I would argue that it is a tenet of the human condition that no one wants to feel like they actually suck.
That’s why apologizing is such a chore for us. By truly saying that you’re sorry, for your actions and their effects, you are basically admitting, even for just a moment, that you suck. When everyone judges themselves by their intentions, and judges everyone else for their actions, it’s easy to call someone else a bad person but balk at being a bad person yourself.
It makes sense, really. It’s pride, and ego, and all of that other stuff that really falls under the umbrella of self-preservation. It’s respectable to have principles and morals and ethics and to be a stand-up Good Samaritan. We don’t see ourselves in Forever 21 dressing room mirrors. We see ourselves in the best light possible.
It’s how we get through the day. It’s how we deal with all of the crap that happens to us. I’m a good person, so all of this tragedy and bullshit is unfair. I’m a good person, so eventually there will be karmic retribution and the rollercoaster will go up, up, up, and good things will happen again.
I am just as guilty of this as everyone I know. Even with the armor of self-deprecation protecting me from labels like “conceited, “narcissistic,” and “egotistical,” I still think I’m awesome. I still think I’m deserving of Spontaneous Goodness, from the world and from my friends and from my actions.
Whether this is true or not, and I freely confess that it probably isn’t, most of the time this mind frame keeps me sane. When I think of myself with positivity, I tend to rise to the occasion. I think of myself as an altruistic, generous person, and I don’t want there to be proof of the opposite, so I’m spurred on to actually be altruistic and generous or whatever other good qualities the world is praising that day. Does that make the altruism and generosity fake? I don’t know, and I don’t really care, because I am convinced of my own good intentions and care for my fellow human beans.
Besides, every media source suggests Confidence™ as the end-all, be-all, yadda yadda. I guess some falsity is the trade-off from acquiring that confidence. Fake it till ya make it, am I right?
So apologizing totally topples all of that good confidence work we do. We spend precious time trying to persuade ourselves that we are special, that we are deserving and good, just for an instant of non-specialness and sometimes even cruelty to reverse it all. Apologizing is like that dreaded “GAME OVER” screen that brings us right back to the beginning.
But that’s why it’s so pivotal. It’s like nature’s version of checks and balances. When we get so beyond ourselves that we hurt someone else, we need to check our ego and balance our thoughts. It’s hard, but it’s necessary.
Being sorry is a lot more than two measly words. Regardless of the severity of the original transgression, apologizing is demonstrating proof of the importance of the relationship. This only makes it harder, unfortunately.
I am personally a lousy apologizer. I have a hard time separating my intentions from what actually happened. Even worse, as an over-thinker, I am able to immediately file through everything good that I’ve done for the individual I’ve hurt, effectively diminishing- at least to me- the crime of what I said or did. I’ve been hurt before. I know what it feels like. But I struggle to compare the people who have hurt me to myself.
That’s only when I’ve actually done something wrong, of course. When I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m great at apologizing. I’ll apologize to pieces of furniture that I accidentally bumped into. Sometimes I’ll even apologize for my existence, a sad trend that is gaining prevalence among my peers. A study by Harvard Business School concluded that, when a researcher began a request to use a stranger’s cell phone with a quick, unsolicited, and unrelated “I’m sorry,” the researcher was offered the phone 47 percent of the time as opposed to the 9 percent of the time the researcher didn’t use the magic words and wasn’t given the phone.
There’s a metaphor about the difficulties of human intimacy that I really love. It’s called the hedgehog’s dilemma, or sometimes the porcupine dilemma. In cold weather, hedgehogs seek others in order to share body heat. But because of their sharp spines, they must keep a safe distance. They want close relationships, but they can’t have the proximity that they desire for fear of hurting each other.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the psychologist Sigmund Freud have both used this situation to describe the role of the individual in society. Despite goodwill, we can’t get too close to each other because it will create mutual harm and weaker relationships. Our quills just can’t help but poke each other.
A cute fun fact: When Freud came to the United States in 1919, he was adorably excited to see a porcupine, a native species there, and even said about his trip: “I am going to the USA to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.”
I guess the moral of the story is moderation. If we moderate our self-interest while simultaneously moderating our consideration for others, we might just end up floating in the happy medium. But we can only learn this after a few foibles, after a few wrongdoings and a few carefully constructed apologies—so don’t be too hard on yourself, okay?