“I’m Sorry, What’s Wrong?” Part Two

As “I’m sorry” is used to share in someone’s distress there is transfer of unneeded anxiety onto you the listening ear or you are taking responsibility for anxiety you did not cause. I often get asked what could possibly be used in replacement of such a common courtesy phrase. If I were to answer that with yet another simple phrase, over time it would become just as overused and meaningless. Instead I challenge you to question what you are truly trying to convey to them using “I’m sorry” and use that instead.
I have questioned the sincerity of I’m sorry for awhile now and I continue to struggle with the autopilot use of the phrase, when someone shares anything they are currently struggling with, or a past trauma. Challenge yourself to think of alternative responses to I lost a loved one, I have divorced, I was abused… It can take up to hours or days to think of an alternative, and when someone trusts you enough to share their story you are not given that time. Exercise your ability to access the parts of yourself that knows what they need from you in that moment, so you can truly connect with them in a moment of vulnerability.
You may also ask how could I possibly be taking responsibility for something I didn’t cause, they know I didn’t do anything to them. In this case you may not be apologizing, but you have taken over the responsibility of repairing the wound. It almost like leaves showed up on your neighbors lawn and rather than encouraging them to search for the solution to the leaves you continue to go over to their lawn pick up the leaves and dump them on your lawn, making it your problem that you can’t solve because you don’t know the origin of these leave, you can’t change someone else’s property and you can’t protect property that is not yours. The problem continues without a solution and the only reason it is your problem is because your making it your problem.
A risk you are taking in saying “I’m sorry” is assuming they are sharing their distress with you, and they aren’t distressed. By saying I’m sorry you are implying to them that they should feel distress that they don’t resulting in unintended shame. Rather you need to be curious about the meaning they have attached to their experience, and connect with their emotions rather than making assumptions based on how you would experience the same circumstances.
More often than not when people are sharing their pain with you they would rather you be curious with them. When your curious they feel like they have an ally which gives them the space to explore possible solutions or simply feel less alone in the overwhelm of emotions. Don’t feel like you need to have the perfect thing to say that takes away their pain, this is not the goal when your connecting with people. Rather you need to focus on being with them as they experience their pain, or you risk them feeling isolated.
Remember that there is a reason this phrase is overused and disingenuous, we are all using it and we are all used to hearing it. You will not be shamed in the town square if you are caught using this phrase. All I ask is that you consider this when you find that your not connecting with someone the way you are hoping to. Even after saying the words “I’m sorry” out of habit you can always adjust your message to something that more accurately fits your intent or meaning.

By Madison Zundel, MA, LAMFT, Therapist at Holladay Center for Couples and Families

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