By: Mary Grace Garis.
Sorry” is an overused word. It’s something that’s wielded incorrectly for things like “taking up space” or “having a legitimate question.” And even in the scenario where an apology might be warranted, there can be a tendency to lambast yourself out of habit. Time for a reality check: Do I need to say sorry? Or do I just not know how to react in this situation?
“While we don’t want to offend individuals and hurt feelings, we’ve become much quicker to apologize for something we didn’t do wrong almost as a space-filler,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “Individuals also use over-apologizing as a blanket way to ensure they’re in good standing with those around them.”
Yes, it’s important to maintain good relations with the people around you. Being accountable when you cause harm is a major part of being a decent if not flawed human being. But there is such a thing as overcompensating, kneecapping your legitimate feelings, thoughts, and opinions by apologizing for existing. What’s the alternative, then?
“As humans the safest way to avoid having to apologize is to sit and say nothing, which is also a choice—saying or doing nothing means you agree with the status quo or what’s playing out in front of you,” says Teplin. But before you go sorry-free, make sure to vet whether your apology is needed in the first place. Here’s the four questions she says to ask yourself first.
Questions your need to ask yourself before you say “I’m sorry”
1. “Did I do your best with information I had in that moment?”
So, just to illustrate what this looks like in context, let’s say your friend Sarah is throwing a birthday party for another friend, Stevie, and Sarah tasked you with making a chocolate cake for the guest of honor. You get your Pillsbury on, you make a gorgeous devil’s food cake, but bad news: Sarah wanted you to use her chocolate cake recipe instead. Somehow, this is the first time you’re hearing about it, despite planning this party for two months.
Your directions were to make a chocolate cake, and Sarah failed to be explicit about the recipe. Therefore, with the information withheld, an apology isn’t necessary.
2. “Did I reach an expected outcome or a non-intended outcome?”
The expected outcome, per the instructions, was to have a chocolate cake for Stevie’s birthday, right? But let’s say that Sarah asked you to make a chocolate cake for Stevie and instead you make a vanilla almond cake (you rebel). This is different than just skipping on Sarah’s recipe; you’ve completely veered off course, and Stevie is deathly allergic to almonds. So she’s going into anaphylactic shock, you’re going to jail for manslaughter, and nobody’s going home with cake. This would probably require an apology (and a really good lawyer).
3. “Am I apologizing for my own behavior or due to the individuals reaction?”
Let’s go back to the original scenario, where you just made a boxed cake. Sarah is throwing a hissy fit because you didn’t use her recipe, and you’re wondering if you should say sorry to calm her down. Bu Stevie is not at all particular about whether you get something gourmet or boxed, so as far as you’re concerned, you did your job. Skip the apology, and tell Sarah to chill TF out.
4. “Are I filling the space during an uncomfortable moment?”
One person thought a boxed cake was fine, the other wanted a classic recipe from scratch. None of this was expressed, and now it’s a little awkward. Acknowledge that there was a miscommunication and keep things moving. Oh, and next time, you make the cake, Sarah.
Jennifer Teplin, LCSW