Sorries are weird. In many ways.
To start with, not unlike “fucks”, “awesomes” or “literallies”, we tend to throw “sorries” around way too frequently and casually for what they actually mean.
- We say sorry when we’re about to say something hurtful, as if that excuses us for saying it.
- We say sorry when we’re about to push someone aside on the street because they’re in our way.
- We say sorry after we did something other people didn’t like, even when we know we will do it again.
This negates the whole point of the sorry. Because if we’re really so sorry about what we’re going to do, why still do it?
But even when our sorries are not used in this lackluster way, even when they come paired with regret or penitence…they’re still just as weird 😉
Because well…what the hell do you do with them?
Should You Forgive Someone Who Apologizes to You, or Never Grant Any Second Chances?
I remember receiving a lot of sorries as a teenager from people apologising for stuff they clearly chose to do.
I found myself unwilling to accept any of those sorries. And for a while, it made me develop a zero tolerance policy for the word altogether.
Because sorry doesn’t change anything about what you did. How is a 2 syllable word supposed to absolve you of your sins? As one of my high school teachers used to say: “I have a closet filled to the brim with sorries and I’m not going to put yours on top of it.”
Looking back, I find this zero tolerance approach needlessly harsh and unforgiving. It didn’t help me, nor did it benefit the person who was apologising.
Being (a bit) more mature now, I can see that sorries are a necessary part of relationships:
- Sometimes people inflict pain on each other unknowingly.
- Sometimes our ignorance makes us do things which we wouldn’t have done in hindsight.
- Sometimes, in a moment with little awareness or self-control, we even do something which we know isn’t right.
If this happened with someone you know, and now they’re offering you a sincere sorry, why refuse it?
Why throw away a beautiful relationship with another person over an unintended mistake?
The longer you know each other, the more likely one of you is going to make such a mistake at some point anyway.
So instead of refusing each sorry I was offered, I learned to look at the intentions more than the actions. (There are exceptions to this rule of intention of course. If someone punches you in the face every day but says they don’t intend to, do not give them another chance.)
In time I’ve found myself willing to forgive even the people who never apologised to me. After all, it’s just a 2 syllable word. It would be a shame to walk around with a grudge for years just because it wasn’t spoken.
How Do You Tell If a Sorry Is Sincere?
As the saying with the typo goes: “There are 2 sides to every sorry” 😉
There is the verbal “sorry” and there is the internal, emotional “sorry”.
This second sorry is the one you feel (or fail to feel) while saying your apology. Given that sorries get thrown around so casually, the presence of an internal sorry is more important than the presence of the verbal one.
What would you prefer in a friend:
Someone who politely apologises all the time?
Or someone who learns from their mistakes and treats you better every day, without apologising?
All that matters is that the other person genuinely wants to do better by you, and makes an effort to do so. Whether that comes paired with an actual apology or not, does not change anything. (Side note: This is why any apology given after you demanded it from someone is meaningless. It’s also why repeated sorries lose meaning over time. If it’s your seventh sorry, you’re probably not making a lot of effort to do better.)
The internal emotion of regret, as unpleasant as it is, can be a powerful force of good if you allow it to run its course. Because when you don’t wallow in it, but instead allow it to move you into action, it can help you change your behavior for the better.
And it’s this behavioral change (which doesn’t always mean an instant “night and day” difference, it can be slow and gradual) is what shows the other person that the sorry was truly felt.
Selfish Apologies vs True Sorries
As I’m writing this, I find myself not on the receiving end of a sorry, but on the extending end.
And while my internal sorry is there, I am painfully aware of how little my verbal sorry actually does to make things right.
A few days ago, I forgot something that was very important to my girlfriend. And I made her feel alone when she needed me most. I didn’t mean to, but I still did.
The moment I realised this, I felt this immense guilt in my stomach. Which arose from the awareness that I had hurt the person whom I loved the most, without intending to.
And as I started examining this feeling, I noticed something:
My sorry was different from previous sorries I had felt.
Up until recently, in these type of circumstances, I would feel what I thought was an authentic internal sorry.
But looking back at those past sorries, they weren’t entirely real.
Yes, I had felt real regret. And that made me believe the sorry was genuine. Yes, I had felt that I didn’t want the other person to hurt. But if I compare those sorries with the sorry I feel today, I can see now that most of my past sorries either meant:
“I feel sorry about myself because I want to be perfect and making this mistake lowered my self-esteem. And I wish this situation didn’t happen so I wouldn’t have to feel that way anymore.”
“I would like you to forgive me so that I won’t have to deal with the consequences of my actions and make a change.”
Those apologies felt very real to me. But none of them had meant:
“I am sorry for the impact you experienced by what I did. And I commit to making an effort to no longer take such actions towards you.”
And that’s how this new sorry was different. The regret I experienced was 100% about the pain she felt. It was odd to feel this for the first time. I felt a lot of regret, but I didn’t feel any other painful emotions. No shame. No pity. No loss of confidence or calm. No sadness. I felt only love.
While normally I’d also try fixing the situation, a thought came to my head this time:
“You cannot undo a mistake. So don’t try to bargain with the reality that you made it. The past can not be changed. The only thing you can do is be better to her. And making this situation about yourself by feeling shame or guilt about it, is not being better towards her in any way. So let it go, and focus on how you’re going to be a little better in the next moment, and all the ones after that. It’s the only thing you can really do. ”
It’s odd. Days have passed. I still feel sorry. I still feel love. She still feels angry at me. And I don’t feel hurt by that (though I would wish for her to feel happy of course). I’m also not trying to change it by throwing sorries in her direction. All I care about is being better in the present, and focusing on the love I feel.
Maybe she will receive that love happily, maybe she won’t want it. That’s okay. My sorry is entirely for her, not for me.
And feeling this way has finally revealed to me why I have always hated sorries so much as a teenager:
Because the majority of sorries are not meant as a loving gift to the receiver.
The majority of sorries are asking the person (whom we just treated badly) to do us a favor for our own sake.
“Please accept this apology so I can be forgiven. So that you will like me again. So that I will feel like I deserve love again.”
Such sorries are no better than a celebrity tweeting a vague apology crafted by their PR team in an effort to restore their public persona.
Such sorries are not about feeling sorry for the thing you did, they’re about wanting to not be seen as a bad person while still being able to do whatever, without repercussions. They’re about blaming yourself and then asking the other person to take that blame away. So why not just drop the blame and do better?
A true sorry is not about us, it’s entirely about the other person.
And if I’m being honest with myself. I’ve only felt a few true internal sorries in my life.
So I’d rather save my verbal sorries for those moments, to make sure my sorries continue to carry their magic, than to further degrade them like I used to do with my fucks, awesomes and literallies 😉
And I hope that in talking about it, I may inspire anyone else who reads this to take more honest look at their sorries as well.