I’ve been known to apologize to doors for running into them before. It’s not something I consciously do, I just say “I’m sorry” a lot. Most people I know do. Bad day? “I’m sorry.” Professor graded an assignment tough? “I’m sorry.” Boss treating you unfairly? “I’m sorry.” Even arbitrary comments, that really don’t don’t need any kind of response get “I’m sorry-ed” out. Wow, your keyboard is different from my laptop! “I’m sorry.” My french fries weren’t crispy at lunch! “I’m sorry.”
And then there’s “sorry not sorry.” Why say you’re sorry if you’re not actually sorry?
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As a person who usually assumes there’s something I should feel guilty about, “I’m sorry” used to be a very common phrase in my vocabulary. But then I read an article, or watched a movie, or experienced something that made me think about how the pervasiveness of those two words dilutes them to an essentially meaningless phrase– kind of like “um” or “like,” “I’m sorry” is often a filler when we don’t have anything else to say (or don’t want to take the time to think of it).
Since then, I’ve tried with considerable effort to only say “I’m sorry” when I am truly apologizing: when I’ve done something to hurt someone, or when I’ve made a mistake that I want to make amends for. In those other situations — bad days, bad food, bad situations — I ask myself two questions before proceeding into “I’m sorry” territory:
Is this situation about me?
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This diffuses the “I’m sorry” bomb about 85 – 90% of the time for me. If someone is upset or stressed and discussing their frustrations with me, it is usually the case that my role in the conversation should be listener and validator. The situation is not about me. When you say “I’m sorry,” the focus shifts to you– there is normally either a “thanks” or “don’t be, it’s not your fault.” By saying I’m sorry, I’ve inadvertently put the focus on myself and my feelings, rather than the person whose frustration or story I’m supposed to be listening to.
Of course, this is rarely intentional (at least in my experience). Most people I know say they’re sorry out of a desire to express empathy and emotional understanding, which is great. Trying to understand and respond to others’ emotions is a good thing! The problem is that if you say you’re sorry in a situation that isn’t about you, it can sometimes have the opposite effect.
It can be difficult for me to discuss my frustrations with friends and family, which comes from the same guilt- and shame-driven place that my “I’m sorry” addiction used to. So I tend to bottle things up until I reach critical capacity and either explode or implode. It’s a response I’m working on, but when I open up to someone and their response is “I’m sorry,” there are two thoughts that run through my mind: “Wait, no! That wasn’t my intention. I’m sorry for making you feel bad!” and “But you don’t have anything to apologize for!”
And that leads me to the second question I ask myself when contemplating the great “I’m sorry.”
Have I done anything I need to apologize for?
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If it’s the 10 – 15% of the time when a given situation involves me as an active participant, then next thing I ask is if I have something to apologize for. When someone is upset and I am in some way connected with that negative emotion, it’s almost a knee-jerk response for me to say I’m sorry before I figure out whether I actually am. In many situations, it’s a good idea to apologize if you’ve upset someone– if you say something that hurts their feelings or if you project your own frustrations about another situation onto them, for example.
But in some situations, a person’s frustration may be directed at you, but not caused by you. Return to the situation in which one person projects frustrations about something (or someone) else onto you. It happens. As someone who is hesitant to talk about my frustrations outright, this can be one of my worst habits. But I’ve also been on the other side, confused about how one wrong phrase has upset someone so much. In that situation, it’s so easy to say “I’m sorry” in hopes of diffusing the situation and providing your frustrated companion some emotional relief and compassion.
Don’t do it. Step away from the “I’m sorry” bomb!
It’s not good for either person if you claim responsibility for emotional duress that you are not responsible for. For the person apologizing, there are often feelings of guilt and frustration, and sometimes resentment if they feel their apology is unnecessary but choose to say “I’m sorry” anyway. When I have been on this side of a situation, I often leave feeling ashamed of myself for the situation, and shoulder the blame when really there’s nothing I could have done. The person wasn’t really that frustrated at the way I emphasized that contraction. I was just the person who was there to get frustrated at.
For the person who is frustrated, there is no resolution of the actual issue. When I have been on this side of the situation, I also leave feeling ashamed of myself– this time for projecting frustration on someone who I really wasn’t upset with in the first place (and who was probably trying to help me). Most importantly, an apology from someone who has nothing to be sorry for does nothing to resolve my frustration– if anything, it adds to it because now I need to apologize for being a jerk.
Learning to decenter myself from the situation and only say “I’m sorry” when I need to apologize for something has reminded me of something important: “I’m sorry” should not be an easy thing to say. It shouldn’t be a filler, or a placater, or said without meaning. The only time you should drop the “I’m sorry” bomb is if you are present in the situation as someone other than a mediator or a listener, and if you have done something to hurt another person. “I’m sorry” is the way we begin to ask for forgiveness, and forgiveness should be sought if (and only if) there is something to forgive.
Filling my vocabulary with other phrases is incredibly difficult. It makes me think more critically about the way I respond to a friend venting about a crappy day, because that crappy day isn’t my fault. So I try to listen, and provide validation when validation is sought. I think about what would be helpful and supportive to say in a situation. Sometimes, that’s providing an opening to continue: “Wow, your professor sounds like a jerk! Tell me more.” Sometimes, that’s validating feelings: “I totally understand. That’s so frustrating!”
The subtle change from a default “I’m sorry” to understanding the situations I am faced with has helped me connect better with the people in my life. It has grounded me in compassion, and it’s let me understand the most supportive course of action given each situation. Because each situation is different. A blanket “I’m sorry” response to any distressing situation doesn’t do much for the complexity of what we feel, how we feel it, and how to foster positive emotions and healing. Taking the time to understand what others are seeking in our companionship, and allowing them the chance to feel their emotions and respond to them is incredibly valuable. So no, I’m not sorry, but I’m here to listen if you need a friend.
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