The Two Most Difficult Words in the English Language: I’m Sorry
“It’s not if we make mistakes; rather, how we handle them,” to (not very humbly) quote myself.
Lessons I’ve Learned Over the Years:
- When I goof, saying “I’m sorry” stands alone, and is powerful.
- Providing an explanation serves to dilute the apology, and often reads as an excuse, a la, “Sorry I’m late; I ran into traffic.”
- Explanations are also read as “my rationale is more important than you are,” in this example my inability to account for traffic. After all, don’t we all run into traffic? A more accurate explanation would be “I’m late because I didn’t allow enough time given the traffic.” Even that dilutes the apology.
- Stay with the short, sweet, accurate, and powerful “I’m sorry.”
Why is Apologizing So Tough, Given We All Make Mistakes?
In her June 2020 post for Psychology Today, therapist Beverly Engel wrote “. . . apologizing to those we have hurt or harmed isn’t always an easy task. There can be various obstacles in our way of doing what is right.” Engel goes on to list six reasons.*
- A Matter of Pride: This requires admitting we made a mistake, which requires an acknowledgment we’re imperfect (or, I would say “human?”).
- A Sign of Weakness: Many feel an apology would display weakness when the opposite is often true – it is a show of strength (of character, of ego, of confidence) and others usually see it this way.
- Fear of Being Shamed: Engel finds that many adults were damaged by severe shaming as a child, and can’t tolerate further shaming as they age.
- The Fear of Consequences: Some feel that being honest in admitting a mistake will lead to rejection, a ruined reputation, and/or loss of a significant relationship.
- A Lack of Awareness: “Many people do not apologize because they are oblivious to the effect their actions have on others. They don’t apologize because they are simply unaware that they have anything to apologize for.”
- The Inability to Emphasize: Engel offers this “By far, the most significant reason that so many of us have difficulty apologizing is that we lack empathy for others, that quality that enables us to put ourselves in the place of others.”
*Please note that where the comments lack quotations, they reflect my distillation and paraphrasing of Engel’s statements.
My Additions to the List:
- The “Lizard Brain:” The “lizard brain,” refers to the most primitive part of the brain, and is responsible for our survival as a species. The specific behaviors it engenders are aggression and fear. When someone says something we don’t like and we give into aggression and fear, we often feel attacked and lash back.
- The Inability to “Think First, and Respond Second:” Undoubtedly a result of the lizard brain, many of us have a difficult time controlling the impulse to an immediate – and often unkind or offensive – response.
Where do we go From Here?
Over lo these many years of facilitating numerous, varied, and diverse groups, I have found that when the question is asked – how many of us have made mistakes? Every single hand goes up. When I next ask, how many of us apologize? Fewer hands go up; yet, it also always evokes a chuckle. What this demonstrates is that we all recognize the obvious – we make mistakes – and that it’s difficult to own up.
For me, it’s important to understand the reasons why, so aptly documented by Beverly Engel, which, hopefully, causes us all to consider our own demons. More important than the “whys,” is changing our conduct.
How-To’s/Suggestions Based on My Personal Journey
- Pick a loved one to try on this new conduct: Think of someone – family or friend – that you may have offended or hurt in the past week. Pick up the phone, or when you next see him or her and say “I was thinking about the comment I made at dinner the other night. I’m sorry if I offended you.”
- Practice saying “I’m Sorry,” after the fact: Frequently, it takes time to change one’s habits and conduct. Each week, reflect on the transactions between/among you and others that were uncomfortable and consider your role in those situations. Where warranted, apologize. Although after the fact, owning up at any time is never too late.
- Move up the “I’m Sorry,” to when the conduct occurs: Over time, the ability to reflect upon one’s conduct that warrants an apology will become close to instantaneous. Follow it up with “I’m Sorry.”
- Avoid the temptation to provide an explanation: The “I’m sorry I was late, but . . .” has the impact of diluting the apology, and the explanation really sounds like an excuse. Finally, it can easily be read as “My explanation is more important than you.”
- Learn to Think First and Respond Second: Develop the discipline to avoid the immediate response, when (you know) it will be unkind or offensive.
It’s a Wrap:
The power of apology can be distilled into two words “I’m sorry.” There are many reasons why we humans have a difficult time owning up, even though we all know we make mistakes. Spend time developing the practice of recognizing when the conduct was harmful, hurtful, or offensive, and then apologize.
I’m eager to hear how the suggestions in this post were helpful. Let me know at email@example.com.