Please accept my apologies, Why Is Saying 'sorry' So Difficult?

Occasionally even deserved apologies can feel challenging.

A while back, I raised my voice at my 13-year-old daughter for something that, as it turned out, she wasn't responsible for. My bad. When she pointed out 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 entirely warranted, and it was right there on the tip of my tongue… but I found myself hesitating, fully aware that my pride was trying to stop me from doing the right thing in the situation.

The surprising part is, I've been studying the psychology of apologies for the better part of 15 years, seeking research evidence to help us understand why people are reluctant to apologize. Unfortunately, something I've learned through experience is that understanding apology reluctance doesn't make you immune to its power — just aware of your own shortcomings.

Let's pause and review the research carefully.

The Research Evidence

Research tells us that people may be hesitant to offer an apology (even when it is deserved) because it can make us feel threatened:

1. Apologies can feel like a blow to our ego. After all, you're the one who messed up! It makes you feel bad because you're admitting to others (and yourself) that you are capable of making mistakes or messing up. It's uncomfortable for those who pride themselves as knowledgeable or moral. It challenges our integrity: We're not the flawless person we portray ourselves to be.

2. Apologies relinquish power and control. Indeed, because when you messed up, chances are your mistake diminished someone else (the "victim"). "Apologies give power to those who have been hurt by allowing them to decide if and when to forgive, until they feel fully satisfied with the changes made."

So, when you apologize, you place these two aspects of yourself under the control of the victim. The victim can then either berate you for it, making you feel worse about yourself… or, through their forgiveness, the person you wronged can forgive you and see you as a good person again, even if you made a mistake temporarily. That self-doubt — moral vulnerability — is not a great feeling. This feeling is also heightened among those with an elevated self-focus, such as those high in narcissism and entitlement, who may be particularly reluctant to apologize.

Fortunately, the reluctance we feel is often unwarranted: We tend to overestimate how embarrassing and distressing the apology will feel. Ultimately, it's likely that our apology will help us feel better about ourselves.

Saying 'sorry' Can Still Be Difficult

But yeah, that smug smirk doesn't make it any easier. My daughter's face showed me she enjoyed knowing I made a mistake. She wasn't waiting for an apology because she felt bad or needed reassurance in our relationship. No, she was waiting to hear that she was right, scoring a point in the ongoing power struggle that often exists between teenagers and their parents.

The fact of the matter is that apologies are not a cure-all for reconciliation. They are a communicative tool with a high degree of nuance and complexity. Simply by changing our tone or nonverbal cues, we can negate the conciliatory meaning (the "jokey apology," which apparently teenagers have mastered). Likewise, when my daughter forgives me after I say sorry, it shows both kindness and a sense of being morally better.

I let her have the point (i.e., I apologized). She walked away victorious, and my wife had a little chuckle knowing how much it probably irked me. "I understand it was the correct decision.". It's 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 setting the example, I hope to instill the value of relationships for her in the future, making her a better friend, colleague, and relationship partner. To my future partner: You're welcome, and best wishes!

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