I’m sorry. Two very small words…and yet they can be the most difficult and challenging words to say or not say. Said at the right time and for the right reasons, they diffuse the trickiest of situations. Said at the wrong time or for wrong reasons, it becomes a glib shield of insincerity.
I was biking recently and it was interesting to see how many bicyclists entered the path without looking. I found myself being extra attentive and reminding people from time to time. Sometimes they were thankful and made adjustments, sometimes they said “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t see you.” I became perplexed. Yes, I know you didn’t know…If you did know that would be troubling. But “I’m sorry” or “oops” or “thanks” can be a more effective acknowledgement versus excuses.
My biking example is trivial given it’s just common courtesy, but it seems that common courtesy isn’t that common anymore. It’s becoming more apparent that people are afraid of being wrong. Saying “I’m sorry” is almost akin to saying “I’m stupid.”
The reluctance to say “I’m sorry” can be especially disconcerting in more significant relationships. In one of my first relationships, I quickly learned it was difficult for my loved one to say “I’m sorry.” It was almost a sign of weakness. We would go around and around discussing the issue until I realized all I wanted to hear was “I’m sorry.” But, it was not going to happen. I soon had to see “I’m sorry” in his actions and in other phrases that he used.
On the other hand, he sometimes felt I said “I’m sorry” far too easily and that it didn’t have any meaning. It was almost as if the words “I’m sorry” were a way to instantly make a situation go away, but no real change or dialogue would happen.
It’s ironic, for there’s a common phrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” For most romantics, this means you love and are loved unconditionally – flaws, mistakes and all. But there’s a broader interpretation: Love means not doing the things that would require saying “I’m sorry.”
Unfortunately, situations are not hot or cold, but they are degrees of temperature. We often have competing agendas, so someone is going to feel they’ve been compromised. This is where guilt comes in. Many people, perhaps unknowingly, wield guilt like samurai ninja pros. They guilt people into saying “I’m sorry” and do what they want. Beware of those individuals and their ability to live your life and theirs.
If you’re creating an authentic life, you do not have to apologize. You may need to explain, to help people understand, but it’s not necessary to feel sorry or guilty. It is just life. Many of my clients deal with guilt because they are not doing what their mom, their dad, their children, their spouses require. They have taken on too much responsibility for other’s emotions. Knowing when to say “I’m sorry” has set them free.
A friend mentioned recently that they dislike when people say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It comes off as a back-handed apology, acknowledging someone’s emotions, but deftly side-stepping responsibility. It can also be patronizing.
In fact, sometimes people say ‘I’m sorry’ because they empathize with someone’s situation. But, how can you be sorry for something you never caused? That is taking on a karmic burden that is not necessary and depletes one’s energy.
When we say “I’m sorry,” it means that something is inherently unjust or unfair and it needs to be rectified. Many circumstances in life are unfortunate, but in the bigger scheme, justness or fairness is never part of the grand equation. In fact, it might even be more useful to say, “If I were God, I would never have allowed this to happen.” Hmmm, maybe not. But, maybe saying “I love you and I’ll be here for you” could be more nurturing and supportive.
Ultimately, it takes courage and awareness to say “I’m sorry” at the right time, with the right meaning and the right intent. And, for some, it takes some courage and awareness to not say it. As humans, we have many opportunities to practice being on both sides of that equation. Let’s practice so we can lead a more authentic and compassionate life.