We all hear things like, “nobody’s perfect” and “to err is human,” but, as a whole, we all have a pretty difficult time apologizing for our mistakes. Whether it is our politicians or to our significant others…or even to our kids, apologizing for our mistakes is sometimes excruciatingly difficult to do. And I’ll admit it, for a long time, I struggled with admitting mistakes and apologizing. But I try to practice what I preach, and I think I have improved quite a bit over time.
I’ll date myself on this recollection, but I remember watching Happy Days as a kid and, occasionally, “the Fonz” would have to admit he was wrong, but he couldn’t get the words out. He’d say something like, “I was w..w…wr…wr…” and then he have to find some comedic, euphemistic workaround because he couldn’t actually say those words. Remember those episodes? But it gets far worse than the Fonz’s struggles – spouses have ended marriages and family members and friends have become estranged rather than one person “give in” and admit to being wrong. Then there are people who would literally rather die than to admit they are wrong…and I know there are countless examples of this throughout history.
With a quick reflection, we can see this is true in ourselves as well – that is, if we can be honest with ourselves about making the mistake of not admitting our mistakes! Such a curious thing – why is so hard to admit when we are wrong? I mean, we all know we make mistakes…intellectually. But very strong emotions can get in the way of admitting them. Somehow it seems we are diminished in some way if we admit our mistakes.
So, instead of admitting mistakes, we often get defensive. But when we become defensive about something about which we are wrong, what is it that we are actually defending? Think about – what is it that it at that is at stake?
Here’s one way of looking at this that makes sense to me. We all have a automatic flight/fight/freeze response when we feel physically threatened. Just like in other animals, this a hard-wired survival instinct. In the state of nature, if we don’t defend ourselves (or take flight) when physically threatened, we might die.
Psychologically, we come to identify ourselves with many things – our football team, our religion, our political party, our ideas, and positions. When these are under a perceived attack (as in someone holds a different view/position that comes into conflict with our own), our psychological sense of self feels threatened. So, in essence, we become defensive to fight for our “psychological” survival. OMG – if we admit that we are wrong, we might die!
The funny thing is, if we are able to step back from this farce, we see that it is all smoke and mirrors. Like the Great & Powerful Oz, who presents as a scary, formidable figure, when we pull back that curtain, we realize there is nothing to fear.
Let’s try this strategy to see things from a better vantage point. Imagine that you are in conflict with someone else, and they are wrong about something in particular and, ultimately, they admit that they are in error and concede the point. How do you feel about them? Do you think less of them…or more of them? Do you hold it against them…or feel less anger/animosity now that they have owned up to the error of their thinking/ways? If you are like most people, you generally have a more favorable view of others when they admit their mistakes.
Now, what do you think that other person…be it your significant other, your co-worker, or your friend…thinks of you when you admit to a mistake? Hmm…very interesting. Let’s look more at this next week in Part 2 of The Power of an Apology.