Sorry.

You’re in a wholefoods shop and someone is absent-mindedly mulling over their buying decision right in front of the product you want to pick up; they’re in your way. Gesturing with your hand towards the shelf you say “Sorry…” You’ve been there, you know exactly the scenario don’t you, especially if you’re English! So easy to say sorry, right? It slips out of your mouth before you’ve even thought! It’s a shortcut though. ‘Just’ a turn of phrase. If we said what we really mean wouldn’t it be something like “i need to look at the stuff behind you, would you be okay to move aside?”

Think about what the word sorry means. When we say sorry it means we did something wrong. I’ve been thinking lately that when we say it so often and so glibly we’re conditioning ourselves, albeit in small and usually unconscious ways, to think that we’re not worthy or good enough or as important as another person. We’re repeatedly drip-feeding ourselves the subtle message that we’re doing something wrong when really we’re just asking for what we need, usually something simple that very likely will be given gladly without hesitation. The post-apology feeling in these instances is not a positive affirming one.

So, subconsciously, asking for what we need becomes synonymous with being in the wrong. So we don’t feel comfortable asking for what we need.

That example was just something small like needing to get to a shelf. If we’re in that habit though, then imagine how we feel when faced with feeling awkward about asking for something that we REALLY need! To be listened to, to be accepted, to feel trusted, to feel appreciated, to feel like we belong, to take a break from what we’re doing, some help… Chances are, if you think about it, when we ever need those kind of things, those very valid, very human needs, we often feel like we’re in the wrong for asking for them, and we’re extremely tempted to say sorry for needing them. I’m feeling the benefit of trying to change this for myself.

And what does the other person tend to say in response? “Sorry!” Why? What they really mean is “yes of course it’s fine for me to move aside”. All they’ve done is unintentionally hindered someone, no harm done, but instead they’ve subtly told themselves they were in the wrong.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that everyone is likely to start long-windedly trying to say what we really mean instead (although actually i’m trying it and I advocate it!) But I wonder if we became mindful of these implications each time we say sorry from now on, would it help us to feel less critical of ourselves? If you’re near me and you say sorry in that context, i can almost guarantee that now you’ll get the smiling response from me of “don’t be sorry! 🙂 ” Which is ‘just a turn of phrase’ for everything i’ve written here!

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“Sorry to hear you feel unwell.” Really? When we stop and think about this it’s obvious that we’re not sorry, we aren’t responsible for that person being unwell! But we’re not used to accurately describing our true feelings. Rather than feeling sorry, don’t you actually feel sad for them, frustrated you can’t do anything to help, a bit scared perhaps if the illness is serious? Or feel angry at the unjustness of it?

“I’m feeling sorry for myself.” This one was for a long time a particular habit of mine! When I’ve thought about this a bit more, I often realise that actually I feel sad or lonely, or I feel frustrated that I can’t control other people’s actions or control some aspect of my life. There are needs I have that aren’t being met. When I can manage to be really honest with myself, I might get upset in realising that it’s because I feel regret for something I’ve done that in the end had an effect I didn’t want it to have; it took me further away from my needs instead of closer to them. So instead of ‘feeling sorry for myself’ I now try to be sorry to myself. Tell myself i’ll try to be aware of that mistake next time and do better, I didn’t deliberately sabotage myself and I was doing the best I could at the time. Try to forgive myself, stop thinking about what i did but remember the lesson, and take responsibility for doing something different next time if I’m ever given the chance again. I think forgiveness has to start with ourselves, and only once we can do that can we start also forgiving others and freeing ourselves from the suffering of regret and anger.

Now think about how it feels when there really is something to say sorry to someone else for. It often takes time and thought to even realise that we might have something to apologise for: There’s just a gut feeling that something’s not right, there’s a lump in our throats and we feel very uncomfortable, there’s conflict and we feel frustrated. That’s pride and the need to be right, and it’s not a pleasant feeling at all! There are only three ways to stop experiencing it.

1. Bury it and avoid the situation, stay unaware that we did anything wrong, only to be faced with it again with someone and something else, probably very soon afterwards. Repeat. Ugh.
2. Get angry and find a way very rapidly to blame someone else instead, and let ourselves stay feeling self-righteously annoyed. (This 3-minute animation describes this brilliantly! )
3. Find the courage to overcome it, let it turn to shame and regret, then forgive ourselves and find a way to give the apology that we know is due and a way to move forward from there. Post-apology in this situation feels so liberating!

How many times have you truly said sorry after realising the consequences of your actions, compared to glibly saying it for accidentally brushing past someone or unintentionally being in their way? Worth an extra moment’s thought next time you say the word. Very few times in life do we actually need to say sorry, because very few times do we knowingly do something to deliberately give someone else unpleasant feelings. If we look at ourselves, we know this don’t we? Ask yourself how many times you are knowingly annoying, chances are it’ll be very few. So can’t we assume the same of everyone else? In my experience, when I manage to assume the best of myself and other people rather than assuming the worst, I feel much happier for it.

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