Sorry--Argh! I Mean, Not Sorry

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

This morning, I had the luxurious experience of a little Me Time. One of my favorite things to do when I get the chance is to pamper myself with a mani/pedi. There is this great little nail spot in my town that feels like an urban meditative oasis—and their massage chairs are ridiculous. Plus, no cell phones allowed. Basically, it’s a ninety-minute ticket to completely unplug and relax, with the bonus that I come out with sparkly fingers and toes.

This morning, I reclined the chair and closed my eyes, enjoying the pure bliss of doing nothing. And then, for whatever reason, I started becoming aware of little snippets of conversation around me. After a few minutes, I started to notice a theme: women apologizing. Over and over again, in a short span of time, I heard women apologizing for a wide variety of things: for chewing their nails, for deciding not to get a certain color of nail polish, and even for nothing at all. Just a distended, “Sorry!”

It struck me as sad. Here are these women—a lot of whom are probably just like me, spending their hard-earned money for a small window of time to flip the switch off—incessantly apologizing.

I want to be clear that I say all of this without judgement. The reason I am so attuned to the Sorry Habit is because I totally have it myself.

I believe that, for most women, all of this apologizing is rooted in the same place my own sorries are—an upbringing that teaches us to be polite. And of course we should apologize when we actually feel apologetic or an apology is for some reason owed. But then, somewhere along the line, it’s like some wires get crossed and we just start saying we’re sorry for no reason at all. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I’ve said, “Sorry” when someone sits down next to me. It’s almost like it has become a form of greeting—”Nice to see you. I’m sorry.”

The only reason I started to notice this habit at all is because one day, out of thin air, I heard my then-eighteen-month-old daughter Izzy’s sweet little voice saying, “Sorry.” It took me aback. She was just sitting there in the middle of the room playing with her blocks when, all of a sudden, she looked up at me and apologized. I spent about 0.5 seconds wondering where she could have possibly learned this behavior before landing squarely on myself. If you’re a parent, you know that little kids are like pint-sized mirrors.

I spent the next several days witnessing myself and all of my sorries. As it turned out, I was sorry for everything. The word was so habitual to me that it took quite a while before I could even get to the point where I caught the misplaced sorry before it came out of my mouth. And I’m sure that, since then, there have still been dozens—if not hundreds—of sorries that have slipped out unnoticed. I am sorry that you ran into me. I am sorry that I’m troubling you by being a customer and placing this order. I am sorry that I am taking up this space. I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry.

As I evaluated my use of the word “sorry” in the present, I also started to think about how I have used it in the past. I realized that I was a frequent “sorrier” in romantic relationships, and that, in that context, I used the term in particularly toxic ways. Although it is an extreme example, there was even a point in time when I used to apologize to my abuser after he flew into a rage. Sometimes I would be manipulated into the sorry because, of course, his behavior was always my fault. And other times I would apologize just to get some relief and to prevent another fire from breaking out.

Let me be clear that I don’t think that my habit of excessively sorry-ing got me into the abusive relationship … but it also didn’t help. Being abused already leaves you feeling shitty and small. Apologizing for your role in your own abuse has the magical ability to make you feel even shittier and smaller. Not only that, but my sorries in some way alleviated the responsibility and ownership of bad behavior from the abuser’s shoulders. In some way, I was saying, “That’s okay,” even though it wasn’t.

I believe that most of us don’t think twice when we use the word sorry. It has become a throwaway word. But if you happen to believe that words matter, as I do, “sorry” doesn’t pack the best energy behind it. And it also makes those actual apologies that we really do want to issue when appropriate a little less meaningful. As far as teaching Izzy goes, I certainly want her to be empathetic and compassionate; I want her to take responsibility for and ownership of her actions. When that means apologizing, I hope that she will do so sincerely. What I don’t want to teach her is to live in a general, subconscious state of sorry.

Breaking the sorry habit is something I am still very much in the process of working on. For me, awareness is part of it. The other part is choosing my words more carefully. When someone sits down next to me I can smile and say, “Hi.” If my things are in the way I can say, “Let me move that.” When someone takes my coffee order, I can say, “I appreciate it.” And when I actually do want issue an apology, I can do it much more specifically by saying, “I apologize.”

Finally, I should also say that I know this habit is not limited to women. In fact, I had a long conversation with a dad friend of mine recently who had an experience similar to mine with his own children. He and his wife are also trying to banish the word “sorry” from their vocabulary so that their own little mirrors don’t built the same habit. Ironically, this guy is a writer, too. We both work in words, and yet we both have a very difficult time with this particular one. Having said that, I do believe there is an element of social conditioning to all of this, and that excessive sorry-ing is something women tend to be more prone to than men. Of course, there is always the possibility that this has just been my experience.

So, now, I’m curious what you think: Do you over-sorry? Do you look at this word differently than I do? And do you have any tips for breaking the habit or for teaching your children how to wield their sorries in a thoughtful way?

Not sorry,