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Sorry, Not Sorry

Woman sitting on mat reading with sorry message written on chalkboard
The art of the true apology Image credit: photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

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Do you find that saying, “I’m sorry”, is really hard for you, even when you are sorry? Or do you find yourself saying, “I’m sorry” often, even if there isn’t anything to apologize for? Apologizing to others for something we have said, or not said, or something we perceive we have done, may significantly affect our relationships.

When Saying I’m Sorry Isn’t an Apology

 How we apologize to someone is critical. If our apology comes with an explanation, or an excuse, it’s really not an apology. For example, if you phrase your apology such as, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you, but I didn’t like what you said.” This justification for your action is no apology.

A True Apology Comes from the Heart

An appropriate, heartfelt apology instead may sound something like, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. The way I treated you was not okay.” This manner of apologizing demonstrates that we are owning our behavior instead of making excuses for it.

The Ineffective Apology

Another dynamic we may encounter in dealing with someone we really care for is when their apology is akin to the expression of crying wolf.  The person apologizes, and may even mean it when they express regret, however, there isn’t any follow through to work on the issue prompting the apology.

It’s not an uncommon complaint in psychotherapy, or in couple therapy, that one partner may say they’re sorry, however they continue to do the same thing repeatedly.

A pattern forms around the same issues, and after a while the partner, no longer feels that the apology matters. The ineffective apology is delivered repeatedly, but the person isn’t working on the issue to resolve it. Thus, instead of the apology feeling good, it triggers frustration, anger, or resentment because it doesn’t feel like it means anything anymore.

The Excessive Apologizer

The other factor we may encounter is someone we care about who consistently apologizes or constantly says, I’m sorry.

We shouldn’t apologize for our own needs, but we should apologize for being thoughtless or careless. 

Dr. Guy Grenier, Psychologist and Marital Therapist.

What are some of the reasons that we may over apologize?

  • For some it’s a sense of not feeling good enough, or lacking a good sense of self-esteem.
  • The belief that everything they do is wrong, or not okay.
  • Sometimes as children, or adolescents, apologizing for something, even if we didn’t do it, is a way of protecting ourselves. If a child apologizes then they may ward off a punishment, criticism, or judgement. If that behavior is not worked through as an adult, that pattern continues.
  • After a while saying I’m sorry may have become such a habit that we don’t even realize we’re saying it. It becomes so natural that it’s like breathing.
  • Saying I’m sorry may come from a place of tentativeness, or a lack of assuredness around what is happening and what is okay, and what isn’t. This might be a conscious, or unconscious, way of warding off perceived criticism. If I say I’m sorry first, perhaps he/she won’t ridicule or criticize me.
  • Some might quickly apologize to ease the tension of a situation and ward off a conflict.
  • Studies have found women tend to apologize more than men, but this does not attribute one gender to be right or wrong, only that women may be more attuned to a perceived need to apologize.

What are some of the factors which may contribute to apologizing being such a difficult thing?

The dynamics, or roots, of the under and the over apologizer often share similarities. Much of our behaviors are learned from authority figures, and those we love. We may mimic what we’ve grown up believing to be an appropriate method to address hurt feelings and conflict, even though our methods may not coincide with someone else’s beliefs.

  1. Sometimes as a child or adolescent, our parents, teachers, clergy, or extended family may insist that we apologize to our sibling, friend etc., when we did not do what they suggest we did. We did nothing wrong. The fault may have been the sibling, but we may be accused and pressured to apologize. Our parents, or other authority figures, may not have been open to listening to what really happened and assumed that we were at fault. Apologizing for something we didn’t do can be very confusing for a child, or adolescent.
  2. Parents may have not taught us that saying, “I’m sorry”, when we did do something wrong is important. If they did not encourage, or role model, this behavior then how would we learn to apologize when it’s appropriate?
  3. Sometimes we are taught that apologizing implies that there is something wrong with us, or that we are weak or bad. This sometimes occurs if a parent or authority figure overtly states we are a bad girl / bad boy, or this could be communicated more covertly. Thus, the apology is prepared but it sticks in their throat since the perception of being a bad person is intertwined with the apology and ingrained in one’s psyche to the degree that it affects our emotional health. Like the character of Fonzie, from the old Happy Days television show, we have difficulty letting the words, “I’m sorry,” out.
  4. Some people were raised where apologizing was used as a method to maintain control. Apologizing is perceived as a sign of weakness, or used as an emotional weapon to hold over someone.

Tips on Apologizing

Practice Mindfulness

Notice how often you say, “I’m sorry”, during a given day. Then check in from a non-self-judgmental place.

  • Determine whether what we are apologizing for truly warrants it.
  • If not, then gently say to oneself, “I have nothing to apologize for.”
  • This will start a new pattern. Comparable to forming a new habit, this exercise may take some time to gently shift this pattern.
  • Once you start to do this, notice whether you begin to feel emotionally better about yourself as you reduce your apologizing.

The same thing for those who have difficulty apologizing. Start to be mindful of when you feel that you want to apologize, but the words stick in your throat.

  • Ask yourself what is going on in this moment that makes this so hard? Is it fear? Anxiety? You believe you don’t know how to apologize? Is it that it’s so unfamiliar that it feels frightening?
  • Are you making assumptions about the other person that if you apologize that he/she might use this to hurt you at another time? This thought may not necessarily have anything to do with the person you want to apologize to but may be a historical component where that was truly the case.

Other Tips on Apologies:

  • Address the issue sooner, rather than later, to avoid letting the conflict escalate further.
  • Show a genuine interest in your partner, or friend’s, feelings. Discuss exactly what was said or done to hurt them. Then explore with them what they may need from you to help them feel better about what occurred.
  • Talk about your commitment and plan to work on the issue that upset them.
  • Say thank you for what they did instead of apologizing for what you could have done.
  • Embrace your imperfections and don’t apologize for being yourself if you are an over apologizer.

If you struggle with providing, or accepting, apologies, speaking with a trusted psychotherapist at Nassau Guidance & Counseling located on Long Island can help alleviate your distress.

Our licensed therapists have helped many people improve their relationships, and/or their emotional health and well-being by exploring how a heartfelt apology can help them grow.

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