'No sorry or thank you' in a friendship. It’s a phrase we’ve heard often. For Abu Dhabi-based Gautam George, that statement is a slap in the face. “It’s so tone-deaf and generic," says annoyed George. “No wonder most of us are suffering from various mental health issues. It’s because of words like that.”
There’s a reason for George’s irritation with that phrase. As he reveals, it’s why he shares a rather fractured relationship with his sister, who is three years older than him. “She used to bully me so much as a child, by making fun of me the way I spoke, as I lisped a lot. She teased me about the games that I played, or the cartoons I watched. I actually had lost confidence and never went for any acting competitions, even though I really wanted to. Finally, as we grew older, she stopped, probably because I was better at hitting back,” he says.
Yet, the scars still twinge.
His sister has never apologised for her behaviour, though according to George, she feels some amount of guilt. “I think she does, because she just says, ‘Yeah I could have been better to you’, as if that statement is enough.” It still rankles George that she has never ever apologised properly for all the bullying in childhood. “It was too formative for me and it does make me angry, when I think about it. But my parents don’t see it as a problem either, as we’re family,” he says. “They always tell me, love means never having to say sorry. How convenient,” he adds, rather derisively. Their fights in adulthood have grown far worse, to the point of practical estrangement. “I once told her that she never accepts her fault, even when it so clearly is,” he recalls.
How did his sister respond to this confrontation? “Her reasoning was that everyone, including our parents and aunts who helped bringing us up, would keep scolding her for everything when she was growing up. They kept forcing her to say sorry, even when it wasn’t her fault,” he says. “So, now she has a problem with saying sorry, because she feels that she is letting her guard down.”
Apology: An ego hassle?
Many people find it difficult to apologise. As time goes by, it gets harder to say those words. And, it becomes harder to receive, too. Why so?
There is a complex interaction of psychological, emotional, and social elements that underly people's difficulty in apologising, even when they know they are in the wrong. “People often avoid apologising because it can trigger strong emotions like guilt, shame, or anxiety,” explains Dubai-based Charlotte Stebbing-Mills, a stress and relief well-being specialist. Saying sorry forces them to confront their negative feelings, both past and present. “They often want to apologise, but subconsciously part of them is trying to protect themselves from emotional discomfort,” she says.
Stress also prevents them from confronting their mistake and apologising, says Mills. The thought of apologising triggers avoidance behaviours and defense mechanisms. “Typically, people will ignore, withdraw, resist or deny their wrongdoing than face the added stress of admitting fault,” she says. It is a threat to the ego, as apologising can compel someone to face their mistakes, says Joelle Chabrine, a Dubai-based wellness expert from the mental health platform Chearful.com. It makes them feel vulnerable and exposed.
They often want to apologise, but subconsciously part of them is trying to protect themselves from emotional discomfort
“The reason why apologies are so difficult, is that we tend to instinctively avoid anything that challenges our self-image as well as the associated feelings of shame, inadequacy, inferiority, or humiliation,” she adds. Saying sorry takes a hit to the ego, or so they feel. They also see it as an admission of guilt, and that their 'weakness' has been exposed. There are several perceptions attached to the idea of apologies, some of them decidedly false, explains Chabrine. Hence, they go into denial, or worse rationalise their actions, falsify facts to protect themselves from the discomfort they feel, she adds.
This embarrassment stems from the fear of social judgement, elaborates Gurveen Ranger, a clinical psychologist at Sage Clinics. "By apologising we open ourselves up to potential criticism and disproval, and therefore rejection from the ‘in-group” we want to remain part of," she says. Shame fuels this step further as admitting to a mistake may have a negative impact on our fundamental worthiness and self-esteem. "Blame shifting can occur as a defense mechanism here, in order to protect the ego and sense of self-worth. This often happens at a subconscious level so the person may not even realise they are doing this as a means of protecting their self-esteem," adds Ranger.
“Instead of seeing it as a sincere statement of remorse and empathy, they think that saying sorry entails admitting incompetence or guilt,” she says. Instead, they would rather blame others and indulge in aggression, knowing that they are in the wrong.
‘It cost me close friendships’
Nabanita Chatterjee, a thirty-four-year-old accountant based in Abu Dhabi admits that she could never say sorry to people in her adolescent years, till her mid-twenties. This trait unfortunately dominated her personal relationships. “It took years to unlearn that habit, to admit that I could be wrong. I just hated the thought of being told I was wrong. I had a desire to be right all the time. It felt humiliating and embarassing, to know that I could make a mistake. But I saw that it was costing me close friendships. I’ve lost friends for this reason, because I just couldn’t acknowledge that I had said something that hurt them,” says Chatterjee, admitting that she had once said something “rather cruel” to her childhood friend.
