There’s a word that I struggle with these days. Funny, because it’s one that is supposed to make people feel better.
If you’re around me, please try to refrain from saying it, unless, of course, you actually have done something hurtful to me. And by that I mean you physically hurt me, lash out with unfocused anger, say mean things to me… It has to be pretty serious for sorry to hold meaning with me.
I hear sorry said incessantly. I bump into someone or get in their way unintentionally at the grocery store, and the person, most often female identified, says, sorry. Even when it’s not their fault. I was in their way. Or when I’m talking with a group of people, and instead of someone jumping in to speak, or saying, “Excuse me, I want to say something,” I hear sorry, like what they are about to add to the conversation is not important. I ask someone to clarify a point in an email or text, and instead of just doing so they start with (drum roll please)… sorry.
Why does sorry raise my hackles? Many reasons. The first is that it diminishes the person who says it because the word, when repeated so often, no longer holds meaning.
We might be able to tie it to British comedy, where the word has been used forever, and with great comic timing. I love British comedy, and sorry works well in it. But in real life, sorry feels to me like a symptom of anxiety, and that worries me.
I believe that now more than ever it is important for us all, and especially young women, to stand in our power, and speak from that place. It’s time to step in and take up space unapologetically. I think of how sorry can undermine a young woman’s ability to protect herself when necessary. If she’s been taught, possibly by cultural osmosis or perhaps from parents who don’t allow her to have a disagreeing voice, to continuously apologize for her words and/or actions in innocuous situations, what happens when someone confronts her with aggression and she needs to respond from a place of strength? It won’t be there. The “good girl,” must-be-nice part of her personality takes over, and she gives her power away with sorry.
I also don’t like sorry as it is used these days because it makes me feel like I have to take care of the person who said it. It’s a burden to me. I know this is not the intention of the speaker, but, as someone whose nature it is to comfort others and make them feel good about themselves, I jump into the role of caretaker when someone nervously says sorry when there is no need for it. I want to alleviate their anxiety and empower them to take up space. It’s why I sometimes get irritated when I hear sorry too much in one day. I don’t want to use my energy or time to take care of people all day. I'm happy to take on the real stuff, like whatever it is that's causing someone's anxiety. I just don't believe that we need to be sorry for struggling. It's part of the human condition.
Last weekend, while traveling on an overly-crowded train to San Francisco, a group of young women needed to get off at one of the stations. I knew this because I heard sorry over and over. As they approached me (I was standing near the door so they had to stop moving), the one at the head of their line was about to say sorry to me, but I cut her off and started up a conversation about how hard it is to get off a crowded train. I then said, as I do when I’m in my patient teaching mode, “And there’s no need to be sorry. It’s hard to move through crowded trains.”
She laughed and said, “So I can just say, ‘Get out of my way!’”
Then the poor thing had to hear me go on and on about my quest to stop people, especially young ones, from over-using sorry.
I have been practicing not using the word without really meaning it for many years now, and I truly feel more powerful. Not that I’m immune, but when I hear it come out of my mouth, I question why I’ve said it and see if it was necessary. In emails, instead of saying, “Sorry for taking so long to get back to you,” which is something I could say continuously since I’m forever behind on my correspondence, I write, “Thanks for your patience in my response time. I’m a bit buried right now in email.” It feels so good to acknowledge the busyness of life without having to constantly apologize when I’m doing the very best I can to keep up. When I make a “mistake” or forget something with work that burdens my colleagues, instead of using the disempowering word I say, “Thanks for your patience with my learning process (forgetful memory, or whatever it happens to be). I understand that this situation made things hard for you.” I find that when I present myself from the place of my humanity and all its imperfections, my colleagues reflect that behavior. This is when we really hit the sweet spot in our workflow together, when we trust that who we are and what we're doing is just right, even with our "mistakes." I find a sorry-free workspace to be much more effective and enjoyable.
All that said, saying “I’m sorry” has great power when used appropriately.
I know from personal experience—lots of experience! I choose now to say, “I apologize” when I need to make amends, because it feels sincere, and holds more weight since the word sorry has lost all power and meaning for me.
My daughter, Carmen, is writing a Body Positive book for college students of all genders (woohoo! Can you tell I’m excited?), in which she will be teaching her readers about the overuse of sorry as a disempowering act. I can’t wait for the book to be in the hands of every young person in this country. It is time for real confidence, real power, and that means never having to say sorry.
Those of you who didn’t grow up in the 1970s may miss the reference to the then-popular and sappy line from Love Story, in which Ali MacGraw says to Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In my humble opinion, love means apologizing when there is actually something to apologize for. It's powerful to take responsibility instead of collapsing into guilt and shame, which feels like the root of the current-day use of sorry. Self-love means refraining from using sorry incessantly if you find you're using it as an anxious tic, not as a way to express a true apology when needed.
I ask you to consider what I’ve said and see what it feels like to use “pardon me” or “thanks for your patience” or another phrase that is less disempowering than the current cultural use of sorry.
Changing how we use words is a practice, and isn't meant to cause additional guilt or shame. As we do with things like sitting at our computers with better posture, or starting a meditation practice, shifting away from the overuse of sorry is simply something we bring our attention to when we can. I hope you enjoy the practice.
By the way, I’m not the only one on the bandwagon to get people to stop using sorry. Here’s another viewpoint on this topic.
If you’re interested in learning more about expanding your practice of self-love, I offer my book, Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body (and quiet that critical voice!) as a place to start.
Or, if you’re local to the Bay Area, check out my next Be Body Positive public workshop that’s happening this November.
If you’re a high school or college student or educator, there’s still time to join us for the Be Body Positive Leadership Summit in August, which will be a life-changing event.
I would be honored to work with you, and perhaps help you recover from being a sorry addict!