Why don’t we apologize? Maybe we don’t agree with the person we have hurt. Maybe we don’t like the person we have hurt. Maybe we don’t care about the person we have hurt. Maybe we minimize the hurt. Maybe we think it will go away if we don’t talk about it. Maybe we think apologizing means that we are saying the person we hurt is right, and we are wrong. Maybe we are just too proud. Maybe we think we are above apologizing. From a mental health perspective, these are rationalizations and avoidance strategies that practically guarantee ongoing distress and conflict, and in highly technical terms, they are also simply wrongheaded. Apologizing pulls open a curtain that makes us vulnerable. Paradoxically, our capacity to be vulnerable gives birth to humility, strength and empathy, which serve our mental health much more effectively than arrogance, hubris, and antipathy.
Apologizing is validating for the aggrieved. A proper apology restores dignity for those we hurt. A sincere apology conveys to the injured person that we see them and respect them. Their feelings matter. Apologizing restores trust. When we apologize for reneging on personal promises or public misconduct, we acknowledge that we know what the “rules” are, and we agree that they should be upheld. Such apologies reaffirm the social contract and restore feelings of safety.
Apologizing benefits the giver. By apologizing and taking responsibility for our actions, we effectively address the remorse that we feel for hurting another person. Left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to shame, guilt, and loss in self-esteem, all of which negatively impact our mental health and wellbeing. Apologizing calls on us to be emotionally open and interpersonally connected. Psychologist Michael McCullough and colleagues have conducted a series of studies that show that a sincere apology increases empathy for the wrongdoer, which engenders respect and heightens our ability to forgive.
Apologizing provides a path forward. Yes, apologies are about what happened in the past, but what they are really about is opening the way to move forward. Sincere apologies do not eliminate the past hurt, but by validating the past hurt, a sincere apology promotes closure and forgiveness. Resolving not to repeat the offending behavior – or committing to make whatever change is possible – is all about envisioning a future that may help make the past more bearable.