Why is it so hard for some people to say they’re sorry? It’s remarkable how difficult these two simple words can be to say out loud.
I’ve been gifted with my share of never-sorry people over the years. I say gifted because not getting the apology I craved and (I thought I) deserved has forced me to investigate the psychology of apologies, as well as my own relationship with them.
I’ve also spent a lot of time wondering why some people refuse to apologize even when they know they’ve caused harm—and even when the offense is small and does not require taking much responsibility.
Recently, I was confronted with a friend who refused to say she was sorry for having misplaced an object she borrowed from me. It wasn’t there when I needed it; so what? A simple “I’m sorry” would have put the whole thing to bed in a few seconds. But those two words were never going to be said, and I, in my less-evolved incarnation, was left exasperated, angry, and demanding an apology for something I didn’t really care about.
The Psychology of Sorry
When it’s boiled down, the act of saying sorry is an admission of having done something wrong. For some people, admitting wrongdoing is not possible, even when they feel bad about their actions and know they are in the wrong. It’s odd to witness, but this never-sorry person can actually be remorseful while still refusing to utter the two words that would right their wrong.
To be able to admit that we’ve done something wrong requires a certain level of self-esteem or ego strength. People who are deeply insecure can find it challenging to apologize, in part because a single mistake has the power to obliterate their entire self-worth. The idea that they could make a mistake and still be a valuable and good person is unthinkable for someone whose self-esteem is severely lacking.
An apology is an admission of fallibility, which can trigger the vast reservoir of inadequacy and shame they carry, and thus threaten the fragile narrative they’ve constructed about themselves. For a person with a damaged sense of self-worth, acknowledging an error can be tantamount to annihilation.
So, too, there’s the person who was blamed relentlessly as a child, who from a young age was told they were responsible for every problem that arose and punished accordingly. As adults, such people tend to go in one of two directions: Either they apologize for everything, even things they haven’t done, or they refuse to apologize for anything, even things they have done.
The nonapologizers have decided, consciously or unconsciously, that they will never again accept blame of any kind. They’ve closed the door to anything that holds a whiff of it. For this sort of person, saying sorry puts them in touch with the feelings attached to their early experience of being deemed inescapably guilty and bad. Having been unfairly and indiscriminately blamed for everything wrong, they simply don’t have any psychic space left for responsibility, even when it’s appropriate.
And then there are those who refuse to say sorry because they lack empathy, and don’t actually feel sorry that you were hurt by their actions. They believe that an apology is only appropriate for situations in which they purposefully caused you harm. There’s no sorry deserved or indicated when the pain you felt was not intentionally caused and thus not “technically” their fault. Your hurt, in and of itself, has no particular value to them.
I’ve touched on only a few aspects of the never-sorry individual, but there are many more reasons why some people cannot or will not apologize to another human being. To be able to say we’re sorry is to be able to be vulnerable, which is too scary, sad, dangerous, or any one of an infinite number of “too’s” for some people.
To say I’m sorry is also to acknowledge that I care about how you feel and care that you were hurt. I care enough about you to be willing to put my ego aside and stop defending my version of myself for long enough to hear your experience at this moment. I care enough about you to be willing to admit that I’m imperfect.
The Gift of Sincere Apology
To receive a sincere apology is an incredible gift. We feel heard and acknowledged, understood and valued. Almost any hurt can be helped with a genuine, heartfelt “I’m sorry.” When another person looks us in the eye and tells us that they’re sorry for something they did that caused us harm, we feel loved and valued; we feel that we matter.
When someone apologizes to us, we also feel validated for and justified in being upset. The apologizer is taking responsibility on some level for the results of their actions, intended or not. And when that happens, our insides relax; we don’t have to fight anymore to prove that our experience is valid, that we are entitled to our hurt, and that it matters.
I recently told a dear friend about something she was doing that I felt was damaging the friendship and making me want to avoid her. I was nervous to tell her, given that I’ve been around more than my fair share of never-sorry people. But this friendship is important to me, and I couldn’t just let it go; I needed to express what wasn’t working. I had to take the chance that telling her my truth, kindly, might lead us to a better place.
What happened was deeply healing. I told her my truth, how her behavior was painful for me. She listened, and then she said something amazing; she said sorry. She was sorry she had caused this hurt, even if it was unintentional and even if she didn’t know it was happening. She went on to say many other love-infused things, but she didn’t need to—she had me at “sorry.”
This is not an essay on how to make the never-sorry person say sorry. For the most part, I’ve failed at that task in my life. What I’ve gotten better at, however, is accepting the things I cannot change and putting less energy into the fight for an apology from someone who doesn’t have the capacity to offer it.
I’ve also gotten better at honoring my craving for an apology when it arises and providing myself with the kindness and legitimization I’m seeking. The more I practice awareness in the absence of an apology, the less I need it to validate what I know to be true.
When hurt by another, our bodies are hardwired to need an apology in order to relax, move forward, and let go of the hurt. But sometimes, when we can’t get what we think we need, we have to learn to relax on our own, without the other’s help. Trusting and knowing that our pain is deserving of kindness, and that our truth is justified and valid, is the beginning of our independent healing process.
In this season of giving, receiving, and gratitude, consider the profound value of a simple and sincere “I’m sorry.” When you’re lucky enough to receive a genuine apology, take it in. Feel the majesty of what this other person is offering. Receive their willingness to be vulnerable and accountable, to take care of you instead of their own ego. That’s big stuff.
So, too, when you recognize an opportunity to say sorry and mean it, relish the chance to give that experience to another, to step up and perhaps out of your comfort zone. To let go and be generous. And when you can, honor the profundity of the gift you’re giving. “I’m sorry” and “thank you” are really two sides of the same coin.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of several books on mindfulness and personal growth. She is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com