In the proper context, these words are the carpenter’s glue that puts relationships back together, the salve on wounded feelings, the first step toward making peace.
Yet how often do we hear those two little words in the wrong context? How often do we use them when we ourselves have been wronged, or when we’re simply worried that we’re taking up too much space or inadvertently offending someone else?
Confession: I’m a chronic over-apologizer. “Sorry” comes out of my mouth about as frequently as the offending adverb “like” (and while I try to avoid the Valley Girl sound, I know I overuse “like”).
I say sorry for all sorts of things: Sorry I’m standing in the kitchen and making my dinner while you’re also trying to make yours. Sorry I made noise coming down the stairs. Sorry I didn’t respond to your email or text message right away. Sorry I’m skipping your party tonight. Sorry I’m laughing. Sorry I’m crying. Sorry I’m angry. Sorry I’m not angry. Sorry I’m sitting in this seat. Sorry I haven’t vacuumed my car. Sorry my lunch smells funny. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.
I list off all of these examples because I know I’m not the only one who does this. Nearly all the women I know — and quite a few men — do the same thing. My roommates, my sisters, my friends…we all apologize all the time. We apologize so habitually that we do it even when it makes no logical sense. I’ve had more than one conversation that went something like this:
Me: “Hey, how are you? It’s been awhile!”
My friend: “Yeah I know, sorry. I’m good.”
(This example works the other way too, I know.)
So we both have lives. Yes, it’s been awhile. It’s really great to catch up now. Why say “sorry”?
Why do so many of us feel this guilty need to let the world know we feel terrible for being an imposition, for having needs, for daring to feel things and think things, even things other people might not necessarily like?
There are probably as many reasons for overusing “sorry” as there are people who do it. But I’ll tell you why I overuse it, and why I’m determined to stop. I say “sorry” all the time because I am afraid. I’m afraid that if I assert myself I’ll end up inconveniencing or annoying or even hurting someone else, and if I do that enough everyone will eventually hate me. I say “sorry” because I want people to think well of me, I want to come off as a nice person, I want to appear considerate and sweet, and I want to keep all of my relationships comfortable — and alive.
“Sorry” is safe. It’s my shield, my cover, my white flag of truce. It’s my buffer against any and all interpersonal challenges. It’s a convenient wall I can put up to block others out. And as long as I hide behind the overused “I’m sorry,” I can avoid most encounters with authentic forgiveness.
It works whether I need to forgive or be forgiven. If I’m apologizing all the time for simply having mass and taking up space, then I’m automatically assuming fault in every instance of conflict. As a rather shallow example, I read an article in the Telegraph, in which the author describes her personal space being invaded during rush hour on the London tube. Her immediate reaction, even though the other person was pretty obviously at fault? “Oh, sorry.” The misappropriation of guilt leads to a lot of confusion, and over time it can mean a lot of hurt, but it isn’t likely to lead to forgiveness. How can I forgive people who have wronged me if I insist on taking the blame and even letting them think it was my fault? How can they be forgiven if I don’t allow both of us to recognize reality?
More, taking the blame all the time can lead to a pretty warped sense of my own self-worth. It makes good sense, doesn’t it? If I’m always in the wrong, then I must be a pretty awful person; if I’m a pretty awful person, I’m just lucky there are a few people out there who want to hang out with me at all; if I’m lucky to have any friends at all, I’m going to do everything in my measly little power to keep them, because otherwise I’ll be all alone. So the sick spiral continues.
Believe it or not, it gets even worse. Overusing “sorry” protects me from having to be forgiven by anyone else. In other words, hiding behind “sorry” lets me get away with a pretty deep lack of humility. You see, if I automatically say “sorry” every time I sense I might be inconveniencing or aggravating someone else, I relieve myself of the burden of really looking at what I’ve done, acknowledging when it was truly wrong, and really apologizing for it. When “My bad, sorry” becomes my typical reaction to anything and everything, it keeps me from really examining my actions and interactions with others and assuming responsibility where I should — and humbly asking to be forgiven.
Ultimately, at least for me, the overused “sorry” is a copout. I don’t want to look like a jerk, or I’m afraid to delve into this issue or make a scene or deal with the messy human emotions that might result, whether I’m at fault or you are, so I’ll just fling out yet another “sorry” and let us both move on.
When we overuse “sorry,” we turn something that’s fundamentally precarious into a safety net. Real remorse for real wrongs done can’t be safe. A heartfelt “I’m sorry” has to be vulnerable. It demands that we look at ourselves without flinching and then let someone else look, too … all the while accepting that the other person may refuse to forgive us.
“I’m sorry” should always be a really big deal. So let’s save it until it counts.
Next time someone bumps into you on a crowded metro, you can just punch him in the face.
… then it might be time for a genuine “I’m sorry,” but I leave that to your discretion.