5 Reasons Why Some People Just Can't Apologize, According to a Therapist—Plus, What They Tend To Say Instead

A couple arguing without apologizing to each other

Have you ever met someone who would rather do anything but apologize? Or did you try to get an apology out of someone, but they kept dancing around the topic?

Not only is this incredibly frustrating, but it’s also confusing. Why can’t they just say they're sorry? What’s so hard about that? For some people, apologizing is challenging—or it can even be a fear-inducing situation. There are tons of reasons why some people can't apologize. Still, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether they’re afraid of looking weak or just really don’t want to take responsibility for their actions—it’s still hurtful. 

But regardless of the etiology of their hesitation, you should be able to recognize when someone is struggling to give you the condolences you deserve (and, in some cases, need). Developing a strong sense of awareness about this situation is helpful so you know how to move forward with your relationship with that person and with yourself. 

Let’s start by exploring why some people can’t say those two words: "I'm sorry."

Related: Why Apologizing to Your Kids Is Important—Plus, Therapists Explain How To Do It Effectively

5 Reasons Why Some People Can't Apologize, According to a Therapist

Admitting when we’ve done something wrong is difficult. However, when this reluctance to make amends turns into outright refusal, it’s a problem. Here are five reasons why some people struggle with apologizing

1. They want to protect their ego

If someone wants to protect their ego, it doesn’t always mean they have a strong sense of pride. Sometimes, admitting wrongdoing may trigger the fragile part of their ego, seeming like it’s an attack on their self-image. Protecting this self-image takes priority over almost everything in the situation, leading to a reluctance to apologize and a tendency to deflect blame.

2. They have trouble reading social cues

If you’ve ever had a friend who doesn’t seem to pick up when they’ve done something wrong, they may have trouble reading social cues. Even if you flat out tell them they need to apologize, they could struggle to understand why it’s necessary.

Unlike someone who wants to protect their ego, people who don’t have strong social skills don’t always have the awareness to apologize when necessary, even in the most obvious of situations.

However, this can indicate that someone is struggling with a larger problem. If the context is right and you feel it’s appropriate, help them to understand why admitting they hurt your feelings or misstepped in a conversation—but also know that it's not your responsibility to teach someone how to communicate socially, especially when they are wrong.

Related: 8 Phrases To Repeat to Yourself When You're Feeling Anxiety, According to a Therapist

3. They lack emotional intelligence

Going a step beyond not understanding social cues, some people may lack emotional intelligence (EI). Mental Health America defines EI as “the ability to manage both your own emotions and understand the emotions of people around you.”

When someone has little or absolutely no EI, they struggle to recognize the impact of their actions on others—let alone empathize with the emotions of those they’ve hurt. This combination makes it difficult for them to genuinely apologize for the problems or pain they’ve caused.

Related: 12 Common Habits of People With High Emotional Intelligence, According to Psychologists

4. They’re insecure or ashamed about something

It’s well-known that perception is important to social context, but it's everything to someone who can’t apologize. Even if the person they’ve hurt 100 percent deserves an apology, they may fear appearing weak or insecure—despite logically knowing this isn’t the usual outcome of apologizing. Admitting they made a mistake also puts their imperfections out in the open, allowing others to criticize how they’ve handled a situation.

5. They’re afraid of retaliation

When a person can’t apologize, it doesn’t always mean they’re doing so maliciously. They might fear retaliation or another negative outcome, so instead of just saying sorry, they try to avoid it at all costs. While it’s natural to want to avoid confrontation, especially with the people you care about, it’s not right to avoid apologizing or to blame someone else because of nerves.

Related: 5 Apology Letters to Your Boyfriend That Are Sincere, Sweet and to the Point

What They Say Instead

When someone just can’t apologize, what they choose to say probably isn’t comforting and won’t help make the situation any better. In fact, avoiding an apology and inserting another statement isn’t helpful. Here are a few go-to phrases you might hear from someone struggling to admit wrongdoing.

“I’ll say sorry when you do.”

A conditional apology is one of the worst ways to try and make amends. It creates a standoff where the offender and the wronged person wait for the other to apologize first, which only prolongs a chance at resolution. Sincere apologies are mutually exclusive of the other person’s actions—not a way to take the attention off of themselves.

“You started it.”

Although it sounds like a statement from an argument between two kids, deflecting responsibility is a common statement from anyone aged five to 85. It perpetuates a cycle of finger-pointing rather than addressing the actual issue.

Related: 13 Phrases You Should Use During a Fight if You Have a Different Attachment Style Than Your Partner

“I’m sorry if I said something to offend you.”

This apology acknowledges the potential offense but doesn’t address the impact of what happened. Saying “if” instead of giving a concrete example of the wrongdoing creates uncertainty, implying a lack of awareness about the situation, or the person apologizing isn’t taking the conversation seriously.

“Sorry,” With a Touch of Sarcasm

Not only does sarcasm undermine the sincerity and authenticity of an apology. If the person’s tone suggests insincerity, it shows the person they aren’t worthy of reconciliation. Even worse, it could escalate the conflict if it angers the hurt person further.

“I’m such a terrible person, and you must hate me.”

Some people who have trouble apologizing may attempt to justify the action by blaming themselves and their flaws flaw. While it’s possible to empathize with this type of apology, creating a personal attack against their own character usually doesn’t get the guilt or pity they expect.

Related: 11 Phrases To Use if Someone Says You're 'Too Sensitive'

How Does a Narcissist Apologize?

According to the American Psychological Association, narcissism is defined as “excessive self-love or egocentrism.” It’s classified on a spectrum rather than a singular personality type. Contrary to popular portrayal, people with narcissistic traits aren’t just full of themselves. Some of the most identifiable characteristics are a distinct need for praise or accolades, the belief that they deserve special treatment, and that they are unique and more important than others.

While their exact approach to apologizing depends on the level of narcissism they have, most narcissists don’t believe they’ve done any harm to anyone, or if they do, they feel very little remorse about it. Because of this, the likelihood of getting an apology from them is slim—but not impossible.

Related: 9 Ways To Begin Your Emotional Regulation Journey as an Adult, According to a Licensed Therapist

However, at the end of the day, being hurt by a close friend or loved one and not receiving an apology is frustrating, confusing and hurtful—narcissism or not. We all have times when it’s difficult to apologize, but it’s essential to approach conflict with an open mind and feel comfortable admitting when you’ve done something wrong.

Next up, if you have the opposite problem and apologize when things aren't even your fault, here are 10 phrases to replace saying "sorry" as a reflex, according to a therapist.