Why is it you rarely hear about the power of apology—the simple yet seemingly impossible act of saying “I’m sorry”?

There has been much research and plenty written about the power of forgiveness…about how freeing your soul of anger and resentment can make a powerful impact on both your emotional and physical health, including lowering risk for heart attack…improving sleep…and reducing pain.

And yet, forgiveness would be far easier if wrong-doers could simply acknowledge that they made a mistake. Mistakes happen. It’s simply part of life. Say you’re sorry, and move along.

Sadly, as Elton John has sung so famously, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

Why would people prefer to die on their swords rather than admit culpability? Why do they choose to sacrifice relationships, careers and reputations by holding on to their errors rather than simply admitting a mistake, clearing the air and moving forward? The sad fact is that for people who have deep emotional challenges, the fear of consequences from making even the smallest transgression can take on epic proportions in their minds.

In her TED Talk, Harriet Lerner, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, talks about the “big, sturdy platform of self-worth” that a person must have in order to apologize and how those who refuse to apologize are hiding their low self-esteem.

I’ve seen it, too. People are afraid that acknowledging a mistake will reflect badly on them as a person. They think, If I admit that I’m wrong, then “they” will realize that I’m not that smart, capable, caring or whatever trait might be at issue in the argument…they’ll discover that I’m really a fake and will never trust me again. It’s pride…insecurity…shame…and more—all of it ego-driven. I’d make a joke here about men’s refusal to ask for directions no matter how lost they are, but women also have difficulty apologizing.

And when the ego-driven thought train travels further and faster, the potential consequences of admitting an error grow exponentially. Suddenly there is fear of rejection. This may seem to be an exaggeration, but for many, it’s a very real and deep fear.

We all have been trained to perform at our best and do things right or else face the consequences, including possible rejection. Athletes live in constant fear of being benched if they make a bad play or miss a shot in the big game. Children fear coming home with poor grades on homework or tests. And no one wants to talk about their recent car accident. What’s the big deal of making one bad pass or having a fender-bender?

In many animal kingdoms, the worst punishment a member can receive is to be ousted from the clan or herd. And among humans, who also need to belong to groups to survive, being ignored or rejected is more damaging than being hated.

In the minds of many, admitting even a small error puts them at risk for rejection. It’s such a deep punishment that individuals will do anything to avoid being ostracized, including holding on to an obviously wrong position rather than acknowledging a mistake or apologizing.

Not everyone lives in this state of grand paranoia. Some people are simply stubborn. Tom Chapin, younger brother of the deceased singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, wrote a wonderful children’s song called “Mikey Won’t” about a little boy who broke someone’s toy truck but wouldn’t apologize for it no matter how much pressure was placed upon him. He was brought to the teacher…the principal…a police officer…even a judge…and still refused to apologize. Finally, when threatened with parental involvement, Mikey gave a cursory apology…but when asked if he was really truly sorry, his answer was, “No, I’m not.”

Well, folks, how’s that strategy working for those who choke on the words “I’m sorry,” coughing and spitting their way through the apology? I’m guessing not very well. 

If only we all could be like Dr. Houseman, Baby’s father, at the end of the movie Dirty Dancing.  He had incorrectly accused bad-boy Johnny Castle of impregnating the dance instructor Penny. “I know you weren’t the one who got Penny in trouble. When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”

But far too many people are unable to muster the courage to apologize. In her same TedTalk, Harriet Lerner offers a simple three-step formula for apologizing…

  1. Put aside your defensiveness. 
  2. Listen to the hurt party’s anger and pain— even if you don’t agree with it. 
  3. Apologize for the piece that you can agree with…with your whole heart.

Sure, it’s hard to start an apology, but so simple once you get going, and it feels so good once you’ve done it. Don’t be afraid. Giving that apology may be the best thing you can do for you and for your relationships. 

Related Articles