Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC
A few weeks ago, I called a friend to wish him a happy birthday. We spent about half an hour catching up, first talking about his celebration plans, and then more general life events. As we were getting off the phone, he said to me, “I’m sorry I kept you for so long!”
“I’m sorry” is a really important phrase, but so many of us use it entirely wrong. Sometimes we miss the mark, worsening a situation by using the words “I’m sorry” defensively, as in, “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive” or “I’m sorry you can’t handle the truth.” Sometimes we use it to request something of someone we have hurt, as in, “(dramatic eye roll) I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, ok? Can we please just go to the party now?”
(If you’re interested in more about aggressive uses of the phrase “I’m sorry,” Hank Green has a great YouTube video called How to Apologize Like a Fartbag.)
But the most common inappropriate use of “I’m sorry” I hear is a request to excuse the sayer’s non-offensive actions. And often what this looks like is the equivalent of, “I’m sorry you did something nice for me.”
Here’s another example: You’re walking down the street and you encounter another person. You start to do that dance where you both lean her-left/your-right. Then you both lean her-right/your-left. Finally, she steps out of the way dramatically, and encourages you onward with a wave of her hand. As you walk by, you murmur, “I’m so sorry.” But why not, “thanks for making a move there! Boy would we have been stuck for a long time!”?
What Happens When You Use I’m Sorry This Way
The other person feels awkward and uncomfortable. This is less true, perhaps, with strangers, like the street encounter described above, but when you apologize to a friend or family member because they did something kind for you, they think, “but… I did that because I wanted to. I did that thing because I like you, I care about you, you’re an important piece of my life. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.” And then, logically following, “maybe I won’t do that again… I don’t want you to feel bad again.”
Some people might say this is the point, that you apologize because you don’t want others to inconvenience themselves. But doing nice things is how we connect with others, and connection is why we’re all here. So at an extreme, your apologize may inadvertently be making you lonely.
But it also affects the apologizer. The words we use – when we communicate to others out loud, as well as in our own minds – impact how we see ourselves. If I walk around thinking, “I am taking up space that someone else deserves, and I am totally worthless,” I’m going to feel small and disempowered. If I think, “I have value, I have worth, and many people love me because I am a good person,” I’m going to feel confident.
The result of that confidence? Some people are worried it will be overblown ego, or intolerable narcissism… but that’s not what the research shows. Egomaniacs and narcissists are actually incredibly insecure. The confident folks… well, they’re kind to others. Social psychology tells us that we all value internal consistency – so if I believe I’m a kind person who makes a positive impact on the world, that’s who I’ll strive to be. And if I believe that I’m a nobody, a jerk, a waste of space… well, you get the idea.
And when you hear yourself repeatedly apologizing for things you didn’t do wrong, the intrinsic message you’re sending yourself (and the people around you) is “I don’t deserve the space, time, patience, love, etc that you’ve given me.”
How to Use Thank You Instead
The other day, I was meeting my husband for dinner after a day of seeing clients. I got caught up in a bit of paperwork at the office, and kept him waiting for about 15 minutes. As I took the elevator downstairs, I thought, “man, I owe him an apology.” Then I thought of all of the times he’s been caught late at the office – how I understood that this happened, and what I really would have liked is an acknowledgement of the fact that this inconvenienced me. I turned this over in my head. The elevator door opened, and he was waiting outside.
“Thank you for being so patient!” I said.
“No problem – I know you like to finish your notes before you leave at the end of the day.”
We talked about it later, and I asked if he was offended that I didn’t apologize. He said it didn’t even register with him that I hadn’t said I was sorry. He told me that he felt appreciated when I acknowledged that it had been an inconvenience for him to wait, and he harbored no negative feelings. Plus – a bonus – I had an opportunity to express gratitude, which has been shown to be the most potent way to boost happy feelings.
And yes, dinner was lovely.
Sometimes, especially if you’re in the habit, “sorry” becomes reflexive. But if you have a bit of time – say, an elevator ride – to process what you’re going to say, ask yourself whether the same sentiment can be expressed with thank you. Here are some examples:
• “I’m sorry I forgot to bring that book you lent me.” vs “Thank you for being so understanding about my forgetting that book you lent me.”
• “I’m sorry I tripped and fell on you!” vs “Thank you for catching me!”
• “I’m sorry for burdening you with my feelings like this!” vs “Thank you for listening!”
Sometimes there is no “thank you” that you can substitute. I have occasionally walked down the street when a person shoves by me to pass. Almost compulsively, I say, “ooh, sorry!” This is ridiculous, of course, because I was just walking in a straight line and a stranger decided to violate my personal space… but it would be ridiculous to turn around and say “thank you for not completely knocking me over!” or “thank you for the human contact!” Sometimes the best response is no response at all.
There is certainly a good time to say I’m Sorry
Please do not take this article to imply that you should never say “I’m sorry” again. Can you imagine your partner saying to you, “honey, thank you for not punching me in the face even though I slept with your best friend”? You would be furious!
Apologies are an important part of our society. They are not weakness; on the contrary, they require incredible strength of character. Vulnerability is strength, and apologizing is a very vulnerable thing to do. So how do you know when it’s appropriate to apologize?
There are a few criteria:
1. You have done something crappy that has hurt another person. The key piece of this is that you are apologizing for the specific action that caused harm, not for who you are as a person. Also, you are not apologizing for the person caring enough about you to exert a little bit of extra time, effort, or energy on your behalf.
2. You are prepared to have a conversation about how you can improve the impact of what you did, or make different choices in the future. If you say, “I’m sorry I had an affair/ left my socks on the floor again/ stole $100 from your wallet” but you’re not ready to stop doing those things or try to make reparations, your apology will be hollow and meaningless.
If these things are true, an apology is probably warranted.
All that being said…
I won’t say: “I’m sorry for writing such a long article that it took up a chunk of your day to read.”
Instead: “Thank you for reading my blog post! I hope you enjoyed it!”