Why Some People Never Apologize

Have you had it with fauxpologies? Feeling cheated by non-apologies? Do you hate apologies that are mostly just defensive arguing? I’m sorry you feel that way. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains why so many people are resistant to apologizing and offers 5 ways to give a heartfelt (and effective!) apology.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #249

What is the deal with not apologizing?

Eminem says no apologies.

Demi Lovato is sorry, not sorry.

Gibbs on NCIS says Rule #6 is never apologize.

Any one of them might have gotten the idea from John Wayne, who delivers his famous line in 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: “Never apologize—it’s a sign of weakness.”

Even status quo customer service rules say not to apologize. Apparently, customers interpret the word “sorry” as an admission that your product or service is lousy; therefore, apologizing is discouraged and replaced by exasperating phrases like, “Thank you for your flexibility.”

The mystery is only confounded by studies that show how helpful a good apology can be.

For instance, many doctors are told to avoid apologies because it looks like an admission of fault, which might cause patients to sue them. However, not receiving an apology for a bad medical outcome makes patients mad, which according to a study in The Lancet, is the main reason that patients sue their doctors.

The result is a vicious cycle. Thankfully, the implementation of apology laws that declare an apology is not evidence of liability has allowed doctors to apologize, patients to feel heard, and the costs associated with malpractice lawsuits to abate. A study out of Cornell University found that malpractice cases in states with apology laws settle 20% faster and reduce payouts by up to $73,0000 than in states that do not. In other words, allowing apologies literally saves time and money, not to mention repairing damaged emotions and relationships.

Elton John said it perfectly when he sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But why?

Why are we so resistant to apologizing? What’s the problem? Elton John said it perfectly when he sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But why?

One answer lies in a study out of the University of Queensland in Australia

In the study, 219 participants were asked to reflect on a time when they upset someone. Next, half the participants were asked to write a hypothetical email to the person they had wronged, apologizing for their actions. The other half was also told to write an email, but were instructed to explicitly say they refuse to apologize.

Here’s where things get interesting: participants who refused to apologize reported feeling a greater degree of power and control. But even more interesting, they reported feeling more courageous and sincere and less passive than those in the apology condition. In short, the feeling that they were defending themselves, standing their ground, or not giving in made them feel good about themselves. Not apologizing was good for their self-esteem.

If withholding an apology gives us a sense of strength and integrity, it’s no wonder that some folks can’t say, “I’m sorry.”

But here’s the twist. If not apologizing makes us feel strong, you would think that apologizing had the opposite effect. But according to the study, instead of making apologizers feel weak, passive, or degraded, offering an apology also enhanced feelings of power, control, courage, and sincerity, and made apologizers feel good about themselves. Apologizing and not apologizing was good for self-esteem.

So why the split? Here’s my hypothesis: Apologizing is fundamentally about relationship repair. After knocking someone down, whether accidentally or not, apologizing is the act of helping them back up. 

Apologizing is fundamentally about relationship repair. After knocking someone down, whether accidentally or not, apologizing is the act of helping them back up.

But individuals who don’t apologize think that in order to help a wronged party up, they have to cut themselves down. In short, people who don’t apologize confuse apologizing with submission. They think an apology is a form of debasement, degradation, or shame rather than a form of outreach, restoration, and repair. It makes sense. If you think an apology is humiliating, of course you’re not going to do it.

But it doesn’t have to feel that way. This week, here are 5 tips to offer an apology that leaves everyone feeling good.

Tip #1:  I’m sorry I, not I’m sorry you…

You can immediately tell the difference between a heartfelt, sincere apology and a fake apology by the word that follows “I’m sorry.” If the word is “I,” you’re on the right track, but if the word is “you,” the statement is less of an apology and more of a defensive stance. The mother of all non-apologies?  “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Close cousins include “I’m sorry you were offended,” and “I’m sorry you took it that way.”

Instead, try for “I.” “I’m sorry I said that.” “I’m sorry I overreacted.” “I’m sorry; I was out of line.”

Tip #2: Resist using the word “but.”

Just when we think we’re in the clear, the very next word in the apology pops up. What to avoid? The word “but.” As a wise person once said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

For example: “I’m sorry I said that, but I was only joking.” “I’m sorry I screwed up, but I was drunk.” “I’m sorry for the things I did wrong, but many of these accusations are unfounded.”

Resist the urge to defend yourself. If you must, you can do it later, but not during the initial apology.

Resist the urge to defend yourself. If you must, you can do it later, but not during the initial apology. You may think of it as a reason or an explanation, but the person you’re apologizing to only hears an excuse, which is a guaranteed way to infuriate and alienate.

Tip #3: Resist “LOL” and cute emojis.

If your apology is via text or social media, resist the urge to temper the situation with an LOL, or, for that matter, with a smiley emoji of any variety. It’s meant to lighten the mood and come across as cheerful or easygoing, but that’s exactly the problem. It takes away from the sincerity and significance of the apology. 

This doesn’t mean you have to be graveyard serious. A simple, “Sorry, I’m realizing that didn’t come off the way I intended,” or “Whoops. Insert foot in mouth. You have my apologies,” can suffice without making the apology ring hollow by adding the laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji.

Tip #4: At least get started.

If you’re a habitual non-apologizer, but want to improve, you can at least get started with some arm’s-length, holding-your-nose apologies. Call it “My First Apology” by Fisher Price.

Some examples of almost-there apologies? “I’m sorry for my contribution to this” “I’m sorry for my part in our fight.” “I’m sorry this has become so difficult.” They’re not perfect, but they don’t have to be perfect. It’s better to give a starter apology than none at all.

Tip #5: Put the relationship first.

Underneath all the semantics and etiquette guidelines, this is the fundamental driving concept. An apology isn’t about placing or accepting blame, or determining who’s right or wrong. Instead, it’s about repairing a relationship. Indeed, never apologizing within a relationship is a surefire way to endanger it. Apologies allow you to metaphorically reach out a hand, turn stony silence into fruitful communication, and move forward with dignity and strength.

The take home? No matter what John Wayne says, apologizing isn’t weak or submissive—it’s strong and powerful, not to mention pragmatic and effective. Indeed, a good apology is nothing to be sorry about.


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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.