Is Sorry Really the Hardest Word? When Do We Need To Apologize And When Not?

Were you ever left without an apology where there should be one?

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. I was on both sides, and I’m sorry of the times when I left people without the apology they deserved.

I’ve started to learn about and understand my own behavior in my late 30s, and I’m still not done with all the behavioral changes I’d like to imply.

In practice, this looks like apologizing for things that weren’t my fault or not apologizing for things I should have. Sometimes I’m still a bit slow with recognizing the best timing for needing or giving the words I’m sorry.

I find it especially hard to recognize my own faults when a person shut down and ghost me. In such cases, I’m sometimes wondering if there is an apology from my side that needed to be done as well. But enough about me.

Let’s see what science has to say about this. Why can be sorry so hard, when we should and shouldn’t apologize?

Saying “sorry” can be challenging due to a complex interplay of psychological and social factors.

One reason is ego defense; admitting fault threatens our self-image, triggering discomfort. Additionally, the fear of negative consequences, like damaged relationships or reputation, can deter apologies. Cultural norms also shape our response to mistakes; societies valuing accountability tend to find apologies easier.

Psychological studies highlight the “apology gap” caused by the misalignment between the offender’s perception of harm caused and the victim’s experience. Cognitive dissonance further hinders apologies by rationalizing our actions to maintain consistency. Gender differences also play a role; societal expectations may discourage men from apologizing to preserve dominance.

Apologizing requires empathy and emotional intelligence, skills some struggle with.
Fear of vulnerability and potential rejection further compound the difficulty. However, understanding the benefits of apologizing, such as repairing relationships, fostering growth, and boosting emotional well-being, can motivate people to overcome these challenges.

When do we need to apologize?

  • When We Cause Harm: Apologies are necessary if our actions, words, or decisions have caused harm or distress to others.
  • After Mistakes: Apologize for errors or misunderstandings, regardless of intent, to acknowledge the impact on someone else.
  • Violations of Social Norms: When we act contrary to accepted societal standards, apologizing shows respect for shared values.
  • Hurting Feelings: If our words or behavior have hurt someone emotionally, apologizing demonstrates empathy and care.
  • Breaking Agreements: Failing to keep commitments warrants an apology, showing responsibility and commitment.
  • When Our Actions Offend: If we inadvertently offend someone due to cultural differences or lack of awareness, apologizing is a bridge to understanding.
  • For Our Behavior: Recognize and apologize for behavior that falls short of our own values and principles.
  • To Repair Relationships: Apologies mend relationships by showing humility and a willingness to make amends.

Apologies contribute to personal growth, emotional well-being, and maintaining healthy interactions. Timely apologies are crucial for rebuilding trust, as highlighted by Gino and Schweitzer’s research (2015) on emotions and apology acceptance.

When we shouldn’t apologize?

  • When Not at Fault: Apologizing for something beyond your control could imply guilt or responsibility.
  • Excessive Self-Blame: Constantly apologizing for minor things might erode your self-esteem and credibility.
  • Manipulation: Apologizing solely to manipulate others or avoid conflict isn’t sincere and can damage relationships.
  • Boundary Setting: If you need to assert yourself or establish boundaries, apologizing can weaken your stance.
  • Apologizing for Feelings: Expressing your feelings or needs shouldn’t require an apology; it’s a healthy part of communication.

Remember, apologies should be genuine and warranted. Over apologizing may lessen the impact of sincere apologies when truly needed.

What about you, is it hard for you to say I’m sorry when needed? Do you ever find yourself apologizing for things you shouldn’t have to?

Sources:

  • Gino, F., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2015). Blinded by anger or feeling the love: How emotions influence advice taking. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 523-534.
  • Lazare, A. (2004). On Apology. Oxford University Press.
  • Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). Why women apologize more than men: Gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1649-1655.
  • Tavuchis, N. (1991). Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation. Stanford University Press.

11 thoughts on “Is Sorry Really the Hardest Word? When Do We Need To Apologize And When Not?”

  1. “Sorry” is very powerful. Often used in the wrong way, often said but not meant. Everything you have written is right, I believe. Once on New Year’s Eve I lost my temper with a difficult staff member. We were busy and her behaviour annoyed me to the point of telling her off in a far too unkind way. She was very thick-skinned and I doubt she cared but when I got home I felt bad about it. This was not the way to end a year. I called the office to get her phone number and called her to apologise. She graciously accepted and we started the New Year in a better frame of mind. Having been both an agent and a supervisor, I know how much an apology can mean. Good thought to share. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Honest apologies are very important and can strengthen our relationships, like it happened with a difficult staff member, you mentioned.
      Thank you too, Carolyn.

      Reply
  2. This is a nice post, Maja. I like that you distinguished between when we should and shouldn’t apologize. I find sometimes we over apologize especially when it’s not our fault and that becomes a destructive cycle in itself. But it’s also nice to apologize when we’re in the wrong. It is an incredibly freeing moment.

    Reply
  3. this seems to be a common theme in my current life..some recent, some not so much, but thinking about things I didn’t say, or didn’t have a chance to say or explain….I burn bridges, and I understand that the past os past, but if you could only go back, would that help

    Reply
    • Thinking about the past can be tough, since we can’t go back. All we have is here, and now, our thoughts, emotions, memories, and our actions what to do with them.
      Thanks for stopping by, Warren. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Thank you for your great post. It explains things well. I recently wrote a post about forgiveness between my mother and myself and I would like to share your blog as it’s a lovely explanation. 🙋‍♀️❤️

    Reply

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