The Millennial Pilgrim: Here's why you should stop saying 'I am sorry' for everything

Habitually saying sorry may come from a place of powerlessness. You can give yourself an empowering internal script to navigate situations when you may have made an unintentional mistake. Also, saying it all the time makes it lose its real relevance

Somi DasUpdated: Saturday, February 26, 2022, 04:51 PM IST
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Anyone interested in self-examination may find it useful to pay attention to the phrases they use often. Conscious decoding of one’s language habits leads to awareness of stubborn inner scripts that guide our day-to-day behaviour. Once the script is isolated and seen for what it is — deep-seated conditioning — one can slowly attempt to replace it with adaptive mental models.

Take for instance the habit of saying “sorry” in places where it's not needed. We as a culture have normalised the use of “sorry” as a means of being polite. Predictably, women tend to use “sorry” more often than men. Not just that, women are also more likely to interpret events not going as planned as a consequence of their failure or a mistake they might have “committed”. Certainly, then “sorry” is loaded with political and psychological meaning, if one were to account for the gender difference in its usage.

Language is as much about communication as it is about power. No matter where you fall in the hierarchy in relation to someone, you always possess power. We are duty-bound to fiercely guard it, or restore it when we may feel someone has taken it away from us. When we continually punctuate our sentences with a sorry, we willingly hand over our power. And when we are stripped of our inherent power, others find it easy to walk over us and scapegoat us. It is one thing to be apologetic for an unintentional mistake one might have made and completely another to believe that one deserves to be treated badly because they made a mistake.

We “sorry train” children from a young age. Often parents give their children the silent treatment till they utter the three golden words “I am sorry”. Children are often made to hold their ears in addition to saying sorry. Why is that even necessary? Perhaps to drill the feeling of shame in us in addition to fear. It is not uncommon to associate making mistakes with shame rather than guilt. Right from our school days, we are trained to look at mistakes as an excuse to be made a laughing stock instead of an opportunity to decode why our behaviour could have had harmful consequences for others and ourselves; and what lessons we could derive from it. Thus being caught for a mistake and having to apologise for it is a far more dreadful scenario than knowingly acting in unethical ways and never being found out.

In a world that operates on Murphy's law of “everything that can go wrong will go wrong”, we will inevitably find ourselves at the receiving end of pointed fingers that shout “you made this mistake and now own up to it” despite being committed to punishing perfectionism. In such a world one needs to be equipped with the right inner language to express remorse without losing one's power and shattering one's self-confidence. For often in such situations what is being sought is not a sincere apology or owning up but a scapegoat who can be collectively condemned.

To retain power in these situations one has to believe in their inherent value as an individual. That the mistake doesn’t define their character. It may point to their need to be clued in at work, or their need for training and support to carry out their job; or the fact that may be too overworked but that by no means it is a marker of their competence, intent and quality as a human being. Also, discount yourself the embarrassment that may arise out of making mistakes. It is in that space that learning happens. And just keep a tab on how many times you have apologised simply out of habit and not because you made a mistake or offended someone and self-correct till the time it becomes automated.

Some ready-made script to replace sorry in miscellaneous circumstances:

  1. “Is it a good time to talk?” instead of “sorry to bother you”. Check in with their availability instead of apologising for doing your job, which might cause them a little inconvenience.

  2. If something has gone wrong at the operation level, respond with a plan of action on course correction instead of going into over-explaining mode and over-apologising mode.

  3. Be open to getting feedback but know that feedback is not a criticism of your work or a reflection of the fact that you have made a mistake in the execution of your task. No need to apologise for receiving negative feedback.

  4. Don’t say sorry simply to keep the peace. You can diffuse a high-intensity situation by staying in your power and explaining your position while respecting the other person’s opinion.

  5. In situations when you know you might have something rather conflicting to say which may not go down well with others, again desist the temptation to apologise but acknowledge what you are about to say may be controversial or debatable.

(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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