#4: Stop saying, “I’m sorry.”

Toddlers have this funny habit of latching on to a certain phrase and overusing it. Lately, Ian uses the phrase, “huh?” at the end of  sentences. He says, “That’s pretty cool, huh?” or “I’m getting bigger, huh?” or “It’s a beautiful day out, huh?” Sometimes, these instances are funny and inconsequential.

A few months ago, though, Ian had picked up a particular phrase and was using it all the time: “Sorry.” He’d walk around the living room, trip over something, and say “Sorry, Mom!” He would say “sorry” after sneezing or if a sip of water went down the wrong way.

Don’t get me wrong—we work hard to teach Ian to apologize when necessary. He needs to say “I’m sorry” when he hits his brother, snatches a toy from a friend at school, or intentionally spits broccoli onto the kitchen floor.

But Ian’s incessant sorrys over those few months revealed something I wasn’t too happy to discover: I was saying “sorry” when another phrase was more appropriate, and I was convincing my child he was doing something wrong when, in fact, he was just being. So much of parenting is like holding up a mirror that highlights my bad habits and the worst parts of my personality. I can’t blame Ian for his lack of interest in vegetables or Leo for his affinity for laptops; I know exactly where they picked up those traits. The origins of Ian’s new favorite phrase were obvious.

When eating at a restaurant, if I need to send a meal back to the kitchen for some reason, I always say sorry to the server. If someone bumps into me in a crowd or store, I am quick to say sorry. That’s just the start.

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I sent a text to some of my good friends yesterday and asked them when they are tempted to apologize. Here’s what they said:

“I apologize for my kids all the time when they are just being kids…crying, walking in a disorderly way, etc.”

“I apologize a lot if I decide to skip/miss something in order to spend time with my husband. And also if someone comes over and dishes aren’t done/house is messy/dog hair is on the couch.”

“I apologize for being sick.”

And my favorite, from my friend Courtney: “I told my labor nurse and anesthaelogist that I was sorry because I had a contraction right before they were going to start the epidural, and they had to wait a minute.”

You guys. Most of these texts were followed by the laugh-cry emoji, because we all recognize that this is crazy! None of these things deserve an apology.

In a blog post about this very thing, Ally Fallon wrote, “I think we can all agree how miserable it would be to have our language policed constantly, or to repeatedly second-guess every word that came out of our mouths. This would be a blow to a person’s confidence, rather than bolster for it. But what if we looked at the language we use not as something that needed to be policed, but something which could offer a great insight into our inner world?”

What do my constant sorrys demonstrate about my inner world? I apologize because I’m desperate for approval and want my personality to fit within culturally-acceptable parameters. Sometimes I am trying to make someone else feel more at ease, or I don’t have anything else to say and want to fill the silence. I say “sorry” because I want to smooth over any potentially uncomfortable situation. I want my husband, my friends, and even the stranger in the Target card aisle to believe I am gentle, kind, calm, and considerate. I offer up an “I’m sorry,” not because I am remorseful but because I am trying to project a certain image.

But our words and thoughts matter, and saying “I’m sorry” more than necessary subtly communicates the idea that something is wrong here, when in fact NOTHING is wrong. Embracing my imperfect, messy, human life exactly as is means I need to stop apologizing.

Time to get super practical. I often throw out a quick apology simply because it’s habit and I don’t know what else to say. To remedy that, I am slowly but surely developing a little repertoire of phrases to use instead.  Here’s what I’ve come up with. If you have other suggestions in the comments, I’d love to hear them!

  • When I bump into someone or they bump into me: “Excuse me!”
  • When I send back a meal: “Thanks for your help.”
  • When I’m late because my toddler was crazy/car broke down/something out of my control: “Thank you for waiting!”
  • When someone shares something less-than-sunny: “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “That’s so frustrating!”
  • When someone comes over and the house is a mess: “It’s just real life over here today.”
  • When I drop something/spill something/display my general clumsiness: “Oops!”

Let’s commit to accepting our lives and personalities and needs just as they are, and let’s relentlessly communicate that acceptance.

Last year, Mary Carver wrote an entire 31 Days series all about the things she was not sorry for. It’s really great. You can check out those posts here!

All month long, I’m sharing 31 ways to fight perfectionism. You can find all the posts in the series here (or by clicking the “31 Days” button at the top of the blog). Tomorrow, we’ll look at the other side of this coin: when is saying sorry actually necessary, and what does that have to teach us about perfectionism?

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2 thoughts on “#4: Stop saying, “I’m sorry.”

  1. Ooooo, I especially like this post! I’m so guilty of this and I have definitely “caught” Jubilee apologizing for things like you mentioned (choking on water, for instance!!! yikes!).

    I love your list of things to say instead — I’d like to take a little time dwell on those a little and practice them.

    There’s a really useful distinction in Chinese that helps me not do this in my second language as much as in English. There’s “dui bu qi” that more of the real apology and it seems like folks here really do reserve it for when they are truly accepting blame for something. A parent will prompt a child to say this after one child clearly pushed another, for instance. I’m actually trying to imagine a time I’ve ever heard an adult say this to me and I can’t think of one! Even in customer service, they will use this other phrase, “bu hao yi se” — which is more of an “excuse me” meaning. More like acknowledging the other person’s potential offense with some amount of sympathy, but not really claiming blame. I use this A LOT with strangers who want Jubilee to perform in some way for them or when she swats them away from touching her. I am not AT ALL sorry that she’s not performing for them, but I can politely acknowledge that that’s what they were expecting culturally. Ha. It’s pretty great to have both be at the ready!

  2. That is brilliant, Laura!! And so interesting how different languages approach things so differently. I love it!

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