Why some people can’t apologize

For some, uttering those two little words, I'm sorry, carries a lot more weight to its meaning.

I'm sorry note

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There’s a lot of power in saying I’m sorry—power for both good and evil. When spoken with genuine regret, those two words can act as a magic salve, instantly healing everything from a minor irritation to a festering emotional wound. (In my experience, an apology given in genuine sincerity is also a guaranteed tearjerker, the catalyst for a flood of emotions that range from sorrow to relief.)

If tossed off casually or sarcastically, however, I’m sorry operates destructively, and as yet another way we hurt and harm one another when we’re overtired, grumpy, feeling cruel or locked in one of those absurdly counterproductive power struggles—I’m right; you’re wrong!—with a friend, partner or loved one.

But while saying I’m sorry with one’s tongue firmly planted in one’s cheek is a surefire way to prolong an argument, not offering an apology can do even more damage. Many of us have someone in our lives who seem fundamentally incapable of saying I’m sorry. Strangely, it’s often these implacable non-apologists that never quit complaining about the wrongs being done to them.

What is it that stops your mother or your best friend or your boyfriend from telling you they’re sorry? (Other than your suspicion that they’re kind of jerks.) Their fragile egos—or so suggests a recent article on the topic that appeared on the Psychology Today website.

Author Guy Winch makes the argument that people who shirk their emotional responsibilities to those around them do so because they’re afraid of the “psychological ramifications” that come with saying I’m sorry. According to Winch, these people are allergic to regret because it threatens their self-esteem, causes them to feel shame, and to feel like they’re bad people (I’m still wondering why experiencing any of these emotions, which prompt us to do better, is a bad thing.)

But that’s not all your best and most selfish pal fears about apologizing for cancelling dinner on you (again) and at the last minute (again). An apology also makes the person doing the apologizing vulnerable, says Winch, which is a state of exposure they fear.

What’s a gal with hurt feelings to do when she’s besties with a chronic non-apologist or even married to one? A frank conversation may be necessary to move the relationship along, though it’s more likely that a great deal of patience is needed too. Alternatively, it probably never hurts to lead by example—to show that saying I’m sorry doesn’t represent a form of weakness or threaten one’s sense of self, but rather indicates that you’re thinking of someone other than yourself: the person you love.