The Psychology of Apologies


The first time you apologised for something, it was likely forced out of you. There was the tone of demand, the tone that suggests a duty to apologise, whether you personally deem it appropriate or not. You were likely of pre-school age and did something so minor that nobody would bat an eyelid in adulthood. You reluctantly said ‘sorry’ so that the teacher would let you peacefully return to play time and the kid that snitched on you was made to return the gesture or vow forgiveness.

As adults, nobody is going to speak condescendingly to us or send us to the corner to reflect upon our actions – we are to rely upon our own moral judgement of a situation, as a forced apology is no more than an empty gesture. As adults, we know better than to think ‘sorry’ is a magic word that brings the happiness back. Most importantly, we should know that we are not entitled to reciprocation or forgiveness.

Certain things we do in life may prompt an immediate apology – Did I stand on your foot just then? I’m so sorry! – but with more serious situations it may take years to find it within ourselves to apologise. It’s not as simple as ‘swallowing your pride’, there is a whole process behind a genuine apology that is too often ignored.

Firstly, there is the need to assess your errors and isolate them. A conflict is rarely black or white. Even if you were not the root cause of a problem, you have likely reacted poorly or otherwise exacerbated the situation. You have to be honest with yourself to analyse where your actions had a negative effect. You need to see yourself as a potential antagonist, rather than purely a victim.

However, knowledge of your own wrong-doing isn’t going to erase any animosity towards the person/people that have wronged you. If you’re still fantasizing over their demise, you’re not ready to apologise. The tricky part is reaching a state where you can accept that your apology may not been returned and that they may not be willing to let it go.

Timing is key. Everybody needs space to cool down and this will vary, but you can’t seek forgiveness until you have forgiven. Outside of childhood, nobody is obligated to acknowledge their immoral behaviour, we just have to have that faith without expectation, even if it means ‘accepting’ an apology that you have never or never will recieve.

Whilst there can be no take-back clause if a person reacts unfavourably to a genuine apology, there are still ways that we benefit from putting ourselves out there. A rejected apology is not an invalid apology. If you have put a lid on that situation and they choose to tear it back off, it is to their error. As long as you commit to keeping that lid firmly locked down on your side, it is no longer your problem.

Although an apology, particularly in response to a long-standing conflict may seem like admitting defeat, it can actually have the opposite effect, leaving the reciever to assess their own actions that caused you to act/react the way you did, diminishing their anger along the way.

An apology will never change the past, but it can certainly help to heal us on an emotional level as we drop off some of the weight from our shoulders.

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