Izzie and I were in Target recently. It was close to Christmas and the store was full of shoppers. Every aisle was crammed with people, sardines packed tight with overfilled red carts. One woman in the make-up aisle seemed especially harried. She mowed over my child, clearly irritated that the sea of humanity wasn’t parting for her quickly enough.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Izzie said, jumping out of the way.
For whatever reason, I heard it. She didn’t say, “Excuse me” but “I’m so sorry”. Sorry for what? For shopping? For having corporeal mass? For existing? In each aisle, this was repeated. “I’m sorry, ” she would say quietly, backing against a display for someone to pass, taking sole responsibility for an over-crowded store.
Now I love how polite my daughter is. She doesn’t hesitate to apologize; it’s one of my favorite things about her. When she makes an error in judgment, she never wavers in owning up to it, offering heartfelt apology easily. And real remorse is rare in a society that loves to pass the buck and shift focus. As humans, we actually have psychological defenses that often prevent us from accepting the possibility that we screwed up. We have a self-serving bias that skews us toward laying blame at someone else’s door. Being able to admit you were in the wrong is a hallmark of mature behavior. Most of us do not say, “I’m sorry,” but instead, “I’m sorry, but…”, adding a soothing caveat or stipulation to justify or explain our actions.
But over-apologizing isn’t ok either. Women especially have been raised in a society that asks us to apologize too easily and too frequently, for things we cannot control and for things that are not our fault. Research indicates that women over-apologize far more often than men and that this tendency often stems from feelings of insecurity and unworthiness. This gender-based conversational ritual teaches women that their actions are an imposition instead of a contribution. We see it over and over, this shameful drama of women making themselves small to make others feel more comfortable. Why do we downplay our awesomeness, wear the heavy mantle of being good girls?
Have I taught my daughter that the opinions of others matter more than her deepest truths? Does she believe her value lies only in meeting the expectations of society? Did she learn this behavior from me? Of course she did. Like every other woman, I have spent decades minimizing my validity, swallowing my truths so as to not rock the boat, nodding sweetly when I was really seething inside.
Those three words (I’m so sorry) sat so heavy on my heart that day. They still do.
When we apologize for every tiny inconvenience, it dilutes the power behind a real apology. The words we choose matter. Our words should stand up straight, not cower behind expectation; why should we apologize for speaking our truth?
What if we flipped the script and replaced the overused I’m sorry with thank you?
“I’m sorry for upsetting you” becomes, “Thank you for considering my request.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to run” becomes, “Thank you for your time.”
“I’m sorry this is late” becomes, “Thank you for your patience.”
“I’m sorry to unload on you” becomes, “Thank you for allowing me to speak honestly.”
“I’m sorry, but I am busy that day” becomes “Thank you for thinking of me.”
“I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment” becomes “Thank you for having faith in me.”
“I’m sorry that my Target experience is inconveniencing your Target experience” becomes “Thank you for allowing me to practice this life skill.”
The world deserves our gratitude, not our constant negativity. The world can always use more gratitude. And when we honor ourselves, it asks the world to honor us too. If we say, “I’m sorry” constantly, the world starts to believe we should be apologizing. I’m not saying we give the world the middle finger; I’m just suggesting that we all respect our boundaries more.