Apologizing: What Can Go Wrong When You Say You’re Sorry?
Before you apologize, consider the possible negative repercussions.
Posted February 5, 2020
Apologizing for one’s bad behavior is almost always viewed favorably. In fact the literature on this subject focuses mostly on its advantages, as well as how to make an apology truly authentic.
More recently, however, writers have begun to consider the drawbacks associated with apologies. And this post will delineate these various downsides, so that before you own up to something culpable, you first consider whether doing so might worsen things—whether for you, the other person, or the relationship you’re trying to protect.
Writing about both the advantages and disadvantages of taking responsibility for your mistakes in business dealings, Kim Durant notes that, in general, written apologies can characterize you and your company as “conscientious, responsive, ethical, and transparent”—four descriptors that probably represent some of your loftiest ideals. And Harriet Lerner, in her piece “The Power of Apologizing” (2018), goes even farther, asserting that “I’m sorry” can be seen as “the two most healing words in the English language [and that they’re] the greatest gift we can give to the person we’ve offended.” Additionally, to Lerner, a heartfelt apology is also a gift we give ourselves, inasmuch as it contributes to our self-respect and speaks to our clear-eyed, non-defensive capacity to look at ourselves objectively.
I offer the above positive viewpoints as caveats since the rest of this post will focus on apologies from a more ambiguous—and at times, far more cynical—perspective. In other words, it could be a costly mistake to assume that offering apologies routinely benefits yourself and others. Because, frankly, it doesn’t.
If you lived in a utopia, apologies wouldn’t carry the risks they do. In fact, if the world were perfect, there would never be a need to apologize, since your actions and those of others would be thoughtful, considerate, and humane. Relationships would never require repair and no behavior would call out for forgiveness. But given the reality we inhabit, apologizing hardly guarantees that as long as you’re willing to take responsibility for your misdeeds you can safely predict a positive outcome.
For example, when you offer someone an apology with no motive other than to let them know you recognize your behavior was unkind or self-interested, and you’re genuinely sorry for having hurt or provoked them, your generously candid admission doesn’t assure they’ll forgive you. For one thing, they may not be ready to forgive your trespass. As many writers have noted, forgiveness can take time and considerable reflection on the part of the person who felt betrayed by you.
Beyond this limitation, however, there are people whose actions and reactions toward others are determined by an overriding predilection toward vindictiveness and revenge. So as soon as they conclude that your admission of guilt has made you more vulnerable in the relationship, they may not be able to resist the advantage you’ve now provided them. And so, opportunistically, they’re apt to use your confession against you.
They might see your “I’m sorry” as offering them ample justification for punishing you, that you’ve just given them a perfect excuse for retaliation. And if, indeed, they feel they now have carte blanche to “return the favor” of your wrongdoing, they may feel free to act out whatever anger your words or actions left them with. Moreover, if your apology was written and included a concrete description of why you needed to make amends to them, that permanent record of your misbehavior can be weaponized against you. They might, say, share it with their friends—who may be your friends also, and so adversely affect their positive regard for you.
It might be added here that, however ironically, throughout history, reputations have been destroyed by open admissions of guilt. Sadly, if not tragically, this is one of the hazards of unreservedly, or incautiously, manifesting personal integrity.
Consider the popular—and extremely cynical—expression: “No good deed goes unpunished.” When you’re being nice to someone, it’s hard not to anticipate that person’s being nice to you in return. But if you do a quick review of your life experiences, you’ll probably find instances when you were taken aback and disappointed by how negatively an individual reacted to you when you overcame your anxiety or reluctance and showed the courage to take full responsibility for your errant behavior.
Can you, for example, remember a time when you confessed your blameworthy behavior and the other person (your spouse, perhaps?), rather than showing appreciation for your admission, proceeded to “pour it on” or “twist the knife” on you? A time when they threw in your face as many other circumstances they could think of when you’d also been unfair to them, in some way betrayed them? Your ego may be more resilient than most, but at some point, it’s likely you couldn’t help but respond defensively. Or—also to mitigate your distress or heightened vulnerability—counter-attack them. And either of these reactions would likely have exacerbated the situation you hoped to resolve.
It’s curiously complementary to the expression, “What they don’t know can’t hurt them.” For turning this platitude around, offering an apology to someone who proceeds to take advantage of it might be summed up as “what (honorably) you let someone know can hurt you.” In other words, you could compromise, or even incriminate, yourself through an ill-advised confession. Rendering yourself susceptible to another’s penalizing you for an admission of guilt, vs. strategically withholding your wrongdoing from them, can end up being something you later regret.
It’s possible, too, that you apologized not because you thought you were wrong but because, unselfishly, you just wanted to keep the peace. Nonetheless, your having done so puts you at risk such that, in the moment or maybe some time thereafter, you had good reason to wish you'd held your ground and not conceded to the other’s position, regardless of how adamantly they insisted on it.
Additionally, once you’ve shared feelings of guilt, it’s all the more problematic to revise or qualify that self-censoring stance going forward. For then you’re subject to being viewed as a liar or hypocrite. In short, you’ve inadvertently compromised your credibility. And when that’s lost, it can be compellingly difficult to recover it.
Going even farther, one commenter on Quora argues (although somewhat debatably):
When you reveal to someone that you feel guilty, you’re revealing an emotional weakness that the unscrupulous can exploit to hurt you in ways that you won’t [be able to] object to because you feel you deserve it. (2015)
Which takes us right back to “No good deed . . .”
Being all-too-ready to apologize can lead to other negative consequences as well. Here are just two:
- It can be detrimental to your self-esteem—make you less assured of your essential goodness, morality, or decency; or it can magnify whatever self-doubts you still harbor about yourself (e.g., see Sharon Begley, citing the experimental work of psychologist Karina Schumann).
- Especially if your “I’m sorries” seem excessive, it could lead the other person to lose respect for you; prompt them to give less weight to, or trust in, the legitimacy of, your too-frequent confessions; or even begin to grate on them—perhaps roughly comparable to someone’s “crying wolf” once too often (e.g., see John Hall).
So probably the most important “take away” from this piece is, yes, on balance apologizing is a good thing, both ethically and practically. But it only makes good sense to apologize with care and discretion. For saying “I’m sorry” is not without its potential—and serious—risks.
© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
Begley, S. (2019, Apr 30). Why is it so hard to apologize? https://www.mindful.org/why-is-it-so-hard-to-apologize/
Durant, K. (n.d.) https://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-disadvantages-apology-busine…
Hall, J. (2019, Apr 16). https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/16/saying-im-sorry-can-make-people-think-p…
Lerner, H. (2018, Mar/Apr). The power of apologizing. https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/1150/the-power-…
Mercer-Kinser, M. (2015, Oct 25). https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-potential-downsides-of-apologizing
Schumann, K. (2018, Mar 8). The psychology of offering an apology: Understanding the barriers to apologizing and how to overcome them. https://journals.sagpub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963721417741709