What makes a person feel the need to say “I’m sorry”? Think about it. When do you say “I’m sorry” to others? Do women say “I’m sorry” more often than men? If so, why? Sydney Beveridge, a writer, editor and researcher based out of New York, observed her own “over-apologizing” behavior for four months and then wrote about it for the Huffington Post. She learned that women “are so fluent in apologease” because they have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior than men do. Further, she reports that “I’m sorry” is considered a “conversational smoother”. Beveridge decided to start a Twitter account @HearMeApologize to hear what women were apologizing about. Her point was to “put an end” to saying “I’m sorry” when it’s simply a “reflex” in response to what our culture has taught “women about negotiating the world around them”.
What else may be going on here? In the book Milkman, Anna Burns uses her gift of language to express a woman’s dilemma. Middle sister decides to tell her mother the truth about a painful rumor circulating around town. She decides “to offer ma exactly what she was after, which was to tell (ma) all there was about the milkman and myself.” She gives her mother a complete account of his grooming and stalking behavior, which she resisted. In response, her ma, simply calls her daughter “a liar” and goes on to repeat and believe the gossip she’d heard around town. What’s a woman to do? Is it easier to say, “I’m sorry?”. In Glauco Maria Genga’s article Healing as a Problem, A challenge or a Solution: The Concepts of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Technique: A Brief Summary, Genga writes about our inherent ability to sense danger and how we use various strategies to defend against the feelings of danger, so much so that at times, the work in psychotherapy becomes focused on understanding one’s tried and true maladaptive methods of coping. Is saying “I’m sorry” one of them? Does saying I’m sorry become a substitute for stating what a person is really thinking and feeling?
Genga recognizes that while certain decades of psychoanalytic history avoided the concept and diluted the word healing, using transformation instead, Freud used the word repeatedly. I believe women want to heal and are tired of saying “I’m sorry”. In an interview, Mary Pipher, an expert on female adolescent development and the author of Reviving Ophelia: 25th Anniversary Edition, emphasizes that adolescent girls want to heal and be heard, even if their behavior indicates otherwise. She states that girls are “empathy sick”, meaning that they “know more about other’s feelings than their own.” Is it women’s “empathy sickness” that leads girls to say “I’m sorry” instead of what they really feel and mean?
The Center for Nonviolent Communication (NVC) teaches skills in “A language of compassion rather than domination”. Theirs is a method of conflict resolution based on observation, feelings, needs and requests. In this four step process, “I statements” are used to express: 1) What I observe that does not contribute to my well-being, 2) How I feel in relation to what I observe, 3) What I need, and 4) The concrete actions I would like taken (“would you be willing to…”). The premise of NVC is that there are two ways to enhance connection and understanding: to vulnerably express our own feelings and needs, or empathically listen to the feelings and needs of the other. This is different to what “we are accustomed to experience when we are in conflict” namely, “fight, SUBMIT or flee”. Do women say “I’m sorry” to avoid conflict? Are we afraid to ask for what we need? Is it true that women submit more than men?
I’ve started paying more attention to who is sorry, when. For example, when patients are a few minutes late for a psychotherapy session they may enter the room by stating “I’m sorry.” Where I once dismissed the comment, waving it away as a “conversational smoother “, a quick prelude to the session, it has become a moment of curiosity and interest for me. It creates an opportunity to learn how a person’s day is going, what happened that caused the delay and how the person felt and responded to it. The person may have an issue with me or therapy itself that is difficult to discuss. The “I’m sorry” moment creates an opening to let the patient know that I truly care about her and want to hear what is going on in her life.
I am not sorry but rather saddened by the words “I’m sorry”. It is not due to the meaning of the words when they are expressed with purpose but their lack of meaning when stated thoughtlessly, or worse, as a veil and disguise for what women want and need most, which is to feel understood.
An Introduction to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), www.schooltransformation.com>2012/06>Kendrick_NVC_Materials
Beveridge, Sydney. “I Am Woman, Hear Me Apologize: My Quest to Stop Saying ‘I’m Sorry’ All the Damn Time.” Huffington Post, 26 Apr. 2018, www.huffpost.com/entry/women-stop-apologizing.
Burns, Anna. (2019). Milkman. FABER AND FABER.
Genga, G. M. (n.d.). Healing as a Problem, A Challenge, or a Solution: The Concepts of Freud’s Psychoanalytic Technique: A Brief Summary. Division Review. Summer, 2019
Pipher, M. The World of Adolescent Girls-Helping Them Find Their North Star. Psychotherapy Networker. July/August, 2019
Pipher, M. An Interview with Mary Pipher. Psychotherapy Networker. July/August, 2019