Why is apologizing so difficult? Saying “I was wrong, I made a mistake, I’m sorry” is more painful than root canal therapy for some people.

As a psychotherapist, I’ve found that our ability to apologize is directly related to the shame we carry. Burdened with a deeply ingrained sense of being flawed or defective, we mobilize to avoid being flooded by a debilitating shame.

When we recognize that we’ve done or said something offensive or hurtful, we may notice an uncomfortable feeling inside. We realize we’ve broken trust and done some damage.

Our response to violating someone’s sensibilities may go in three possible directions:

1. We Don’t Care

When our personality structure is rigid and hardened, we don’t register others’ pain. Having cut ourselves off from our own painful and difficult feelings, we have a blind spot to human suffering.

It can be maddening to be involved with someone who has been so driven by shame that they distance themselves from you. They don’t see you because all they know is that their survival depends on keeping shame at bay. If they were to allow any hint of shame to enter their awareness, they’d be so paralyzed by it that they could no longer function — or at least that’s the belief they hold. They don’t know how to take responsibility without it becoming painfully fused with self-blame and shame.

Sociopaths do not allow themselves to experience empathy for others. They are so shame-bound, perhaps due to early trauma, that they have no shame (they’ve become numb to it). They don’t notice how they affect others. Apart from some possible fleeting moments, they don’t care about anyone’s feelings.

2. We Care About Our Image

It doesn’t take being psychic to recognize when someone is unhappy with us. Evoking a person’s tears or tirades tells us that we’ve stepped on their toes. If this is a friend or partner we care about or a political constituency we don’t want to alienate, we might realize that need to muster up some kind of apology to repair the damage and get the unpleasant matter behind us.

It is maddening to get no apology from a person who has hurt us. But it can be even more upsetting — or decidedly confusing — to receive an apology that isn’t really an apology. For example, we hurl harsh words or cheat on our partner and witness the damage, we realize that some apology is necessary to repair the injury.

An insincere apology would be something like:

  • I’m sorry you feel that way.
  • I’m sorry if I offended you.
  • I’m sorry, but aren’t you being too sensitive?

Such non-apologies miss the point. They are weak attempts to head off being blamed and criticized. We try to “make nice” but our heart isn’t into it. We haven’t allowed the person’s hurt to register in our heart. We haven’t allowed ourselves to be genuinely affected by the pain we’ve generated in their lives.

These pseudo-apologies are strategies that keep us well-insulated from the healthy shame of realizing that we hurt someone or messed up, which we all do from time to time (if not often); it’s simply part of being human.

Hard-driving politicians are notorious for offering insincere apologies. They’re not devoted to being real; they’re invested in looking good. Protecting their carefully honed image is of paramount importance.

For people who are attached to their self-image, it’s a quandary when they mess up. If they admit their mistakes, they might look bad. They may make the calculation that it’s best to cover it up and push onward. However, if they don’t acknowledge their mistake, they might also look bad; they may be viewed as arrogant and self-centered, which might also damage the false image they’ve been promoting.

So here’s the curious dilemma for an ego- and image-driven person: how to respond when making a mistake? One seemingly elegant solution is to offer what seems like an apology, but isn’t really one: “I apologize if I offended you.” This is a crazy-making statement. It comes from our head. We didn’t put our heart on the line; we protected our vulnerability.

The person receiving such an “apology” might respond: You did offend me. You hurt me. Your antiseptic apology doesn’t really reach me. I don’t get any sense that you’ve been affected by how I feel.”

An expedient “apology” is insincere because we’re protecting ourselves from heartfelt human relating. We don’t want to get our hands dirty. We casually flip a comment that seems like it will satisfy the injured party, but it won’t. And we’re likely to repeat the mistake because we refuse to reflect deeply on the matter and make a real change in our behavior.

A Sincere Apology

A genuine apology is more than mouthing the words. It’s registering the damage we’ve done. When our words, our body language, and our tone of voice derive from a deep recognition of the pain we’ve caused, true healing and forgiveness become possible. We might say something like, “I’m really sorry I did that” or “I can see how much pain I caused you and I feel bad about that” rather than a more cold, impersonal, and half-hearted, “I’m sorry if you were offended by that.”

“Sorry” is related to the word “sorrow.” A sincere apology includes feeling sorrow or remorse for our actions.

Apologizing doesn’t mean berating ourselves or being paralyzed by shame. But allowing ourselves to experience a light and fleeting shame can get our attention. It’s natural to feel at least a little bad when we’ve hurt someone — and perhaps very bad (at least for a time) if we’re hurt them really badly.

If we can let go of our self-image, we might discover that it can actually feel good to offer a heartfelt apology. It connects us with the person we’ve hurt. And it may surprise us that our image actually improves if we display a sincerity that derives not from some calculation or manipulation, but from the depths of our human heart.