To be able to admit that we’ve done something wrong requires a certain level of self-esteem or ego strength. People who are deeply insecure can find it challenging to say I’m sorry in part because a single mistake has the power to obliterate their fragile self-worth. The idea that they could make a mistake and still be a valuable and good person is unthinkable for someone whose self-esteem is severely lacking.
A recent study, in the psychology journal, Personality and Individual Differences, April 2018, has found that people who are less willing to apologize also tend to be less self-compassionate. And it’s not a sense of flawlessness that keeps them from saying “sorry,” it’s the very opposite: Unapologetic people may actually be so mired in shame of their wrongdoings or feel so badly about their personal characteristics, that they withdraw from the situation entirely. Apologizing causes a surge of shame and guilt, and is avoided.
Narcissism, a personality variable, is also related to￼ difficulty apologizing.
Narcissists do not believe that they wronged somebody, and do not feel shame about their actions. Also see, What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Self-compassion involves three key component: the ability to extend kindness toward oneself in times of suffering, the understanding that all humans make mistakes, and the ability to notice when suffering arises and observe difficult thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Because people with higher levels of self-compassion are able to step back from the negative emotions that are often triggered by mistakes or failures, they’re more able to lean in to difficult situations rather than withdraw from or avoid them. People with lower levels of self-compassion find it difficult to sit with the discomfort or pain of another. Some reactions might include avoidance, minimizing the other person’s experience, reaction formation (well, you hurt me too), or even mocking emotions/name calling.
Neuropsychologically, we are actually ‘wired’ to need apologies. When people receive apologies, it actually soothes stress hormones and increases attention span. When we feel wronged, it affects our well-being cognitively and emotionally, and an apology can help alleviate that imbalance.