Epidemic of Sorry Humans

I’m sorry for writing this piece or if it offends anyone. I’m sorry for expressing my opinions and for owning my thoughts and for making them public. I’m sorry for sharing my unique human experiences. And I’m sorry if you don’t like what I write about.

Well, that’s all bullshit! It was hard for me to even write that first paragraph! It’s even harder to publish it because it feels awful to say those things about myself. It’s depressing and makes me want to sit in my chair all day, bask in the pain of powerlessness, and hope someone notices how sorry I am so at least I can get credit for that! Wow! The words we choose to project on the universe have a profound effect on us — directly and indirectly!

I’m turning this around right now because I am NOT sorry for any of those things mentioned above! That paragraph was crafted only so I could get in the sorry mindset for this post. It sucks to be sorry!

Also, before I get any further, let’s be sure to differentiate between issuing an authentic apology from proclaiming how sorry we are. Without a doubt, there are certainly times that each of us needs to apologize for some certain behaviors or actions. Apologies are meaningful when we are wise enough to acknowledge the thing we said or did was hurtful and compassionate enough to act by courageously apologizing in whatever form the apology manifests. Being sorry and apologizing are two distinctly different things.

I’m sorry. I am sorry. Sorry I am (Yoda version). Whichever way you cut it, this phrase literally uses the adjective ‘sorry’ to describe the subject ‘I.’

Am I sorry? Switch up the order of the same words next time you feel them forming in your consciousness. Then answer the question in your head before the words escape your mouth.

We say this self-fault-finding phrase “I’m sorry” for lots of reasons. If we care about how we project ourselves onto the universe, it would behoove all of us to dig deep and figure out why we say “I’m sorry” so often when no apology is warranted. Forbes published this article trying to get people to stop saying “I’m sorry” in the workplace. Gawd, I hear the phrase “I’m sorry” all over the place! And I’m sooo sick of it! Boy, are we a bunch of sorry humans or what? Don’t agree? Just pay attention. People will point it out for you all the time.

I could say I’m sorry about so many things…things I shouldn’t be sorry for! Who or what makes us feel so sorry about everything? Guilt, shame, expected gender norms, culture, power-hungry bosses…. I can’t say it any better than what Brene Brown already has, so here’s a link to her TED talk on shame. Do we really allow our self perceptions of shame shape our lives and make us sorry for everything?

Throughout generations and socioeconomic differences, we have produced children who are taught to be sorry. I truly believe that none of us — not a single one of us — has a desire for others to perceive us as sorry human beings. The word itself insinuates shame, self-condemnation, or some other kind of emotional affliction. These damaging emotions, if not dealt with, lead to low self-confidence, which manifests in bullying, bulldozing, self-deprecation, local and global myopia — all because we’re not brave enough to say “I’m NOT sorry. I have power.”

From the time our kids are toddlers, we demand they say “I’m sorry” for so many things. I’ve done it. When my kids did something I deemed wrong, I would assert my parental power and order them to say “I’m sorry” to the kid on the playground or the teacher or the stranger in the store. My goal was to produce kids with compassionate souls, ethical decision-making skills, and strong characters. I believe most parents share these sentiments, obviously through different methods.

Once when my daughter was about three years old, she was sitting in a shopping cart. We had just eaten lunch, and a less-than-flattering gas expulsion bellowed from her petite mouth as we navigated the busy aisles of a less-than-flattering store. As a three-year-old, she couldn’t be expected to control all her bodily functions, let alone have a breadth of knowledge about social conventions. But the 50-something woman who heard this impressive belch stopped what she was doing, turned around, and demanded that my daughter say “I’m sorry” for being rude. Barely at legal drinking age myself, I didn’t have my confidence feet under me yet and I hesitantly started to give in to her unrealistic demands of my little girl. I heard myself saying to my little one, “We’re not leaving until you say you’re sorry. You’re not getting this horsey until you say it.” And that incessant woman wasn’t leaving her principled post. After a few minutes of combat with my stubborn, cute-as-a-button, tomboy daughter who was oblivious to my own internal battle, something hit me quite suddenly — her oblivion. Oblivion to 1) a burp that would make any college student envious, 2) to social conventions and her surroundings, and 3) my internal battle and the other woman’s principles. All she was concerned about as a three-year-old was getting home to play with her toys. In that moment, after three wasted minutes of principle-driven conflict, I looked that woman in the eyes and said, “I’m not going to make her apologize for something she doesn’t understand. I think you need to continue your own shopping.” I regained my own power over self and my daughter’s power by proxy, walked away, and snickered at the profanities she spewed at me as I looked back at her incredulously. I was feeling more steady on my feet after getting some confidence under me!

