The other day, someone bumped me with their cart on the way by, while I was quietly searching for a nice soup for lunch. And I turned around and said, “Oh, sorry!”
A friend was talking to me about the loss of her pet, and when her tears came (which, of course they would) she rolled her eyes and said, “Ugh, sorry.”
Both of these are examples of times when an apology probably isn’t needed. And yet, if we all counted, my guess is that we would find ourselves apologizing for an array of behaviors over the course of our day.
Sometimes, of course, saying “sorry” is appropriate, such as:
When you hurt someone.
This is the big one. If you harmed someone in some way, then saying sorry is quite appropriate. We often owe others an apology when we have been harsh, thoughtless, rude, or hurtful. We may also owe others an apology in times when we didn’t behave in an intentionally harmful way, but we negatively impacted someone else. Don’t stop saying sorry in these situations.
When you’re expressing empathy.
We can use “I’m sorry” as a way of expressing that we are sad to hear about something, like a loss. When someone tells us about something hard, or something painful, it makes sense to say, “I’m so sorry.”
The examples of “sorry” that may not be necessary are the ones where we use the language “I’m sorry” to put ourselves in a position of fault (for something that is often not in our control) to try and smooth over a difficult social interaction. Examples of this are:
“I’m sorry [that I’m having an emotion]”
Crying is the big one that we seem to want to apologize for, but it also happens when we are excited, anxious, or frustrated. If you are harming someone (e.g., if you are mad, and you just yelled at them) then an apology is appropriate. Otherwise, you do not owe anyone an apology for having feelings. Let’s say that one more time: You do NOT owe anyone an apology for having feelings.
INSTEAD: Try saying thank you.
“Thank you for listening”
“Thank you for being so patient with me”
“Thank you for letting me vent”
“Thank you for being so supportive”
“I’m sorry [that I’m occupying space]”
You might find that you apologize to people for just taking up physical space. You’re in the grocery store, someone else seems to want to be in the area, and you’re saying “I’m sorry.” Why? Some of it is good old politeness, acknowledging that others might want to share the space. But, I would argue that we can keep the politeness without apologizing.
“Am I in your way?
“I’m sorry [because you seem upset]”
This is a tricky one, and it happens the most with our partners and loved ones. During moments of stress or conflict, some of us may be inclined to apologize, or to take on blame for things that aren’t really about us. This apology can also be the kind that tries to fix an uncomfortable situation; it is a “sorry” that takes on blame in the hopes that the conflict will go away. (Example: You’re out with your partner and they drop their phone. Oh, it’s bad. The screen is cracked, and they’re upset. You had a nice day planned, and you can tell that they are stewing and grumpy. And you might find yourself saying “I’m sorry” over and over, trying to smooth over the situation.)
“I know that this is hard,” or “I get why you’re upset”
Offering space. “I’ll give you a minute,” (or just allowing silence)
Offering help. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Sorry is for when we’ve hurt someone, or for when we want them to know that we are hurting with them. Using sorry when we have an emotion implies that we are hurting others or that we are wrong to have our feelings. Using sorry when we are occupying a physical space implies that others have more of a right to be than we do. Using sorry to try and fix or smooth over difficult situations implies that we are at fault, and can even take away others’ ability to have their own feelings. Instead of using sorry to absorb fault or shrink away, try other phrases that contribute something helpful to the situation.
Author: Mollie Burke
Dr. Burke is a Psychologist at Hope Springs Behavioral Consultants. Her theoretical orientation is Existential-Humanistic. She acknowledges the inherent struggles, difficulties, and hardships of life. However, her approach also emphasizes the incredible ability of human beings to endure these issues to lead purposeful and intentional lives. Basically, she believes that life is hard, but humans are amazing. (We think she is pretty amazing too.)