By Sanah Thakur
Humankind has evolved to become a supremely higher functioning organism, with the potential to learn almost any skill. Yet, I have observed that some people would much rather invest their energy in studying for a complicated exam or train to code computers, than spit out a simple apology. Why doesn’t saying sorry come naturally? Are some people programmed to apoligose more than others? Will taking responsibility for our wrong doings make us psychologically healthier? These are the questions I have often pondered over.
Naturally, we don’t like to apologise
“To err is to be human” is a popular quote we often hear, used to dampen the anxiety of our individual mistakes. However, to realise ones’ errors and admit to the negative consequences isn’t something biologically programmed into being human. In the hierarchal structures that have existed for centuries, power is our most valuable survival aid. But the act of apologising involves voluntarily putting oneself in a position of less power, quite ineffective for our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Research has also found that producing an authentic apology requires overcoming a natural tendency to resist apoligising to avoid looking weak or being rejected. It is therefore clear how much energy really needs to be focused into an apology and why it’s easier to avoid it.
Link to personality traits
While nature may have made it difficult to say sorry, nurture has developed certain personality traits that make it easier for some. In 2015, a study examined 6 personality traits, including honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience, and their correlation with the desire to apologise. The results revealed that people who are humble, honest and conscientious (self-aware), were more likely to say sorry. Individuals with the honest-humility trait are seen to be more straightforward, genuine, adjusting to modest lifestyles and less self- important. While those very low on this trait, were comfortable lying and manipulating others for greater self-gain. It’s no wonder then, why the apology disabled people in our lives generally tend to gain less respect from us.
Research into individual differences in apologising has also showed that guilt is crucial to an apology. People who experience guilt after a mistake, a feeling following the negative evaluation of that mistake, in turn experience empathy and the desire to reconcile. On the other hand, people who display shame upon a wrongdoing, negatively evaluating the entire self as opposed to the behaviour, tend to externalise the blame and avoid the situation. I personally believe there’s real measurable courage in accepting blame than holding elaborate pillars that point elsewhere.
Health benefits of ‘sorry’
Apologising clearly doesn’t seem natural, easy or desirable- but neither do other ‘healthy’ things we require for positive well-being. Saying ‘I’m sorry’ can resolve conflict and improve relationships as well as be psychologically nutritional. An apology has the power to dissolve anger and reduce stress levels. When you don’t apologise, you are unconsciously holding onto negative emotions that reappear in the form of anxiety, depression, heart disease, muscle aches or ulcers. They can also ham your nervous system and destruct clear thinking pathways. Research has proven that receiving an apology has positive physical effects such as reduced blood pressure, slower heart rate and steady breathing. When we receive an apology, the wrongdoer no longer poses as a threat and the constant state of fear is resolved. Apart from being mutually beneficial, sincere apologies also emphasise an individual’s belief in self-improvement and reflection, making them more trustworthy and reliable.
It’s easy to say we learn from our mistakes, that by making them often enough we’ll habitually stop repeating them; that they teach us the value of getting things right. I have learnt from my experiences, that mistakes only heal when we own up to them. When we lose focus of our own needs and feelings and focus on those of the ones affected by our wrongdoing. A sincere apology comes from accepting not only the fact that to err is to be human, but from exposing our vulnerability of fearing rejection or shame and taking pride in it.
Start saying sorry by:
1- Apologising to strangers, so you fear rejection less.
2- Replacing behaviours (such as buying gifts, sending flowers) that you perceive as an apology, with verbal confrontation.
3- Practising multiple times to gain confidence.
4- Writing it down instead of vocalising it.
5- Reflecting on what the act of apologising revealed about you.
6- Not expecting one in return.
* The author can be contacted on Instagram @sincerelysanah
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