Apologies are deceptively complicated. At some point you may even find yourself in a relationship with someone who just never seems to apologize.
No matter how valid your concerns, the other person never says the words you need to hear. This can be very distressing and leave you questioning why it’s so difficult for the other person to just say “I’m sorry.”
The reasons for this can have both social and biological origins.
Social meanings of apologies
Our beliefs about apologies are rooted in family and culture, and may be generations in the making.
“Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness.” says psychologist Harriet Lerner in her book “Why Won’t You Apologize?” “Others do not… Every relationship is a cross-cultural experience of sorts because we all view reality through different filters, and certain of these filters can give rise to a pretty unyielding stance” (p. 54)
The following is a list from Dr. Lerner’s research about different social meanings that often lie behind saying “I’m sorry”:
- Apologies are seen as manipulation. They’re viewed as silencing another person’s strong emotions or placating them to gain the moral high ground. “I apologized so be quiet already. Drop it.”
- Apologies are an excuse to continue unfair or irresponsible behavior. “I apologized to you so you’ll feel better and will leave me alone while I continue doing what I want.”
- Apologies mean powerlessness. They can be seen as relinquishing control and being vulnerable to punishment and shame. It’s an admission of being flawed and inadequate.
- Men don’t apologize. Apologies are a sign of insecurity and a lack of confidence in your actions. They’re a sign that you’re not standing up for what you believe to be right and are giving someone else the upper hand.
- Women apologize. Apologies are a way of preserving important relationships and protecting yourself from anger and potential violence. Apologies mean safety, inclusion, and being liked.
- Apologies are admissions of mistakes, being the problem, and being “imperfect.” If mistakes are seen as bad, then admission of a mistake through an apology would also be seen as bad and therefore not readily offered.
The influence of family on apologies
By the time you’re an adult, you’ll have learned your family’s beliefs about what it means to say “I’m sorry.” Some of these beliefs you’ll carry with you and act out, and others you may come to question and change.
Young people in families that don’t easily accept influence from the different preferences, opinions, and emotional needs of others are often met with responses such as the following:
- Ignoring or turning away
- Changing the subject
- Implying the way you’re thinking or feeling is wrong
If the adults you relied on didn’t take responsibility for the influence of their behavior on your feelings and needs, then you may have learned strategies to protect yourself from being vulnerable in adulthood.
This walled off protection makes it difficult to explore and validate the emotions of other people. It also becomes more difficult to share your own feelings and take ownership of transgressions against others.
You would have learned to avoid the whole process of really dealing with emotions.
The role of shame in apologizing
Having your opinions, preferences, feelings, and own apologies repeatedly dismissed when you needed the acknowledgment is a shaming experience.
It communicates that your inner experiences aren’t worth acknowledgment, validation, exploration, or repair. Deep down, you thinking and feeling the way you do is unacceptable.
Chronically experiencing this shame can lead to the development of two apologetic styles in order to push it away:
- Overly apologetic. We apologize profusely for our “badness” to keep others protected from it. We crumple under the weight of shame, try to disappear, and apologize simply for being. This is sometimes referred to as an “inferiority complex.”
- Unapologetic. Apologizing is seen as unacceptable because it would mean admitting to ourselves that we are bad. We cover up this “badness” with displays of dominance, control, and superiority. This is sometimes referred to as a “superiority complex.”
While these two styles may look very different, both are defense mechanisms against the same crushing experience of shame and inadequacy.
If a person’s sense of self-worth is unstable and needing constant affirmation and signs of competency, it’s unlikely that person will have the emotional freedom and security to access genuine feelings of healthy guilt and empathy needed to offer a true apology.
Low empathy and genetic influences
Empathy is a necessary experience for a genuine apology, but there can be significant differences between people in their experience of empathy.
A recent study from the University of Cambridge suggests that how empathic we are is not just a result of our upbringing and experiences, but also partly a result of our genes (Warrier et. al., 2018).
Warrier states of his findings that “only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%,” which include non-genetical biological influences and social factors like those discussed above (“Genes play a role,” 2018).
This means that genes play a small, but important role in the experience of empathy.
So, while social, cultural, and family influences are not the only factors involved in one’s ability to empathize and offer appropriate apologies, they all play a large role in their interaction with underlying genetic predispositions.
What to know moving forward
To make an apology, one needs to see the validity and importance of the emotional repair, as well as have a sense of self stable enough to admit mistakes. This may be inaccessible if owning up to those mistakes threatens to define them in an intolerable way.
If you are waiting on an apology that may never come, consider these 3 points:
1. Protecting yourself comes first.
Speak from your own personal experiences, regardless of the response you receive. Resist the impulse to lash out at the person who has hurt you because this will only strengthen their defenses and lead to more walled off behavior.
2. You do not have the power to heal this person’s sense of self.
Don’t try to heal another person by constantly sacrificing your own emotional needs and rights within the relationship.
It will never be enough for the person who needs constant affirmation from others. They are the only one who can tend to healing shame and building their self-esteem. That love and respect must come from within.
3. Try not to take it quite so personally.
While easier said than done, when other people act badly consider that it’s not always about you (although it may appear that way on the surface).
This is not an excuse for you to abdicate your own responsibilities as well, but rather to help you be less reactive, more curious about why people do what they do, and see people as more complex than their worst behavior.
If you are the one needing to make an apology...
A good apology demonstrates strength through personal accountability and reflection, as well as the strength to carry the weight of unavoidable mistakes that we make in relationships without deflecting.
This is what integrity and good leadership entails and it earns respect in the eyes of others.
Without the possibility of apology and repair, important aspects of your relationships will be walled off, trust will be damaged, morale will lessen, and intimacy will suffer.
It’s difficult, but it’s worth it. The courage to apologize, even when the other person can’t see their own contribution to the problem, is a core element in strengthening and maintaining healthy relationships.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.
Lerner, Harriet. Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. Gallery Books, 2017.
University of Cambridge. “Genes play a role in empathy.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 March 2018. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180312085124.htm
Warrier, V., Toro, R., Chakrabarti, B. et al. Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa. Transl Psychiatry 8, 35 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-017-0082-6