Last week, my friend Laura sent me a link to a TED post about saying “I’m sorry” all the time. It came as no surprise: the first time she told me I say “I’m sorry” too much was our freshman year in college. This has clearly been a long campaign—and a long time to have such a bad habit. But I wondered: is it really so bad to say “I’m sorry” a lot?
I started to notice all the ways I’m sorry throughout the day. If someone’s car won’t start or there’s a scratch in the paint or a spot that won’t come out, or the test was really hard, the “I’m sorry’s” just flow out of me. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t have anything to do with any of that; I guess it’s my way of letting the other person know that I feel badly that an irritant of one kind or another interrupted their day.
Those kinds of apologies are just plain old habit, throwaway terms to use. But some have a darker feel to them. If I ask Marc to pick something up from the store and he tells me it was really hard to find, I apologize. In my mind, I didn’t explain clearly enough where the item was, or I was being lazy and should have gone to the store myself. If I took the last of something in the fridge that someone else wanted, if I am using the washer when our son Luke comes downstairs with what must be three weeks worth of laundry—I definitely apologize. Somewhere inside me, I seem to believe that my needs should be met only after everyone else’s. I place myself in a subordinate role, one without power.
The societal purpose behind saying “I’m sorry” is to restore damage to a relationship, so that the relationship can continue. It is a way to acknowledge, then move on. My apologies are subtle reminders that I do not see myself as equal in value to other people. There is no positive purpose to them; they simply call out my lack of empowerment. That type of negativism is insidious and harmful.
Then there are my apologies when I have actually done something wrong. Those apologies have an edge of desperation to them because they are founded in the belief that my wrong threatens my relationship with that person. My wrongs are always super-sized in my head, because they feed my inner shame, that noxious, malignant emotion. It is right to apologize, but it isn’t right to castigate myself.
Connie Sobczak, co-founder of The Body Beautiful, sums it up beautifully:
I believe that now more than ever it is important for us all, and especially young women, to stand in our power, and speak from that place. It’s time to step in and take up space unapologetically. I think of how sorry can undermine a young woman’s ability to protect herself when necessary. If she’s been taught, possibly by cultural osmosis or perhaps from parents who don’t allow her to have a disagreeing voice, to continuously apologize for her words and/or actions in innocuous situations, what happens when someone confronts her with aggression, and she needs to respond from a place of strength? It won’t be there. The “good girl,” must-be-nice part of her personality takes over, and she gives her power away with sorry.
Certainly much of my transformative journey was about taking my power back. My apologies have been my way of telling myself that I don’t have as much right as anyone else to be in the room, to be counted, to be important. I understand that is wrong—now I have to believe that is wrong. To do so means changing an old habit that, it turns out, wasn’t innocuous at all. So I will.