Why is it so hard to apologize?

I was recently involved in a silly misunderstanding. I snapped at someone important to me.

He looked miffed. I immediately regretted the sharp words I uttered and left the room.

Why didn’t I apologize right then and there?

I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to admit being wrong. I didn’t want him to be sensitive.

* * *

Apologizing is an art, as much as it is a science. I’m involved in another lengthy apology with someone who hasn’t acknowledged or accepted my apology in about a year. I don’t know if she ever will… and yet, I hope she does so we can be cordial and eventually close with each other when we get together. At this point, I’m not entirely sure how I could have changed the situation, an instance of me responding cooly to a dramatic turn of events in her life. There’s so much nuance in the story.

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 10.49.14 AMI believe it’s different to say “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.” To me, the words ‘I apologize’ sound stiff, insincere and almost corporate or conventional. When someone used this phrase to me half a year ago, I didn’t believe her. My experience of the ordeal for which she was issuing a half-apology, half- acknowledgment of her unethical behavior, was incredibly traumatic and changed how I view people and relationships. So when she apologized in a formal, inhuman way, I felt like her words were the exact replica of the trauma to which she contributed. And in both instances, she didn’t seem to care and kept doing the thing she sort of apologized about.

Saying “I’m sorry” feels more meaningful to me. For whatever reason, it feels sincere and real. I’ve had this conversation with lots of people and we’re divided. To others, saying “I apologize” feels authentic.

Justin Bieber’s lyrics for the song, “Sorry” (and I can’t believe I’m quoting him), humbly suggest that he’s trying to redeem himself for some kind of wrongdoing, and he would like a second chance. This brings up another point: saying sorry and doing the same thing all over again.

You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty
You know I try but I don’t do too well with apologies
I hope I don’t run out of time. Could someone call a referee?
‘Cause I just need one more shot at forgiveness

His lyrics imply that he is requesting another chance, and he’s apologetic for creating tumult. He also asks if it’s too late to say he’s sorry. What do you think about this? Is there a statute of limitations for apologizing? How do you know when it’s the right time? I believe people sometimes issue apologies selfishly and to cover their own behavior.

Have you ever apologized because you want to redeem yourself? You wish to seek repentance for something you did and want to be washed clean. When you’re saying “I’m sorry,” a sincere apology usually includes the following:

  • a detailed account of the situation
  • acknowledgement of the hurt or damage done
  • taking responsibility for the situation
  • recognition of your role in the event
  • a statement of regret
  • asking for forgiveness
  • a promise that it won’t happen again
  • a form of restitution whenever possible

* * *

The words I’m sorry  are not always a responsibility of fault. Sometimes they are said as an Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 10.50.43 AMexpression of empathy or a way to relate to another human who is experiencing a difficult situation. I’ve been criticized for apologizing too much. It dawned on me, while writing this very post, that when I feel like I’m trying to relate to another person’s struggles, they often feel like I’m trying to take it on. I’m not. Rather, I guess I could say “I’m sorry you’re going through this horrific moment or I’m sorry you’re suffering right now.” For me, saying “I’m sorry” can be both an apology for something I did as well as a way to relate to circumstances which might not have anything to do with me.

I relate to apologies most when the person saying it truly means it. How can I tell? I can’t always tell, truthfully. Yet, I want to believe there’s remorse or regret, and then see a change. As the idiom goes, “the best apology is changed behavior.”

In sum, a day or so later, I did apologize by saying “I’m sorry for speaking sharply and snapping at you recently.” He accepted my apology, and, incidentally, had forgotten about the incident.

To work with me and learn about my practice, visit my coaching page. Last week, I wrote about friend breakups. You can read it here. You might like to read a related post on anger.

5 thoughts on “Why is it so hard to apologize?

  1. I agree that a proper apology must include the qualities you mentioned. Also, I have learned within the last few years that everyone has their own “apology language” (from the author of the 7 Love Languages). For me to feel like an apology is heartfelt, I need the person to accept responsibility (i.e. name what they did wrong and accept fault) and express regret (and also understand why it upset me so much).


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