Apologies are another one of those things that fall into the category of It Seemed Like a Good Idea Because Everyone Else Does it.
There are a lot of people in the world who do a lot of things. Just because our parents taught us to act in a certain way, or because it is average or commonly accepted to follow a particular custom, it doesn’t make it a wise and healthy thing.
It’s at least worth asking the question: what am I apologizing for and what am I actually saying when the two magical words, “I’m sorry,” come out of my mouth?”
Some potential meanings:
1. “I’m sorry that you caught me/ that you’re upset (because it inconveniences me) but I don’t actually care and would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m only saying I’m sorry in hopes of getting you off my back.” It’s common among children forced to apologize or between spouses and is entirely insincere and selfish. When I express this kind of apology I still think I’m right and you’re a wrong, stupid idiot. It’s used to brush off serious mistakes and used in lieu of actually making changes. I think that if I say, “I’m sorry,” I’ve just washed myself of any responsibility to actually change the way I behave.
Or more commonly:
2. The profuse and excessive apologies over unbelievable minutiae. I’ve heard a lot of this in my life lately. You know, the “I’m so sorry I didn’t bake you a tenth cake for your birthday!! I ran out of time with the first 9 and here are eleven other reasons why you should still be my friend.”
Do we really not recognize the arrogance in this? In order to overly apologize for a thing we must really believe that the other person will not be okay without it. Like I wouldn’t survive if I didn’t receive the tenth birthday cake. Or my world would stop turning if you didn’t return my call. Or showed up five minutes late to our date.
Really, my life is, has been, and will be great. We can have faith that other people will continue to muddle through without us gracing their lives with our presence. People will be okay.
And of course there’s a strong note of insecurity in that apology as well. You know, the whole “Please still be my friend,” or “please don’t be mad at me,” part which people don’t actually say out loud (mostly) but is definitely implied.
Again, what are we saying here? What do these inadvertent and instinctive reactions reveal about our beliefs? Let me further translate:
Please still be my friend – “I think that you are so superficial that you are only friends with people who bake you ten cakes on your birthday. I’m also so insecure about myself as a person that I think I have to bake everyone ten cakes on their birthday in order to be a valuable friend.”
Please don’t be mad at me – “You are such a monster that you would get angry at anyone that doesn’t treat you like an Egyptian Princess even though they probably didn’t have cake back then.”
We can all just really afford to relax a bit. Have faith that people will be okay and that some people are capable of just caring without needing some kind of payment in return. It’s simply not possible to overreact to every mistake we make while simultaneously accepting others for their flaws and follies. Either we accept that we are all human –ourselves included– or hold everyone to unattainable standards.
So what’s the alternative to hollow apologies? How can we express genuine remorse? It’s far more effective to simply describe our mistake and our intended plan of action. “I was lazy and didn’t make dinner on time, Sweetie. I’ll try to plan ahead so that in the future it’s ready when you come home.”
It’s always worth it to stop and take a moment to determine if our feelings line up with the words we are speaking.