It recently dawned on me that saying "I'm sorry" could very well be the most useless phrase in the English language.
I have said my fair share of Sorries. This little word can be used in many different settings, as there are four main types of apologies.
I'm Sorry. I screwed up. This was probably the original apology. The good ol' fashioned "I messed up big time and I really hope you understand how sorry I actually am." This is the kind of sorry that is spoken when the person owns up to their mess and genuinely hope the words make some sort of an impact.
I'm Sorry. I regret that this hurt you. At Passion Provokers, we teach our clients about boundaries and how they can apologize. I've written many blogs on the ownership of feelings (remember, you CHOOSE how you feel and no one can make you feel anything), so this type of sorry is where we coach clients to use the word regret. Why? Because, in this situation, you're not at fault, but you can use regret for the situation or someone else's feelings without being responsible for them. An example of this would be if your partner is frustrated with you about a recent boundary. You can regret that they feel that way and communicate that with them, but you are ultimately not responsible for their feelings (this doesn't give you license to be a jerk).
I'm Sorry. I understand and sympathize. This apology is most commonly used when someone has suffered some form of a loss. When you communicate this, you are speaking to their hurt and extending your understanding of how difficult it is.
I'm Sorry. #SorryNotSorry. Remember that time in 6th grade when Lisa stole your favorite pen and you confronted her about it, then the teacher made her apologize to you? Yeah, Lisa wasn't all that sorry. Probably just sorry she got caught.
A verbal apology is powerful, important, and indisputably transformational. So, when did it become so useless? The phrase has been a dime-a-dozen for quite some time. It's not so much that people don't mean it when they say it, but it has become a social phrase that is supposed to make the wrong okay. Words are powerful, but a brushed over "Sorry" isn't going to take away the hurt or pain from whatever created the need for the phrase in the first place. It's an automatic response we have been trained to say from the moment we began learning to speak, like answering "I'm good, how are you?" when someone asks you how you are doing.
I brought this up to my husband yesterday. He quickly added that "I love you" was the same. And I would have to agree with him. It is important to keep your privacy sacred by only sharing intimate things with those closest to you, but does the same not apply to words? Of course I do not mean stop saying you're sorry or that you love someone. But, if you say it all too often they start to lose their meaning.
I'm Sorry is completely useless. Apologies aren't. Here are some simple steps on how to approach your next apology:
1. Take accountability for you part in it. This means taking full ownership of the wrong that was committed. I am a firm believer that anything after "but" is bull. No, you can't say "I'm sorry, but I had no other choice" or "I'm sorry, but I thought I was doing the right thing." I mean it, everything after "but" is bull. If you find yourself unable to phrase an apology without the "but", you're probably not ready to apologize because you aren't taking ownership.
2. Acknowledge the hurt you caused. Explain how you feel (an easy way to do this is to use The Feeling Wheel) and how you imagine they felt when it happened. For example, "Yesterday, when I made that sarcastic comment about your work ethic, I was wrong. It was disrespectful of me....."
3. And on that note, make a verbal commitment (and a mental plan) to not do it again in the future. "....in the future, I will be more aware of how my sarcasm can be disrespectful. I won't do that again."
Number three is what makes the biggest difference between a useless "sorry" and an authentic apology. Your behavior is unlikely to change overnight, and it is very likely that something similar could happen again. However, if you are actively conscious about your commitment, you will be more aware of your words and actions, so the behavior will eventually stop.
Do you think "I'm Sorry" is useless? Have you ever experienced the difference between an "I'm Sorry" and an authentic apology? I'd love to hear from you! And what about "I love you" (more on this soon)? I may use your comments for the follow-up blog about the phrase "I love you."