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Why the Apology You Didn't Get Matters

Here's why we suffer when we don't hear "I'm sorry."

The failure of someone to apologize when they should, even when it's over a small thing, is a source of legitimate anger and pain.

It’s not that you’re going to sink into a major depression because the woman in the grocery store nearly ran you down with her cart, and rushed off without even looking up. You might assume that she failed to apologize because she didn’t care, or, alternatively, that she was too preoccupied or overcome with shame to make eye contact and speak. Whatever her reasons, it just doesn’t feel good, and the not-good feeling hangs on.

When the relationship matters, the failure to say, “I’m sorry” can erode connection. This is true even when it’s clear to both parties that no one is responsible for behaving badly.

Consider my therapy client, Yolanda, who sat clothed in a skimpy hospital gown on a cold table in the examining room, waiting for her doctor who was nearly an hour late.

“So, my doctor finally appears,” Yolanda tells me, obviously upset, “and she says nothing, not even a simple apology. I felt like I wasn’t even a person to her. And later I felt bad about myself for being so oversensitive.”

Questioning ourselves for being “oversensitive” is a common way that women, in particular, disqualify our legitimate anger and hurt. If you’ve hung out in medical examining rooms, you know that patients feel vulnerable. The fact that some of us feel more vulnerable than others in a particular context does not mean we are weak or lesser in any way.

Yolanda didn’t take the long wait personally. She didn’t suspect that her physician was hiding out playing video games or texting her friends. Yolanda simply wanted to hear, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long. My last patient required more time than I had scheduled.”

The failure of Yolanda’s doctor to even comment on her lateness felt like a small crack in a relationship with someone on whom she profoundly depends. A simple, “I’m sorry,” would have allowed Yolanda to feel respected, seen, cared for, and validated.

Brené Brown reminds us that "Apologizing ranks up there with one of the most vulnerable and courageous things we can do."

As I explain in Why Won't You Apologize? the failure of the other person to apologize when they should hits us harder than the deed they should apologize for. Learn how to offer a heartfelt apology when one is due, and how to speak up when you don't get the one you need and deserve.