Why is it that some people never seem to admit they’re wrong about something, even when they clearly are? And, why do others seem to apologize just as a basic part of their existence? There are several survival mechanism elements at play here.
First, there’s the person for whom survival depends on always knowing everything. That person panics at the thought that someone could see that they aren’t perfect or don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. Often, this kind of person also feels like they must win in order to survive. So, competition also kicks in, and they will argue endlessly to try and prove they are right. Sometimes, they’ll even go as far as to make things up, just to keep up the illusion that they are right.
The next kind of person is the one who has to do things the “right” way. Their survival mechanism has a strong sense of right and wrong built into it, and it feels unsafe for them to step out of their “right” way or to admit that they might have done something the “wrong” way. They rely on keeping things tightly under control, so admitting to having stepped outside their tight boundaries feels very unsafe to them.
The flip side of this equation is populated with those who apologize for everything, even if they are within their rights to have said or done something. This person needs other people’s approval in order to survive, and unlike the first kind of person I described above, this person feels unsafe in competing. In fact, they need to let others win, so that they gain approval. This person panics if they don’t have the approval of everyone around them, so even if they are right, they may still apologize. In extreme cases, they may even apologize for being right!
Some people are even combinations of all of the above. If you fall into this category, you may feel like you’re in a constant tug of war between needing to be right/perfect/the winner and getting other people’s approval.
When I talk about “survival,” I really mean it. Early in life, we all absorb the feeling that there is something wrong with us being exactly the way that we are. At the same time, our brains develop mechanisms that allow us to fit well with our surroundings and survive with the presence of the feeling that there is something wrong with us. All of this negative feeling and survival mechanism become embedded in our sense of self, which is the automatic, generating force behind every moment of our lives. So, however we felt and survived early on will continue to be the way the moments and situations feel throughout our lives. So, whether survival depended on getting others’ approval, having things be one’s own way, or things being the “right way,” life will continue to require that of us.
When clients work with me to unlearn these negative patterns, these survival mechanisms gradually relax their death grip. The first two kinds of people I described find themselves more easily relating to others when it comes to conflicts. They don’t feel as panicked when someone sees they’ve done something that wasn’t “perfect” or the “right way.” One client with the second pattern recently called her ex-husband, an estranged sister, and a co-worker from long ago to take responsibility for her side of things not working perfectly between them. She said it wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but she never would have even considered it before. She didn’t feel like it threatened her survival to admit that she hadn’t done everything the “right” way.
When the third kind of person begins to unlearn, they start to actually feel that they matter enough to acknowledge their own feelings in a situation, instead of just do whatever they need to for others’ approval. One of my clients with this pattern recently shifted how she relates to her husband, as a result of this change in herself. Rather than just go along with however he wants to shape conversations, she has actually started speaking up for herself and saying what she wants. At work, people are seeking her input on projects more than ever before. This shift often has this effect, also—when someone feels that they matter as much as those around them, others feel that and begin to seek their opinion on important matters.
Do you recognize yourself here? Do you feel panicked at the thought that people might see that you’ve done something imperfectly or “wrong”? Or, are you the chronic apologizer? Unlearning these patterns leads to more honest relationships based on the feeling that everyone wins when we share who we really are with the world.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.