Some of my clients and I have recently been pondering the phrase “I’m sorry” and now I want to write some thoughts on that subject. I’ll share my conclusion before making my case below: we should try to avoid saying “I’m sorry” as much as possible!
This announcement may come as a surprise to those who know my proclivity toward apologizing so let me explain.
Here are five reasons why I think we should discontinue using “I’m sorry.”
- It’s overused. Some people use the phrase in self-deprecating ways, saying “I’m sorry” about nearly everything they do–they even seem sorry about their very existence. Of course, when you ask them to stop saying, “I’m sorry” their response is “I’m sorry.” Such people have a low self-concept and use the phrase either to assume more blame than is warranted or to solicit endless sympathy from others. Either reason is unhealthy.
- It minimizes. “I’m sorry” can be a meaningless concession phrase just to get someone off your back (often followed by “Jeez Louise” or the equivalent). It’s an easy out that minimally admits error without truly taking responsibility. We can use it to get off the hook or trivialize the one who is offended.
- It provides an easy segue to deflection, blame-shifting, and excuse-making, especially when followed by the word, but. “I’m sorry…but you gave me no choice…”, “I’m sorry…but if you weren’t so pushy”, and “I’m sorry…but if I had a little more support around here…”
- The phrase is too vague. When I say “I’m sorry,” exactly what am I being sorry about? It’s unclear. Sorry that I got caught? (i.e., “worldly sorrow”). That I might suffer consequences? (i.e., self-pity). That I tarnished my reputation? (i.e., pride). That people will disapprove of me? (i.e., insecurity). Or that I hurt you deeply and am deeply grieved by my actions (actual remorse). Any of these are possibilities so the phrase lacks usefulness.
- The phrase is misused when empathy is needed. We say “I’m sorry” when someone tells us of their misfortune even though we were not responsible for their pain. Their predictable response then becomes, “Oh, don’t you feel bad; my pain is not your fault!” This is detrimental as it shifts the focus of the talk from their hurt to our lack of culpability. It would be more direct and constructive to simply say “I feel bad about what you’re going through” or “It pains me to hear about what happened to you.” That would elicit the response, “Thank you,” showing that empathy was felt, not sidestepped.
While I am suggesting we try to avoid this oft-misused phrase, I’m not suggesting we not apologize! In fact, if we care about healthy relationships, apologizing is one of the most important things we fallen humans must do! I’m just saying to try apologizing without saying, “I’m sorry.” So how do we do that?
[Important note: apologizing starts with actually being remorseful. If you can hurt someone and not feel remorse, there is something deeply wrong with you. If you are indifferent about hurting others, or even worse, you take pleasure in doing so, something needs healing in your own heart. This is a spiritual problem; God commands us to love others, not hurt them without regret. Ignore everything else in this post and get to work on your own soul. See a counselor, pastor, or spiritual mentor right away.] But for the rest of you…
After cooling off and calming down, here are the components of a “heartfelt apology.”
- Name the crime in direct, first-person language. Describe what you did in accurate detail. This takes humility. “I yelled at you unkindly.” “I came home drunk again.” “I treated you like crap in front of the kids.” “I accused you unfairly.” “I gave you the cold shoulder.” “I was controlling, demanding you do it my way.”
- Don’t minimize what you did or offer explanations. Take full responsibility for what you did to the other person with no excuses. Sure, there are reasons for your bad behavior, but talk to your pastor or therapist to figure out those root causes. For now, only describe to your loved one what you did to him or her that was hurtful.
- Recognize how you must have made him or her feel. Try to see through his or her eyes and think about how your bad behavior must have felt to your loved one. Describe the wounds you caused in ways that show understanding. “I frightened you by coming at you like that.” “It must have crushed your spirit to hear me say such degrading things to you.” “I insulted your character, which must have been infuriating.” Try to include likely emotions as you describe the negative impact of your behavior.
- Emphasize how he or she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. Show your loved one that he or she deserved better treatment. “You didn’t deserve that kind of disrespect.” “How could I have treated you so unfairly?” “No one should ever treat you the way I just did.”
- Show your remorse. “I’m embarrassed about how I treated you.” “I wish I could retract what I said to you.” “I’ll always regret having treated you that way.” “I wish I could travel back in time and unhurt you.”
- Assure that you intend to learn from this mistake and do better in the future. Simply confessing what you did wrong is not enough. You must show genuine repentance by showing that you are serious about changing. “I can’t undo my past but want you to know that I have learned from my sin and my goal is to treat you properly in the future. Moving forward, I plan to show you significant improvement in my behavior as I learn from this blunder of mine. I intend to learn to love you more and hurt you less.”
- Make amends if possible. If there’s any way to make amends do so. If you’ve treated your loved one with dishonor, compensate by doing something to show him or her extra honor. If the infraction was in front of others, set things right with all those who witnessed it. If something was broken, replace it. If something is threatening, remove it permanently from the relationship. If you created fear, replace it with safety.
- State your need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a subject I want to flesh out more in a future post, but it still needs mentioning here. Stating your need for forgiveness is about you humbling yourself; it is not about putting an obligation on the other person. Stating your need for forgiveness makes you beholden to the other person. You’re admitting that your abusive behavior has created a debt needing forgiveness. It is a relinquishing of the power you had over the other person and it’s giving the other person the power to forgive you or not to. Be careful not to demand forgiveness or pressure your loved one to grant it. Like love, forgiveness cannot be forced. Often it takes time and likely will correspond to your demonstration of true repentance. “I hope that someday you’ll be able to forgive me for what I did” is a good way to declare your need for forgiveness without pressuring the person to grant it immediately. Ultimately, whether or not the other person is able to forgive you is out of your control. You take responsibility for yourself.
Two final thoughts.
- Remember that tone and facial expression must correspond to the words. In fact, these communicate more clearly than the words themselves. Look the other person in the eyes and show genuine sadness about how you treated him or her and show honest determination about making changes.
- We should apologize frequently, not just over big things, but also over little hurts. This will keep resentment from building up. Since we will fail each other frequently, we should be quick to heal the wounds. All of the steps outlined above may not be necessary in each case, but, when in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of over-apologizing rather than under-apologizing!
Love means never having to say you’re sorry. A heartfelt apology is much better.