Now that my kids are older and I’m well beyond legal drinking age, I observe other adults when they interact with kids of all ages. It seems we adults have this tendency to make kids blindly say “I’m sorry” with little to no understanding about why they’re saying those words. We like our power and principle. This phrase means nothing if kids don’t understand the reason why they’re saying it. The meaning involves empathy and compassion for the plight they caused that affected a different living being. It involves recognizing a mistake and that it can be a learning opportunity, not just a disciplinary experience. And it involves displaying a new learned behavior as a result. Too complex? Well, unless they are taught to understand the depth of their actions, they’re instead learning to form meaningless syllables that communicate to the world just how sorry they are without associating a meaning to it, or worse, assigning that meaning simply to appease someone else who wields more power. The world is full of ‘principled store aisle people’ scenarios where people are forced to say “I’m sorry” when they shouldn’t have to for the sake of appeasing someone else’s struggle to maintain power. That doesn’t seem healthy to me and produces a negative effect for all parties involved.

This post isn’t about child-rearing; it just starts there. All these generations of kids who are conditioned to be sorry eventually grow up into adults who continue to be sorry for everything. But the adult versions of the sorry kids don’t know what they’re sorry for either because they’ve been conditioned to use this ugly phrase without attaching meaning to it. Or maybe a kid didn’t grow up that way. Some adults enter into abusive relationships, develop reckless friendships, or work in toxic work environments where power and principle are abused and they’re made to feel sorry in an adult context.

Either way, without associated meaning, these words “I’m sorry” quite literally make the declaration, and self-label one as, a sorry human being who doesn’t deserve the same attention as someone who’s not sorry or who holds some kind of power. It’s an epidemic of sorry humans.

This whole ‘sorry’ issue is not new, and I’m certainly not the first to identify it. I’ve been paying attention to this for a few years, and I especially notice it in women. Why is that? If you watched Brene Brown’s TED talk above, she touches on how gender norms can sometimes dictate our responses to the causes of why we feel so sorry. Just because the words “I’m sorry” don’t spill from someone’s mouth, pay attention to body language and behaviors and interactions. Instead of actually saying the words “I’m sorry,” some of us continue to project how sorry we feel, but it’s manifested in different ways — verbal, physical, non-verbal, emotional. Observe how people shrink themselves, disappear into corners, or silence their voices. These are different ways of projecting, “I’m sorry for taking up space; I’m sorry for being noticeable; I’m sorry for voicing my opinions.”

These are real phrases I’ve heard people say. My interpretations (I’m sorry if you don’t agree with them…no, not really) follow in ORANGE.

  • “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry.” [Said by young adult female after tripping on the stairs, which caused her to bump into someone’s arm]. While seemingly benign, why did she say she was sorry for an accident? So she unintentionally, slightly inconvenienced someone. Does that make her sorry? Of course not, but she conveyed her sorriness for something she didn’t even mean to do. This was an accident and didn’t even merit an apology.
  • “I’m sorry, but I think misogyny is big problem in government.” [Older adult female in a rather heated discussion about current events.] Huh…was she sorry about thinking in general or about thinking something that she was afraid someone might disagree with her on? By prefacing your opinions with “I’m sorry,” you automatically dis-empower yourself and your statements. 
  • “I’m sorry to call him this, but that n****r doesn’t work as hard as I do to get the same things.” [Adult male discussing his local socioeconomics and real estate concerns.] So basically, he was saying “I’m sorry” as a thinly-veiled attempt to be more likable and polite in his blatant racism. This kind of ‘sorry’ statement is in the same category as the “I don’t mean to…” group of statements. You know, like, “I don’t mean to offend you, but someone who weighs as much as you really shouldn’t wear those pants.” Or, “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but you and your family don’t really belong in this kind of a restaurant.” If you don’t intend to be racist, then don’t be. If you feel the need to apologize for calling someone a vulgar name, then stop yourself before doing it. And if you’re really just a bigot, then why say you’re sorry for it at all if you’re firm in your beliefs? You can’t have it both ways.
  • “I am so sorry to bother you, but I really need to talk to you.” [Adult female after significant work conflict, needing to debrief.] We all have physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. Why does anyone feel compelled to say “I’m sorry” for advocating for those needs? 
  • “I’m sorry for crying.” [Adult female while vulnerably sharing an emotional story.] Relating to others through story-telling is powerful. Yet, somewhere along the way, she has been made to feel sorry for not living up to someone else’s expectations. Her story was more powerful because she showed her vulnerability, and that’s nothing to be sorry about!
  • “I’m sorry to have you do this.” [Adult female constantly saying “I’m sorry” as a replacement for simply being polite in her request of someone else to perform their regular job duties.] What a sad situation when someone has been torn down to the bare minimum of self-confidence that they need to preface nearly everything they say with “I’m sorry” to avoid creating conflict that should, by any rights, not even be a potential. If you’re not confident in yourself, how can you expect others to be confident in the knowledge and skills you have to share?

