What an Inability to Apologise Says About Your Character

What an Inability to Apologise Says About Your Character

If you’ve been paying attention to the news of late, you’ll likely be aware that on November 30, Scott Morrison faced a censure motion in parliament over secret ministries. One key takeaway from the event is that there have been multiple calls for the former prime minister to apologise for his actions. As yet, that has not happened.

Morrison gave a number of statements about his actions, but perhaps most notably, instead of showing remorse, he pointed to the pressures of ‘dealing with a crisis’.

“For those who wish to add their judgement today on my actions in supporting this censure motion, I simply suggest that they stop and consider the following: have you ever had to deal with a crisis where the outlook was completely unknown?” Morrison said.

In response, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (among others) has stressed that the Australian public is owed an apology from Morrison for his act in “the undermining of democracy”.

“I thought this morning that we would see some contrition. A semblance of contrition. We got none of that. We got hubris and … we got denial,” Albanese said.

“The former prime minister owes an apology, not to people who he shared brekkie with at The Lodge.

“He owes an apology to the Australian people for the undermining of democracy, and that’s why this motion should be supported by every member of this House.”

With all that considered, we thought we’d take a look at the psychology of apologies and why some people simply cannot muster the ability to say the words “I’m sorry”.

Why can’t some people apologise?

Guy Winch, a psychologist who has given three TED talks, has written on this topic a little and offers some interesting insight.

He has explained that failing to apologise is not an act reserved only for the most inconsiderate of us. It’s something most people will do at some point.

Usually, Winch shared, there are two reasons someone will refuse to apologise:

  1. “We don’t care enough about the other person or the relationship to take on the emotional discomfort of owning our mistake and apologising for it.”
  2. “We believe our apology won’t matter.”

However, consistently failing to apologise for bad behaviour is another thing entirely.

Winch explained that when people cannot apologise, it is usually connected to very low self-esteem and “fragile egos”. Their need to hang on to being right is a defence mechanism that gives them a sense of power, and they’ll often blame others (or external factors) in order to avoid any uncomfortable feelings.

Secure people will still feel the discomfort of offering an apology and owning up to making a mistake, but their feelings of self-worth are strong enough that they can handle this experience and go through with it anyway, Winch shared.

On the other hand, folks with sensitive egos will avoid it at all costs. And while it may present to some as a “strong” act, Winch stressed that it’s actually the very opposite.

“…many of us mistakenly interpret these people’s fragility-driven defensiveness as a sign of psychological strength. That’s because outwardly they appear to be tough individuals who refuse to back down. But they don’t do this because they’re strong — it’s because they’re weak,” he wrote.

In addition to all that, studies indicate that being unable to apologise may be linked to more self-criticism, too. As Vice shared back in 2018, a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences highlighted that people who are less self-compassionate tend to find it harder to apologise.

The study states that:

“Because self-compassionate people withhold self-judgment and become less overwhelmed by experiencing negative emotions, they tend to face rather than withdraw from challenging situations.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Roberta Babb spoke with Stylist about this confusing character trait and shared that apologising can bring up uncomfortable emotions like “anxiety, guilt, shame or sadness”, and for some, facing those feelings head-on is all a bit much.

“It takes courage to face our capacity to be hurtful and destructive,” she said.

So, in short. If you’ve ever encountered someone who cannot seem to be able to apologise (or if you are, in fact, that person), it’s probably a sign that a little internal work needs to be done. We all mess up from time to time, but being able to own up to that is a life skill we all need to spend some time mastering.

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