Illustrations by Sophie Casson
When the stakes are low, saying sorry is easy. Accidentally bump a stranger on the way into the elevator, and words of apology tumble out reflexively. But in instances of actual wrongdoing-when we divulge an important secret or speak harshly to a loved one-a shift occurs. Suddenly, guilt and shame take over.
We deflect responsibility and fumble to justify our actions. For many of us, “sorry” really is the hardest word.
The appeal of avoidance
Why is this simple exercise so difficult? Our defensive reflexes may be partly to blame. Karina Schumann, a post-doctoral research fellow in psychology at Stanford University, has studied the act of saying sorry for nine years. She says that our desire to see ourselves in a positive light often prevents us from being accountable.
“Committing an offence can threaten your identity as a good and respectable person,” Schumann explains. And a genuine apology, which involves admitting fault and acknowledging the harm we’ve caused, requires us to confront the fact that we’ve done something wrong.
On top of that, research has shown that refusing to apologize can actually make us feel better about ourselves. A 2013 study from the University of Queensland Business School in Australia found that transgressors who wilfully avoided saying sorry experienced a sense of power and elevated self-worth because they felt as though they were sticking to their guns.
Even when we do consider apologizing, we frequently overestimate how unpleasant the experience will be. A 2014 study published in Social Justice Research revealed that participants often anticipated that saying sorry would be more humiliating and stressful than it actually was.
Despite the discomfort, being accountable benefits us in the long run. Acknowledging our wrongdoing can save us a lot of loss, says Tyler Okimoto, the lead researcher on the University of Queensland study.
“If we refuse [to apologize], we are likely to undermine trust and damage relationships,” he says, noting that the potential benefits of not making amends don’t stand up to the negative outcomes.
A sincere apology can even help salvage a strained relationship: in a 2014 study that analyzed interviews and questionnaire responses from 337 people who had recently been harmed by a partner, researchers from Atlanta’s Emory University found that conciliatory actions reduced anger and sped up forgiveness in participants.
On an individual level, Schumann says, apologies lower the guilt transgressors feel, which can lead to a more positive sense of self over time. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology found that people are consistently more likely to regret not saying sorry than making amends.
The secret of “sorry”
Because so much anxiety is associated with the act, crafting an effective apology is a skill few people possess, according to New York-based psychologist Guy Winch, who has written extensively about relationships and guilt.
A successful effort requires multiple elements: there should be a clear declaration of “sorry,” an expression of regret and a request for forgiveness. Most people try to cover those three points, Winch says, but many fail to include an empathy statement, which acknowledges how the transgression made the victim feel. “An empathy statement shows the apology is not about us, it’s about the other person,” he says.
To that end, “I’m sorry I didn’t show up to your party” doesn’t pass muster. A more effective attempt would be something like this: “I’m sorry I didn’t show up yesterday without calling. That must have made you feel bad. I hope it didn’t put a damper on your night. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
According to Winch, the most common mistake people make is to offer excuses. In focusing on how you’ve hurt another person, avoid trying to justify your behaviour. If you snap at your partner at the end of a frustrating day, it’s fair to explain what caused your short temper-but save your complaints for another conversation.
Schumann’s latest research uncovered a simple trick for those who struggle with apologies. Since the need to preserve a positive self-image is often what makes saying sorry difficult, she believes that taking the time to affirm important personal values before offering restitution can help make the experience less painful and ultimately lead to a more sincere resolution.
One strategy is to think about our own goals, values or the people in our lives who are important. This, Schumann says, restores self-worth by helping us see the bigger picture and making that one instance of bad behaviour seem less threatening to our self-image. “Once the need to defend yourself is weakened,” she explains, “you can focus on offering a better apology.”