Unfortunately, I could make a much longer list.

What can we do? Instead of any of the phrases above, encourage people to be un-apologetically themselves. Encourage them to know they don’t need to be sorry and help them to de-program this dangerous practice that cultivates a sorry culture. Empowering someone not to be sorry does not mean enabling them or giving them a license for crudeness or reckless behaviors. Based on the many things I’ve read about this epidemic, I have five suggestions to help this epidemic:

  1. Stop labeling yourself as sorry when you’re advocating for your own human needs, desires, emotions, or your opinions. Stay humble and kind in your expression of these needs, but don’t be sorry.
  2. Next time you catch yourself declaring “I’m sorry,” stop in your tracks, eliminate that phrase, and, instead, begin with the real meat of your thoughts.
    • I’m sorry, but I deserve a pay raise.”
    • “I deserve a pay raise because _________.”
  3. If you’ve messed up and need to issue an actual apology, define it, and be specific. Instead of aimlessly saying “I’m sorry,” acknowledge what it is you need to apologize for, have compassion for yourself and the one who was hurt, and display courage by issuing a genuine, vulnerable apology. When you apologize, add the important elements that demonstrate your understanding of the mistake and how you can grow from it. Define it with distinct words and recognition of self-growth. Don’t even say the words “I’m sorry.” Say, “I apologize for ______ because ______ and I’ve learned ______.”
  4. An article in the Huffington Post discusses the practice of replacing “I’m sorry” with sentiments of gratitude. Anytime you begin to say “I’m sorry, ” stop. Re-frame your thoughts into, “Thank you for ______.” This practice helps you to retain your own self-power. Example:
    • “I’m sorry for this last minute meeting.”
    • “Thank you for making time for me on such short notice.”
  5. Help people around you to not be so sorry all the time! We (all of society) owe it to ourselves to stop being sorry and to help others stop being sorry. When those words come out of your co-worker’s mouth, challenge him. Ask him what he’s sorry for. Make him think about how he’s projecting himself. When you hear someone habitually saying “I’m sorry,” it may be that experiences or circumstances have conditioned him to believe he really is sorry.

It’s just as sad that even if people don’t believe they’re all that sorry but continue to say the words all the time, they’re still projecting an image on the universe that eventually the universe will start to believe. If you say you’re sorry to me when there’s nothing to apologize for, I’m going to listen and start believing that you are at worst sorry or at best lacking self-confidence.

Things I will NOT say I’m sorry for:

  1. Your unhappiness. If you’re unhappy, change something for yourself. Happiness comes from within.
  2. Your disappointments. Expectation is the root of all disappointment. I shall not be sorry for your inability to eliminate expectations but instead create intentions.
  3. Your ignorance. Ignorance is a choice. Seek. Journey. Explore. I am not sorry for your unwillingness to pursue knowledge but your willingness to take out your frustrations on others.
  4. My own physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. I will advocate for what I need and I will not be made to feel sorry about those needs simply because they are different from someone else’s.
  5. For offending you. You’re only offended if you allow yourself to be. Didn’t Eleanor Roosevelt say that? People do offensive things [insert your own definition of ‘offensive’ here] all the time; you are in control of your perceptions of and responses to those things. This concept does not give me a license to be rude, cruel, or insensitive, but it releases me from the responsibility of your inability to manage your own emotions and responses.
  6. For living life in a way that gives me purpose, even if you don’t understand it. ‘Nuff said.

Go forth, be kind, make conscious decisions, create intentions, and adventure on!



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