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Carolyn Hax: Why do some people struggle to say, ‘I’m sorry’?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Some people have a hard time saying “I’m sorry” even when their apology could end a lot of pain on both sides of the conflict. In your opinion, why?

— Sorry Can’t Say Sorry

Sorry Can’t Say Sorry: In my opinion: Because some people’s senses of self are too fragile to risk any admission of fault, frailty or vulnerability. They must keep up the facade of being tremendous, the best ever. It’s extreme self-protective behavior that matches the extreme degree of emotional need to be important, which can never be met.

And you’re right, it perpetuates a painful situation, but not just for the person being wronged and denied validation or amends. It also prolongs the pain for the person committing the wrong or causing the conflict — arguably more so, because the person who can never admit fault or apologize eventually becomes the loneliest person on earth.

Again, in my opinion. I could be wrong.

Readers’ thoughts:

· I think there’s often baggage from childhood and family of origin that sets this up.

· If the person was shamed as a child for doing something “bad” or was raised in a shame-based religion, then it can be hard to learn to apologize for one’s wrongdoing. A lot of people were taught as kids that they should always do right, and if they do wrong, they have failed and should be ashamed — not that they screwed up and can learn from it. Don’t ask me how I know this.

· If you were brought up in a home where the most important thing was being right, about whatever was under discussion, then you’ll find it very difficult to say you’re sorry. I know I did. Finally I realized the world wouldn’t end if I happened to be mistaken, that it was possible to recognize I had in fact been wrong and I’d still live through it. Then it became much easier to admit my errors, and it’s led to a much more peaceful life.

I’ve seen family members bicker over whether something happened on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and besides the fact that it just doesn’t matter to the telling of the anecdote, it’s really not a good look on them.

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Dear Carolyn: I don’t color-treat my hair. I have a good deal of gray, and the texture is now quite grizzled. My new workplace has about 30 employees, mostly women, every one of whom either dyes their hair or is young enough not to need to, and many younger employees dye their hair too. This wouldn’t bother me at all, except it is a frequent topic of conversation, and I’ve gotten sidelong glances and been directly questioned about it. The truth is, I think most people who dye their hair because of age are fooling themselves, so I decided to “age gracefully.” But I don’t want to insult the other older women. Any suggestions on what to say next time the topic comes up, which it does at least weekly?

— Aging Gracefully

Aging Gracefully: 1. Where the fox do you work that this comes up ever, much less on a weekly basis?

2. There’s no need to bring counter-judging to a judging party.

3. “I like it this way.” Every time, verbatim. If someone sees that as an opening to disagree with you, then you can point out that they’re disagreeing with you on how you feel about something, which is just big-smile and shaking-my-head territory.