I’m not Sorry, and Neither are You: Six Things Women May Actually Mean When We Say “I’m Sorry”


Women apologize a lot more often than men, and for ‘lesser’ grievances.  We know that, we’ve experienced it.  We joke about it.

Some of us are addicted to the apology.  We toss out “I’m sorries” like smarties from a Flag Day float. We apologize for other people’s mistakes, people we don’t even know.  We apologize for the weather, for the traffic, for bad restaurant service.  We apologize for apologizing. We start and end sentences with apologies, “I’m so sorry, but…”  We say “I’m sorry” so often, it’s a part of speech, a grammatical punctuation mark.

Language is powerful.  If we say “I’m sorry” all day long, we risk becoming sorry.  We get smaller with every utterance.  We say to ourselves, (I’m sorry that) I am not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, pretty enough, a good enough mom, my house is not clean enough, etc. We become the words we utter about ourselves.  And, “I’m sorry” is no different.

We’re so sorry, so much of the time, that it’s a slippery slope toward choosing people to be in our lives who bring out the “sorry” in us.  Then, there we are, stuck in a ‘sorry’ life of our own creation.

(Really) sorry to say, I speak from experience.

I created that life, by my own hand, and with a thousand sorries as the mortar that held the bricks of my shame in place.  When I finally left, I left without apology. Years later, I offered a genuine apology for my part in that failed relationship, probably the first real apology in the relationships’ 8 year duration.

Since then, I have come to savor my “sorries.”  Because I’ve realized that blaming our sexist culture, our internalized misogyny is an excuse, a cover up, convenient in its inexorable kernel of truth, for what may be a deeper, unseen motive.

Six Things We May Really Mean When We Say “I’m Sorry:”

When we say ‘I’m sorry,’ over and over again, we may be really acting out one of these five scenarios:

  1.  Co-opting other people’s power, and ability to be accountable for whatever they are saying, while we’re busying ‘sorrying’ all over it.
  1. Avoiding the harder work of really listening to people’s pain, fear, concern- just being present with them and not taking part of their experience from them, just hearing, confirming, being.  We cut them off with a quick and early sorry, secretly (possibly not consciously) hoping they’ll stop.
  1. Bringing back the old school apology- from the Greek “making a speech in one’s own defense,” we aim to cut the other person off quickly so that we can defend ourselves, rather than hear and accept our responsibility for their upset or pain.
  1. Stopping them from giving us real, meaningful feedback, especially that which we don’t want to hear.  I’m sorry is a conversation stopper, and blocks deeper dialogue, full disclosure and can be an effective tool to keep distance between us.
  1. Clinging to our need to control.  Yes, ‘I’m sorry’ can be a control gesture, and a tricky one.  If I say ‘I’m sorry’ I am inserting myself, my wishes, my needs, my disappointments, sadness or hopes into your experience.  Benign as it may seem, “I’m sorry” even when we intend to offer it as a supportive gesture, then requires more of the other person- to acknowledge my kindness, or to respond, ‘you don’t have to be sorry’ (I already knew that), or to say ‘thank you.’
  1. Finally- and this is a hard one. I have a colleague who is smart, and competent, creative, talented and capable of great things in her career.  She is a chronic “I’m sorrier.” I have come to see it as her creature comfort, her ‘go to’ excuse to not act in full service of the potential the possibility she has ahead of her.  She uses it to distance herself from the hard work of being a young woman who fully owns and acts from a place of power.  It is her camouflage-  her instrument of sub-optimization.   She uses it to keep herself smaller, because for now, that is easier than stepping into the risk of greatness, the unknown of exceeding others’ expectations of her.

If you want to offer support, or show you care (which I believe you do), try these:

“That’s really hard, what do you need?”

“It sounds like you are really thinking hard about this, thank you for sharing it with me.”

Or, just be quiet and listen, fully and with the kind of presence that rises above words.

If you’re “I’m sorrying” all over the place, experiment with substituting “excuse me” or “thank you” and see what happens.  Hold your ‘sorries’ as sacred, use them only you mean them, and express them fully along with your commitment to changing whatever behavior has led you to the moment.  Make them count.  This is a quality over quantity thing. Ironically, you may find, that stopping all the “I’m sorries” opens doors to new possibilities, and to seeing yourself and others in new, unprecedented ways.  Give up the comfort of “I’m sorry,” and I promise, you won’t be.

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One comment on “I’m not Sorry, and Neither are You: Six Things Women May Actually Mean When We Say “I’m Sorry”
  1. Sheri Quatrale says:

    Great article. I joined the roller derby this past fall. When the newbie class graduated to contact level we were saying “Sorry” everytime we bumped into our new team mates or fell behind in the pace line. One of the first lessons the more seasoned women in the sport taught us was the motto “There’s no sorry in Rollor Derby.” I’ve taken that to heart and noticed I was using “Sorry” anytime I was not feeling confident. Lesson learned! I pay better attention to the words I choose to make sure I am not weakening my message.

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