Why Do Some People Find It Difficult To Take Responsibility For Their Actions and Apologise?
I think we have all come across people like that, I know I have and it can be very frustrating. "I’m sorry" is one of the first things we’re taught to say as children, yet some adults refuse to apologise even when they are clearly in the wrong. Why?
Elton John wasn’t kidding: Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Some people find it so hard to apologise that getting them to admit to even the smallest wrongdoing involves a major battle—and often a fruitless one. Although we might perceive the reluctance of these non-apologists as simple defensiveness or pride, often a far deeper psychological dynamic is at play: Refusing to apologise often reflects efforts to protect a fragile sense of self.
Why Apologies Threaten Non-Apologists
For non-apologists, saying "I’m sorry" carries psychological ramifications that run far deeper than the words themselves imply; it elicits fundamental fears (either conscious or unconscious) they desperately want to avoid:
- Admissions of wrong doing are incredibly threatening for non-apologists because they have trouble separating their actions from their character. If they did something bad, they must be bad people; if they were neglectful, they must be fundamentally selfish and uncaring; if they were wrong, they must be ignorant or stupid, etc. Therefore, apologies represent a major threat to their basic sense of identity and self-esteem.
- Apologising might open the door to guilt for most of us, but for non-apologists, it can open the door instead to shame. While guilt makes us feel bad about our actions, shame makes them feel bad about their selves—who they are—which makes shame a far more toxic emotion than guilt.
- While most of us consider apologies as opportunities to resolve interpersonal conflict, non-apologists may fear their apology will only open the floodgates to further accusations and conflict. Once they admit to one wrongdoing, surely the other person will pounce on the opportunity to pile on all the previous offenses for which they refused to apologise as well.
- Non-apologists fear that by apologising, they would assume full responsibility and relieve the other party of any culpability—if arguing with a spouse, for example, they might fear an apology would exempt the spouse from taking any blame for a disagreement, despite the fact that each member of a couple has at least some responsibility in most arguments.
- By refusing to apologise, non-apologists are trying to manage their emotions. They are often comfortable with anger, irritability, and emotional distance, and experience emotional closeness and vulnerability to be extremely threatening. They fear that lowering their guard even slightly will make their psychological defenses crumble and open the floodgates to a well of sadness and despair that will pour out of them, leaving them powerless to stop it. They might be correct. However, they are incorrect in assuming that exhibiting these deep and pent-up emotions (as long as they get support, love, and caring when they do—which fortunately, is often the case), will be traumatic and damaging. Opening up in such a way is often incredibly therapeutic and empowering, and it can lead them to experience far deeper emotional closeness and trust toward the other person, significantly deepening their relationship satisfaction.