“Stop apologizing!” the nurse said. “It’s our job to help you. You need us!”
“Okay, sorry!” I said again, for the 5,000th time that day.
“You did it again,” she pointed out.
I was in labor. My body was literally ripping open, and I was the one apologizing.
It took this absurd moment for me to realize the advanced stage of my apology infliction. Somewhere along the way, I had internalized the idea that if I impacted someone even a little bit, the polite response was “I’m sorry.”
I have used I’m sorry to mean “excuse me,” “would you mind,” “I’m going to speak,” “you might not like what I have to say,” “I am getting too much attention,” “look away!” “are you uncomfortable?” “am I in the way?” “may I enter this road?” “I can’t eat the thing that will make me sick,” “thank you,” “that sucks!” and “I’m telling you why you screwed up.”
And most often “I feel I should be perfect, but I’m not.”
At some point, I realized I was apologizing for my existence.
So when I looked at my baby girl and realized that one of my biggest hopes for her was for her to value her existence, I decided I needed to stop the “I’m sorry.” If not for me – for her.
I quickly learned that this is much easier said then done. “I’m sorry” was more than a habit, more than a verbal tick. It was deeply ingrained in the way I related to the world. Making this change was going to take a lot of practice.
Here are the steps that I took to banish “I’m sorry” from my vocabulary.
Step One: Relearn what “I’m sorry” really means
I am sorry means, “I offer you my remorse for the hurt, danger, or pain that I caused.” That’s it. It doesn’t mean, “Pardon me.” It doesn’t mean, “I have something to say.” It is a presentment of remorse for wrongdoing. That’s all.
Step Two: Figure out what you really mean to say, if anything at all
This one’s tricky, because it takes the mental discipline to pause before offering the habitual “I’m sorry.” That pause will give you the awareness needed to bring words to what is actually happening.
In the case of me and the nurses, I wanted to say, “Thank you. I couldn’t do this without you.” But my instinct to excuse my existence took over. Because your mouth might take longer to coordinate this step with your brain, the best way to practice it is to force yourself to complete the sentence “I am sorry that…” once you have already blurted out the “I’m sorry” part. These sentences will start to sound comical:
“I’m sorry that…I am walking through this door.”
“I’m sorry that your cat threw up on my rug.”
“I’m sorry that you have a job.”
Step Three: Develop and practice some canned responses to the various emotions that “I’m sorry” elicits
For example, I often find myself wanting to say “I am sorry” when I want to express empathy or sympathy. Instead, now I say, “How horrible!” or “That sounds incredibly frustrating!”
Step Four: Become a better real apologizer
Most of my I’m sorries were wrong because they accepted responsibility for things outside of my control, or attempted to excuse my humanity. Some of my I’m sorries were wrong because they were too much of a knee-jerk response to carry weight when I really did need to apologize.
To solve this, I took a line from the prolific PBS Children’s Program, “Daniel Tiger”. The cartoon tiger sings, “Saying I’m sorry is the first step. Now how can I help?”
Now, when there’s a real need to use the phrase “I’m sorry” because I do need to offer remorse, I add Daniel Tiger’s second step: How can I help?
Banishing “I’m sorry” not only takes mental discipline. It also takes a serious commitment to value your imperfect self.