By apologising we open ourselves up to potential criticism and disproval, and therefore rejection from the ‘in-group' we want to remain part of. Blame shifting can occur as a defense mechanism here, in order to protect the ego and sense of self-worth. This often happens at a subconscious level...
“I convinced myself it was an over-reaction. We didn’t talk for several years, because I didn’t apologise. Now we talk, but it’s not the same. Maybe if I had apologised sooner, I would still have my friend,” she adds.
The fear of consequences
People also fear apologising as they are worried about the consequences. “They fear that by admitting their error, people can take advantage of them. Alternatively, the harmed person or society as a whole could punish or retaliate against them. They may also worry that their apology won't be accepted, which could make their experience even worse,” explains Chabrine.
Moreover, strong emotions like pride, rage and resentment become firm barriers. These emotions overpower judgement, making it far more challenging to apologise.
Power dynamics and conflict in the workplace
The dynamics of the relationship also play a role in whether the other side will receive an apology. “In many cases, a certain power play is involved, and one side may be more reluctant to apologise due to a history of conflicts or power disparities,” says Chabrine. “Consequently, they choose not to apologise out of concern that it would damage their standing in the relationship,” she says. This is a common occurrence in the workplace.
“I’ve worked in places where bosses and seniors have absolutely refused to apologise. If you make a mistake, it’s on you. If they make a mistake, it’s still on you,” says Laura Wilson, a Dubai-based American expat, who works in corporate communications. “My boss sent out a press release with an error once, and he refused to admit that it was his fault,” she says.
Conflict, especially in the workplace, can make it a hostile work environment, says Mercedes Sheen, a professor in psychology at Herriot-Watt University, Dubai. "However, some people feel that admitting to one mistake will open the floodgates to past indiscretions,” she says. “They may also feel that in apologising, they take full responsibility for a situation and absolve everyone else from any blame. For instance, in an argument with a colleague, they may worry that apologising lets the counterpart off the hook entirely, despite the fact they were both responsible for the disagreement,” adds Sheen.
Hierarchal relationships within a workplace naturally create a power imbalance, adds Ranger. " Those in positions of power may be more likely to perceive apologising as a concession of authority," she says.
How do we deal with a lack of apology? Do we deal with it, at all?
Like author Martina Boone had written in her book, Illusion, “Sorry’ isn’t a synonym for ‘guilty.’ It's a way to say you're listening.”
However, some people feel that admitting to one mistake will open the floodgates to past indiscretions. They may also feel that in apologising, they take full responsibility for a situation and absolve everyone else from any blame...
“To even begin to think about apologising, one needs to have empathy. Some people have trouble empathising, which makes it difficult for them to comprehend how their actions affect other people and, as a result, to really apologise,” says Chabrine. In essence, people need to see how their actions and words affect other people.
Chabrine breaks it down how to confront the non-apologists in a workplace:
Reflect on your own thoughts and feelings: Take some time to reflect on your own feelings and the impact their lack of apology has had on you. Clarify to yourself why you believe the other person should apologise and how the situation is influencing your work or well-being. "Self-awareness and empathy are key," says Ranger. "Ask yourself how your actions might have affected someone else."
Use the right time and place: Decide on a private and quiet setting with minimal distractions. Avoid making a scene in front of coworkers and try choosing a low-stress moment.
Use 'I' statements: When expressing your needs, use 'I' phrases to avoid blaming or accusing the other person, as that would only trigger a defensive reaction. You can say, "I felt hurt when X happened, and I think an apology would help resolve the matter," as opposed to, "You made me feel bad."
Be specific and give examples: When addressing such matters, avoid using sweeping generalisations, such as "You hurt me." Instead, clearly state the actions or occurrences that hurt you or made you feel the need to hear an apology. Giving specific examples can help the other person understand where you are coming from.
Listen: Be open to hearing their side of the story. There is a chance they were not intending to hurt you. Be prepared to hear what they have to say and try to understand things from their point of view.
Your self-worth doesn’t need an apology
If a person isn’t willing to apologise to you, it doesn’t reflect your worth, explains Mills. She also advises to try not taking things so personally, as it leads to negative emotions like anger, resentment or hurt. By doing so, you maintain control over your emotional response. “When you don't take someone else's failure to apologise personally, you empower yourself to focus on your own growth and well-being. You're not dependent on their actions or validation to feel good about yourself,” she says.
Mills also points out that while apologies are important for resolving conflicts and maintaining healthy relationships, not every situation requires one. “Sometimes, people may genuinely not realise they've hurt you or may believe they didn't do anything wrong. In such cases, it may not be a personal slight but rather a matter of differing perspectives,” she says. "If we learn to not things personally, we can find it easier to forgive and move on. Holding onto personal hurt can be detrimental to your own well-being. By letting go of the need for an apology, you can begin the process of healing and find closure independently."