It's hard to forge a connection with someone who believes they're never wrong.
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Being in a relationship with someone who never apologizes usually feels somewhere on the spectrum between confusing and soul-crushing. It can be hard to forge authentic connections with someone who seems to believe he or she is never wrong.
For what it’s worth to those in such one-sided relationships, a new study has found that people who are less willing to apologize also tend to be less self-compassionate. And it’s not a sense of flawlessness that keeps them from saying "sorry," it’s the opposite: Unapologetic people may actually be so mired in shame of their wrongdoings that they withdraw from the situation entirely.
“Even when it’s really needed, people can still be very reluctant to apologize. This research is exciting because it’s helped us identify some of the factors that might make it easier to do the right thing and apologize,” says Anna Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis, a grad student in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and the lead researcher on the forthcoming study, which will be published in the April issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
It isn’t that self-compassionate people don’t experience feelings of shame about their mistakes, though they do tend to experience lower levels of shame overall. It’s that people who practice self-kindness are less likely to act on the experience of being ashamed by avoiding or withdrawing.
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Self-compassion involves three key components—the ability to extend kindness toward oneself in times of suffering, the understanding that all humans make mistakes, and the ability to notice when suffering arises and observe difficult thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Because people with higher levels of self-compassion are able to step back from the negative emotions that are often triggered by mistakes or failures, they're more able to lean in to difficult situations rather than withdraw from or avoid them. Those who lack self-compassion, on the other hand, are more likely to be drawn to shameful thoughts and feelings, processing them as a reflection of their value and worth.
On top of confirming that self-compassionate people tend to apologize more often than those who are overwhelmed by the shame of their mistakes, these findings also provide key insights into the psychological processes behind the behaviors that can make or break a relationship.
“There are factors that prohibit people from apologizing, and self-compassion points to one way to increase that willingness and take away those barriers,” Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis says.
A growing body of clinical research supports the use of practices like meditation and imagery as tools to foster higher levels of self-compassion. If self-compassion is, in fact, linked with greater willingness to apologize, these findings point to an opportunity to utilize such tools to improve conflict resolution and relationship satisfaction. A partner who never takes responsibility for their mistakes, for instance, could engage in practices designed to foster self-compassion as a way to work through the barriers that keep them from saying sorry and drive a wedge in their relationship.
Importantly, not all apologies are created equal. A quick, cold “sorry” is rarely as effective as an apology that includes validation of the other's feelings, an explanation of what went wrong, and a plan to do better in the future. These findings raised questions about the role self-compassion may play in not only the frequency, but also the quality and effectiveness of apologies.
“When people feel very defensive, they often have lower-quality apologies that are less likely to be accepted by the other person," Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis says. "In the future, we could look at whether having more self-compassion could actually lead to a better-quality apology.”
Better apologies increase the likelihood of healthy reconciliation, which could lead to significant positive impacts on the overall health of a relationship. But it’s also possible that self-compassion could have adverse effects. Self-compassionate people could conceivably be less likely to apologize, due to an increased willingness to accept one’s flaws as a natural part of being human. Taken too far, a less condemning attitude toward personal wrongdoings could potentially backfire, and decrease the likelihood of making amends.
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(Correction 2/2/18: This article originally stated that the study author, Anna Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis, is a professor of psychology. She is actually a grad student.)