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Why Apologizing Is So Difficult

Even when we know an apology is deserved, we may still be reluctant to offer it.

Key points

  • Offering an apology can feel like a threat to our sense of self.
  • In the heat of the moment, we tend to underestimate how much better we will feel after apologizing.
  • Even if there is a risk that it will be used against us, apologizing might still be the right thing to do.
Source: RDNE Stock Project/Pexels
Facing the "smug smirk."
Source: RDNE Stock Project/Pexels

A few weeks ago, I yelled at my 13-year-old daughter for something that, as it turned out, she wasn’t responsible for. My bad. When she called me on my mistake, she gave me that look—you know, the smug smirk that says, Well, what do you have to say now? (but without saying anything at all). I knew an apology was totally justified, and it was right there on the tip of my tongue…but I caught myself holding back for a brief moment, fully aware that my pride was trying to stop me from doing the right thing in the situation.

The ironic part is, I’ve been studying the psychology of apologies for the best part of 15 years, seeking research evidence to help us to understand why people are reluctant to apologize. Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve learned through experience is that understanding apology reluctance does not make you immune to its pull—just aware of your own failings.

Let’s take a step back and examine the research.

The Research Evidence

The research tells us that people may be reluctant to offer an apology (even when it is well-deserved) because it can make us feel threatened:

1. Apologies feel like diminishing the self. Yes, because you are the one who screwed up! It makes you feel bad because you are admitting to others (and yourself) that you are capable of making mistakes or doing wrong. It is confronting for those who pride themselves as knowledgeable or ethical. It questions our integrity: We are not the perfect person we make ourselves out to be.

2. Apologies give up power and control. Yes, because when you screwed up, chances are that your mistake diminished someone else (the “victim”). Apologies return that power and control to that victim, who may choose to accept the apology or withhold forgiveness until more satisfactory amends have been made.

So, when you apologize, you place these two aspects of yourself into the hands of the victim. The victim can then hold that against you, making you feel worse about yourself… or, through their forgiveness, the victim can absolve you of your guilt and reinstate you as a good person despite the momentary lapse in judgment. That self-uncertainty—moral vulnerability—is not a great feeling. This feeling is also amplified among those with a heightened self-focus, such as those high in narcissism and entitlement, who may be especially reluctant to apologize.

The good news is that the reluctance we feel is often misplaced: We tend to overestimate how humiliating and stressful the apology will feel. In the end, it is more likely that our apology will make us feel better about ourselves.

Apologizing Can Still Be Hard

But, yeah, that smug smirk doesn’t make it any easier. My daughter’s expression told me that she was relishing the knowledge that I messed up. She wasn’t waiting for an apology because she felt bad or lacked confidence in our relationship. No, she was waiting to hear that she was right, scoring a point in the constant struggle for power that often exists between teenagers and their parents.

The truth of the matter is that apologies are not a panacea for reconciliation. They are a communicative tool with a high degree of subtlety and complexity. Simply by changing our tone or nonverbals, we can invalidate the conciliatory meaning (the “ironic apology,” which apparently teenagers have mastered). Similarly, my daughter’s forgiveness after my apology can be both an act of grace and a claim to moral superiority.

I let her have the point (i.e., I apologized). She walked away triumphantly, and my wife had a little giggle knowing how much it must have irked me. But I know it was the right thing to do. It is the same reluctance my daughter feels when she has to apologize to her 6-year-old sister (who is also a highly accomplished smirker despite her young age). By modeling the behavior, I hope I can reinforce the value of relationships for her later in life, making her a better friend, coworker, and relationship partner. To her future spouse: You’re welcome, and good luck.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock

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