I once apologized to an empty chair.
“I am so sorry,” I said with pathos, after accidentally hip-checking the armrest of a seat while exiting a plane. When I noticed no one was sitting in it, that’s when I thought: Okay Hilary, time to get a grip.
I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and a card-carrying Compulsive Apologizer. I said “Sorry” to friends as a way of saying “Hello” on the phone. “Sorry, hi, sorry,” as if what? I should have called them earlier? Or shouldn’t be calling them at all? What was I apologizing for? I apologized for showing up at office hours of my grad school professors, said “Sorry” for needing their help, taking up their time. I said “Sorry” when I reached for something in the grocery store freezer that someone’s grocery cart blocked me from accessing. “Sorry,” I said, before and after expressing a point of view that opposed. “Sorry, but I see it differently. Sorry, sorry.” I was apologizing for my existence.
Apologizing to that empty seat was a wake-up call. I decided to experiment. I started replacing “I’m sorry,” with “Thank you.” And in the vast majority of cases, it worked. “Thank you,” I now said, reaching past grocery cart to ice cream, as if I were thanking someone for allowing me to get by—which in effect, I was. I started saying, “Thanks for taking my call,” “Thank you for your time, “Thanks for listening,” instead of apologizing, and it seemed to infuse a sense of bonhomie into interactions. People got to say, “you’re welcome,” they got to be beneficent as opposed to put out. When we apologize, we’re setting it up that we did something wrong, and those prone to feeling miffed can take us up on our offering, descending into their own toxic sense of umbrage. If I say “I’m sorry” to you for something incidental, and not in fact worthy of an apology, what dynamic did I just create between us? Do you have to absolve me? Forgive me? Have I placed the burden of my own self-esteem in your unwitting hands? You were just standing there staring into the grocery store freezer and now you have to forgive me for wanting a carton of Ben and Jerry’s?
“Thank you” thrilled me, for the most part, as a replacement for “I’m sorry,” although there were times it didn’t quite fit. Flash forward five years from the moment I apologized to an empty seat to another scene of exiting a plane. This time, I have four young children in tow, nursing twins affixed to my breasts inside a fabric double-sling, with their ungainly car seats hanging from my shoulders like I was some kind of pack mule. My preschooler and kindergartner trotted ahead of me down the aisle, both swinging knapsacks filled with coloring books, stuffed animals, juice boxes and snacks. We were a clunky, bumpy, inconvenient entourage making our way off the plane, and I thanked people for letting us get by. “Thank you, thanks,” I said to the gentleman accidentally bopped in the elbow by my daughter’s Little Mermaid knapsack. But when I said “Thank you” to the woman I whacked in the shoulder with the hard plastic of a car seat, well, that should have been an apology. And a real one. Sometimes when we self-correct, we over-rotate. And in that moment, I realized I had.
There is a considerable difference between a sincere humble apology and a compulsive SorrySorrySorry. The words “I’m sorry” can go a long way in terms of repairing breaks in relationship. When said sincerely, preferably with eye contact, “I apologize,” can bridge worlds of pain. Even over the phone, “I’m sorry,” can provide deep repair, if said with enough of a pause to let the penny drop. The ownership of “I’m sorry,” the accountability of “I apologize” over email or text can even offer balm.
There’s an interesting caveat here that I notice in my work coaching couples—that I also happen to notice as a member of a longterm couple, not to mention in my relationships with my young adult children. But before I go on listing all the places in my life where I notice this certain phenomenon, let me tell you what it is: it’s including with the apology the reasons for having done the action for which one is apologizing. I tend to include my positive intention (that got misconstrued, or that I bungled) by way of emphasizing the fact I did not mean harm. So while I am apologizing for my actions or words that did damage, owning that I handled something unskillfully, I am also providing what was going on for me when I did that, and how I did not intend for it to come out the negative way it did.
But guess what? That explanation, offered so close on the heels of the actual apology, seems to work as a giant eraser, wiping away the words “I am sorry” as well as their healing impact.
What I am learning is: a true apology has to have space around it. The penny has to drop, the import of the essential message has to land.
“I am sorry.”
There is a simple dignity to those words, a medicinal humility. Explanation of the honorable intention can come later.