Studying sorry: That person who didn't apologize can't forgive themselves either

Sorry, but it might not be about you at all.

Sorry, but it might not be about you at all.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

We've all had to apologize for something; it's often an initially unpleasant experience but positively humbling in the end. We've also been on the other end – hurt or offended enough that we expect an apology – but sometimes, it never comes. What goes on in the mind of a person who doesn't apologize even when they know they should?? We often chalk these individuals up to being pompous or ignorant… but according to a new study, the opposite might be true; those who don't apologize may be feeling too much shame to do so.

A study out of the University Of Pittsburgh sought to examine the internal lock of the apologetic versus the unremorseful and, although the sample size was relatively small, the findings were intriguing enough to behoove further research. The study examined 1,272 university students between the ages of 17 and 42. First, participants completed a modified version of the Self-Compassion Scale, designed to measure an individual's level of compassion for themselves during various instances of failure, which researchers then used to calculate an overall self-compassion score for each subject. Next, participants completed the Proclivity To Apologize Measure and were assigned an overall score on their willingness to apologize. Lastly, participants completed the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale, which measured withdrawal after transgressions were exposed (shame) along with negative self-perceptions of their actions (guilt).

Measuring the correlations between each test score, the data revealed that individuals with higher levels self-compassion were more willing to apologize to others for their own transgressions. Furthermore, researchers noted that shame and guilt provided a mediating link between the two, in the sense that higher levels of guilt and shame would result in an individual having low self-compassion and thus, less likely to apologize to others. Researchers suggest this link could indicate that, instead of being ignorantly unremorseful (as we might default to assuming), non-apologizers are perhaps so riddled with guilt and shame that they'd rather withdraw than own up to their actions. Conversely, it seems as though those who are more willing to apologize are actually better able to remove themselves from their emotional shame and view the situation more objectively, in order to recognize and make the needed apology.

Knowing more study needs to be done in these areas, researchers wonder if the ability to show self-compassion relates to the ability to show compassion toward others (instead of placing blame) and actively becoming the "bigger" person in a situation. Delving into the hows and whys of apologizing is perhaps especially relevant in the age of the public apology, with famed persons falling short of giving a full and satisfying apology; often avoiding, justifying or even denying their actions and consequences while simultaneously hoping for forgiveness for them. Hopefully, further findings like these will allow us to become more aware of how we function when we make a mistake and help us objectively identify our role and motivation toward apologizing for it.

So if you're struggling to say sorry, perhaps consider that forgiving yourself might help you get over the roadblock. Or, if it's you who feels you didn't get an apology you deserve, maybe it's a small comfort to know that shame, not lack of caring, might be behind the delay.