Are We Really Sorry?

During one of the team discussions, a colleague asked, "What behaviors do you tolerate in your close ones but can't stand in the case of others?" I responded that I couldn't take it when someone said "sorry," and yet they kept repeating the same behavior for which they're apologetic. Another colleague was intrigued by my response, and they asked, "Do you think saying sorry is driven by behavior change or mindset change?" I have been thinking about the question ever since.

When we say "sorry," do we mean it? Let’s look into it with my example. I used to have a problem managing my time. I still do in some aspects. But not until very long ago, I got to places late by 10-15 minutes at the least. I apologized duly, but guess what? I reached late again the next time. I knew I needed to work toward managing my time better, but I could not take concrete actions to change my ways. What came naturally to me was feeling guilty and apologizing for being late. Yet, now I’m convinced that all the while I was saying sorry and getting late again the next time, I didn’t feel sorry at all. I felt justified in my being late for one reason or another, which is far from a mindset change.

I have also seen people in my family and friend circle making hurtful comments to each other in anger and apologizing in the aftermath. A few days later, I found them doing the same thing again. If we feel justified in hurting someone again after apologizing for the same behavior a few days ago, did we ever mean to apologize?

Worse, we start thinking of ways to correct the other person- at that moment or immediately after apologizing to them. Why does this happen? It happens because of our self-deception (a problem of not knowing that we have a problem or that we could be contributing to the same problem we're so blatantly complaining about). Recall a wearisome situation with your partner when you both argued. Maybe you felt torn- whether you should risk making things worse by venting your frustrations or saying sorry and ending the problem right there. Let's go with the latter option. You said sorry. Does that guarantee you might not have had thoughts like- 'Why should I say sorry?' 'They think they're better than me?!' 'Sorry, my foot!' 'The next time, I am going to make them say sorry to me.' Think of the time you apologized to a colleague, a parent, a child, or a friend- can you assure that you never had those thoughts with these people as well?

We often think that saying sorry can help solve problems, even if we don't genuinely mean it. But let's be honest with ourselves and try to understand where we're going wrong. When we apologize from a place of insincerity and lack of empathy- others can sense this. Even if our behaviors change, people can determine that our mindset is the same. The reason is that the underlying 'mindset' drives our behaviors on the outside. We might deceive ourselves and others once, twice, or thrice, but sooner or later, it would be out in the open that we never entirely meant what we were showing. Believe me; there's nothing more hurtful than this in any relationship. But why does this happen again? Of course, it boils down to being self-deceptive, and another layer of self-deception is that we start operating with a self-focused mindset.

With a 'self-focused mindset,' we treat people around us as objects. We see them as lifeless creatures who don't have their own needs, objectives, and challenges. We consider them- vehicles to further our goals, obstacles to overcome, and irrelevancies to ignore (The Arbinger Institute, 2010). With a self-focused mindset, everything we do tends to be about us. Would we enjoy it when someone treats us in either of these ways? Why is it then that we believe someone else would enjoy us treating them in such ways?

We humans dutifully believe that behavior change can change situations for the better. It is generally the underlying philosophy of management training, education (sadly enough), parenting, and even the institution of marriage. In these (and more) areas of life, we follow guidelines to understand 'what to do' and 'what not to do' even though the underlying mindset may be self-focused. We don’t keep a check on what we're becoming while polishing our behavior.

Borrowing an idea from the same colleague who asked me about the behaviors I can't tolerate in others- behavior change is analogous to cutting the grass that isn't growing well from its edge while the problem is in the roots (where the mindset lies). The antidote to this behavior change is questioning our underlying 'mindset.' Is it that we're operating with a self-focused mindset? If so, what can help us? An impact-focused mindset that enables us to see that people around us have lives like us; they're not objects. They also have needs, objectives, and challenges that are as important to them as our own needs, objectives, and challenges are important to us. An impact-focused mindset is what makes us human. It helps us foster connections, be grateful for all we have, and apologize when we truly mean it for wronging something or someone.

The next time we think we've wronged someone and want to make amends for the same, let's first check our intention. Why is it that we want to apologize? Do we want to say sorry (one more time) so that we can find a quick fix? Or, do we care enough to understand how our behaviors impact others and want to assure the other person that we will take steps toward changing ourselves? This simple step should let us know whether we mean an apology from a self-focused or an impact-focused mindset. If the former mindset is at play, apologizing is pointless because we do not mean it.


The Arbinger Institute. (2010). Leadership and self-deception: Getting out of the box (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Aprajita Jha

Aprajita Jha is Linchpin at My Emotions Matter and can be reached at [email protected].