June 28, 2015

How to Stop Apologizing All Over Yourself.


I say it in the grocery store when, for a millisecond, I’m in someone else’s way.

I’m sorry.

I mouth it in traffic, accompanied with a wave, when it takes me a breath to realize the light has turned green.

I’m sorry.

I sometimes even say it when advocating for myself. The other day when talking to a nurse from my doctor’s office on the phone, I had some follow-up questions for her to take to my doctor. I apologized for asking her… to do her job.

And I’m sorry, I say to my husband, after I rise up like a cobra in a PMS rage, snapping at him.

I’m sorry has become a tic, an involuntary habit.

I’m really fucking tired of being sorry.

Not because of the simple, humble words. Apologies have their place: when someone we love is hurting, we might say, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

When we make a mistake that truly impacts someone else, a genuine, “I’m sorry” is appropriate. But honestly, even in these cases, those two words make less difference than our actions, whether it’s a simple hug for someone who’s hurting, or whether it’s consciously reconsidering our future actions so that we don’t keep acting in ways that hurt others.

At my daughter’s preschool, the teachers don’t have them apologize when the inevitable toddler conflicts arise. When little Bennett kicks Ambrosia’s dirt tower down, a teacher urges Bennett to ask her, “Is there something I can do to help you feel better?”

This question turns an apology into a dialogue, an opportunity for an amends.

I’ve watched my children as I’ve stopped asking them to apologize to each other after one of them punches the other in the soft bicep or snatches a Lego from the other’s hand.

“Ask her if there’s anything you can do to help her feel better, please,” I tell my son after he calls my daughter a baby. He does, and the answer surprises me.

“I want a hug,” my three-year-old daughter answers, pouting. I watch as they embrace, and both the hurt and the anger between them drips off, puddling to the ground.

As an adult, I’m tired of all my sorries, because when I add up all these apologies I toss out through the day, they become a towering black stack. And when I look at that pile of sorries, dwarfing me, I feel like I’m apologizing for existing. For taking up space. For my own imperfection, my humanity.

It feels like another way of shrinking myself down, of feeling not good enough, of dulling my own shine.

And, when laid out after genuinely hurting someone’s feelings, it’s inadequate.

So I’m done. I’m stuffing my sorries in a sack, George Costanza style.

But like any long-term habit, it’s not easy to change.

Today, I started to turn into the wrong lane of a road under construction. Looking down the dusty street, I could see I was holding up traffic for a few extra moments as I corrected course.

I grimaced, waving to the flagger, and started to apologize.

Briefly I considered rolling down my window to ask the flagger, and the line of traffic staggering behind him, “Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?” The thought made me giggle. Perhaps in reminding myself of that question, silently, I discern when apologies and amends are necessary, and when a wave or a smile is sufficient. In asking myself the question, I both arrest my habit of apologizing all over myself, and also learn to inquire if there’s something actionable I can do when I hurt someone I care about.

Still, my innate reaction at my driving error was to beat myself up. It’s okay, I told myself.

“Why are you waving to that guy?” my son asked from the backseat. “Do you know him?”

I forgive you for being human, I whispered to myself.

“Mommy just made a tiny mistake,” I told my son.

You don’t have to apologize all the time, I reminded myself gently.

“You did?” he asked, a tinge of concern in his voice.

“Yes,” I told him. “But it’s okay.”






Author: Lynn Shattuck 

Editor: Renée P.

Image: Andrew Yee at Flickr 


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