a victim, this suggests that you could express just as much sorrow for a supervisor as for an employee when witnessing this uncomfortable situation. The purpose of the Reich et al. study was to determine whether they could manipulate the experimental presentation of a supervisor-employee interaction in such a way that observers would feel empathy toward and support the punitive boss.

You can probably relate to this scenario if you’ve ever felt that the person doling out the criticism was entitled to do so. Consider not just a workplace situation, but one in which Relative A chastises Relative B for forgetting to send a thank-you note for a gift. If you start to think about what you feel like when someone ignores your own generosity, you could very well be the one to rush up to Relative A, after this is all over, and offer your apologies. On the other hand, if you feel a certain amount of guilt for having committed this oversight yourself, then it’s probably Relative B who will get your compassionate response.

This was the basic paradigm that Reich and her fellow researchers tested. Their online participants (average age of 35 years old) across three studies received instructions to adopt the perspective of either an instigator or a recipient of some form of workplace mistreatment. In one of these scenarios, participants “witnessed” what they thought was condescending and insulting behavior by one person to another (the situations were staged).

To encourage perspective-taking for both sides, participants received instructions (randomly determined) to try to notice exactly what they saw and then to “visualize clearly and vividly how this person [the target or the instigator] feels in this situation” (p. 13). A control group received instructions not to “get caught up in imagining” how either person was feeling but to concentrate objectively on the ideas involved in the situation.

Turning now to the findings, the perspective-taking manipulation indeed appeared to influence judgments of instigator and target, such that people would even be willing to side with the instigators if encouraged to put themselves in that person’s place. In contrast to the assumption in the literature that “when observers take action, they do so in support of the target” (p. 14), whose side observers took depended on who they watched more closely.

Judgments by observers also appeared to depend on whose perspective they were instructed to take. If they believed the interaction was moderate in severity, observers thinking like the instigator were able to feel that person’s distress. Clearly, then, you might not apologize to a supervisor who you felt was going over the top, but if the situation was less charged, you would be able to understand how they were feeling.

How to Regulate Your Own Over-Apologizing

As you can see from the Reich et al. study, your tendency to feel empathy can be strongly influenced by how well you can get inside that person’s mental state. In many ways, this ability is a strength and can make you a valued friend, romantic partner, employee, and relative. You will go out of your way not to hurt others because you can imagine exactly what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. As their state of mind becomes yours, it’s possible for your own levels of distress to escalate accordingly.

When you find yourself ready to apologize no matter what the situation, it seems worthwhile to consider ways you can scale back some of this perspective-taking. Take a hard look at what you (not they) are feeling and then decide whether you’ve gone too far down this path. You might also, given the specific findings from the LSE study, take a step back and ask yourself how others in the situation might be thinking and feeling. If you’re always siding with the person you see as the “victim,” it might be worth taking a more objective look to see things from the other person’s side.

To sum up, apologizing is certainly a way to relate to others that can lead to greater harmony. Being able to pull back before you automatically engage your empathic concern can help you maintain the kind of perspective needed for your own emotional fulfillment.

Facebook image: Vlad Valinurov/Shutterstock

References

Reich, T. C., Hershcovis, M. S., Lyubykh, Z., Niven, K., Parker, S. K., & Stride, C. B. (2021). Observer reactions to workplace mistreatment: It’s a matter of perspective. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. https://doi-org/10.1037/ocp0000205

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