Why Is It Hard For Some People to Apologize?
We all know people who simply refuse to say they are sorry, even if they know they are wrong.
For many of them, acknowledging that they were wrong about something or that they made an error is painful.
Understanding why this is painful for them gives you tools to help them take responsibility and show contrition, when appropriate, while minimizing their pain.
People who have a weak sense of self struggle to maintain a positive self-image while warding off negative self-images.
Admitting to another person that they are wrong, or that they erred, makes them feel flawed and damages their self-image, which is both fragile and unstable. Instead, they often choose to either “double down” or blame others.
Both of these are methods of avoiding taking responsibility.
This occurs when the person maintains that they are correct, and hence have not erred, even when contradictory evidence is put right in front of them.
In the following conversation Lucy is trying to get her friend Cory to apologise for something, but Lucy doubles down.
Cory: It hurt my feelings that you didn’t pick me up at the train as you said you would.
Lucy: You didn’t remind me.
Cory: We discussed it last night.
Cory: You said you would be there.
Lucy: If it was important to you to have me pick you up, you would have reminded me.
Cory: Can’t you even admit that you forgot?
Lucy: You are the one who forgot. It is your responsibility.
In the above conversation, Cory attempted to heal the relationship after Lucy disappointed her by not remembering to pick her up at the train as agreed.
Because Lucy was unwilling, or unable, to take responsibility, the attempt to heal the relationship damaged it more. Rather than apologizing, she doubled down and blamed Cory. Cory ended up frustrated and feeling more distant from Lucy.
Lucy was afraid that if she admitted doing wrong, she would be seen as damaged, or flawed, and hence unlovable. She could not even admit to herself that she made a mistake because then she would experience self-loathing.
Lucy has a weak sense of self because she suffers from symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. In this disorder as well as other personality disorders, the unstable or fragile sense of self prevents individuals from taking responsibility when things go wrong because they see it as evidence that have low value. It causes them to anticipate rejection and sometimes react by rejecting the other first, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.
If you know someone that has difficulty apologizing when they err, try not to express anger towards them. This will make them feel worse about themselves and make it harder for them to say they are sorry.
You will be more successful if you can encourage them to see that taking responsibility for errors and correcting them is a virtue. It is something to be proud of as it shows it good character. This is illustrated in the following conversation between Barney and his son Rick.
Barney: Rick what happened to the car?
Rick: What do you mean?
Barney: The dent on the driver’s door.
Rick: I didn’t do it.
Barney: It was not there when you took the car last night and it was there this morning.
Rick: I don’t know anything about it.
At this point Barney can press Rick further and confront him again with the facts which is essentially the same as calling him a liar. Rick would then become more defensive and perhaps double down.
Instead, Barney sees that it will be painful for Rick to acknowledge that he damaged the car and so he chooses to make it easier for Rick to take responsibility. He does not let Rick off the hook.
Barney: Everyone accidently damages a car at some point. You just take responsibility, fix the car and all is forgiven. Everyone respects a person that owns their errors and makes good on their obligation to repair the damages that have occurred.
Rick: I don’t know how to get the car fixed.
Barney: Then this is a good time to learn. I will show you. Some day you will show your own son.
Rick: Thanks Dad.
Barney turned his son’s lying about damaging the car into a growth opportunity for Rick and for his relationship with Rick.
He did this by recognizing his son’s weak sense of self and teaching his son how to take responsibility for errors without damaging his self-esteem.
This brought his son closer to him, causing growth of the relationship as well.