Elton John, Chicago, Adele, and Justin Bieber all agree that it can be hard to say you’re sorry. What everybody else agrees on is that it can be absolutely infuriating when someone doesn’t apologize when you think they clearly should. Or, instead, when someone delivers one of those patently half-hearted non-apologies.
But if you’ve been on the receiving end of a lackluster apology (or never received an apology at all) for an offense, there might have been more than just stubbornness or selfishness at play.
One reason that some of us resist admitting fault has to do with the fact that apologizing can be a scary thing to do. It forces us to be vulnerable and it gives another person the power to reject our efforts to make something right. “Fear-based thinking leads us to believe that apologies are a sign of weakness,” we noted earlier. “We’re scared to face the world without our armor.”
Making matters worse, according to researchers in Australia, it actually feels better to stick your guns, even when you know you’ve made a mistake. In 2012, they found that “the act of refusing to apologize resulted in greater self-esteem than not refusing to apologize.”
Need proof? Consider this scenario.
The coffee shop test
Imagine that you’re sitting in a coffee shop quietly reading on a rainy day when someone sitting nearby picks up their phone and starts having a conversation. If you’re like most people, you’ll find yourself somewhere between mildly annoyed and completely disrupted by this breach of social etiquette. But then, five minutes later, your phone rings. Immediately you think, “Well, it’s someone I never get to talk to” or maybe you think, “Oh, this is probably more important than what that other person was talking about.” But once you pick up — and haven’t we all done something like this? — you’ve given yourself a pass that you might not have given someone else. This dynamic is known as cognitive dissonance and it’s part of why apologizing can be so hard to do.
As one social psychologist explained to The New York Times earlier this year, “Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I’m smart, I’m kind, I’m convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn’t smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn’t true.” In other words, it’s easier to come up with a reason why you were right to answer the phone than it is to reconsider whether you’re a good or fair person at heart.
Now that’s we’ve acknowledged why admitting fault can be tough to do, here are some things to consider next time you find yourself either withholding or waiting impatiently for an apology.
Think about why an apology is important. Expressing remorse can be an emotional undertaking, but it’s also transactional too; it forces someone to recognize the interests of another person. In a relationship, either business or personal, this is a part of building trust, offering reassurance, or establishing a common set of values.
Remember the vulnerability involved. Saying you’re sorry is not just about making something right, it’s also involves correcting your own self-image. For a person with a fragile sense of self or someone prone to feel shame, this can be difficult to do. No matter who you are in the apology equation, try not to let the process of making amends become a judgment on a person’s entire character.
Compassion goes both ways. A real and effective apology requires that you put yourself in the position of the party that feels wronged. But once somebody has made a true effort to express regret, acknowledging what they’ve tried to do should be a consideration as you try to move ahead toward forgiveness.
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