The Dangers of Saying “I’m Sorry”

Most people believe that an apology is a kind and considerate way to take responsibility for one’s past actions. It is common practice for individuals to seek apologies from those by whom they feel wronged, or to apologize when others feel wronged by them. This stems from the notion that apologies have a certain reparative effect, that they have the power to heal emotional wounds.

In actuality, this is true. Apologies do heal. However, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to apologize. Unfortunately, most people apologize in an unhealthy way, a way that, although it may ease some tension within the moment (and therefore seems helpful), actually injures the long-term vitality of a relationship. This injury far exceeds the fleeting benefits that may seem to be achieved at the moment. It is like placing a Band-Aid on a scratch, only the Band-Aid is laced with deadly poisons. Since this idea—that an apology can be harmful to relationships—goes mightily against the grain of conventional thinking, let me further explain.

First of all, for an apology to seem warranted, someone must first admit (or be accused of) wrongdoing, fault, or error of some kind. In ordinary relationships, this happens often. Partners accuse one another of thinking, feeling, saying or doing something that, in their mind, upset, annoyed, irritated, hurt, bothered, or fill-in-the-blanked them. Then the accused apologizes to make amends, usually by saying “I’m sorry”. What precipitates the apology? The judgment about what was thought, felt, said, or done. It was somehow “wrong”.

Think about it like this. Every day you perform countless acts for which it never crosses your mind to apologize. Why? Because no one has taken offense to these behaviors. If no one judges your actions as bad or wrong, if no one complains to you or blames you for something you’ve said or done, it probably doesn’t occur to you to apologize to anyone about these things. You don’t apologize for brushing your teeth or watering the lawn or crossing your legs at the dinner table. That is, unless someone were to get upset at you for these things.

“You shouldn’t have said that. You should apologize.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”

Such apologies imply that something shouldn’t have happened the way it did. Someone should have thought something different, felt something different, said something different, done something different. But there are no shoulds! The truth is that everyone is always doing the best they can. Any suggestion that someone should or could have thought, felt, said or done anything different is simply false, an idea born not from wisdom, but from misunderstanding. This idea is extensively discussed and explained in The Two Truths About Love.

Extraordinary relationships display a minimum of judging and a maximum of giving permission. Unfortunately, when most people apologize, it’s because someone has previously judged a certain action or event as bad. This initial judgment already reflects a fundamental misunderstanding that can harm the relationship. The apology, although it may pacify someone who is experiencing emotional unrest, endorses the mistaken notion that the alleged infraction is the true root of their upset, namely, their own judgment that the thing you did or said was bad or wrong. In truth, it was neither of these things. You are not the source of their upset, their judgment is.

Most people apologize by saying “I’m sorry”. Sadly, this phrase falls squarely into the category of unhealthy apology. Whenever you tell someone “I’m sorry”, you blame yourself, judging yourself as bad or wrong. As in, “You’re right, I’m a sorry excuse of a partner, parent, friend, etc.” In essence, you agree with another person’s assessment of you. Now you are both judging and yet all this judging does is harm the relationship. In truth, you did what you did or said what you said due to your innate and forgivable imperfection as a human being. If you could have done or said something different, you would have. And the same is true of others. If this can be understood, with wisdom and insight, then you can give permission and learn from the experience. Let’s face it, no one wants to be judged as wrong or bad or not good enough. In extraordinary relationships, partners choose giving permission over judging one another; they choose compassionate embrace over rejection, scorn, complaints, and criticisms.

Another harmful consequence of unhealthy apologies is that they reinforce codependent thinking. Think about it. What often compels a person to apologize? Most of the time, you apologize when you think someone desires this from you, when you think that apologizing will make this person feel better. And maybe you’re right, maybe it will. Why? Because this person feels offended or hurt and is blaming you for their emotional reaction. To her, you are the cause of her suffering. Is this true? No.

The Art of Giving Permission (my philosophy) teaches this clearly—how we are all individually responsible for our own emotional experience. As such, we know that this person feels the way she feels because of herself, because of her own difficulty to give permission. If you say “I’m sorry”, although doing so may result in her feeling better in the moment, you will be reinforcing the type of codependent thinking that keeps relationships stuck in recurring patterns of conflict and strife. In essence, you reinforce this person’s misconception of their suffering. It is as if you are an engineer who has been shown blueprints for a house that is structurally unsound and nonetheless approve them. When the house gets built, it crumbles. If you take responsibility for another person’s emotional experience, that’s codependency. And it doesn’t work. So, what to do instead?

The far greater compassion would be to resist the temptation to apologize in the all-too-familiar way. You can better support this person’s emotional autonomy (and that of your own) by giving her permission to feel however she feels and beginning a constructive conversation about this, a conversation that will help improve the relationship in a substantive way. Whenever you find yourself wanting to apologize to someone, please understand that there is a healthy way to go about this. If you want to apologize, great! Choose to cultivate an extraordinary relationship instead of an ordinary one. Without using the words “I’m sorry”, you can communicate in a way that shares important information and supports the continued growth of the relationship. Here’s how.

What are you really trying to say when you apologize? What do others want to know when you apologize? If you say “I’m sorry” about something and then do that something again, then what? Apologize again? What is that going to achieve? Not much. In fact, anyone who wants you to apologize probably cares less about what you did and more about whether or not you are ever going to do it again. “I’m sorry” fails to address this. “I’m sorry” doesn’t literally communicate much information at all. It just looks backwards at the past and tries to mend it. When wanting to apologize, you can do a fantastic job of communicating in a mature and responsible way without ever, actually, using the phrase “I’m sorry”.

Instead, try saying something like, “I wish I did not behave the way I did and want you to know that in the future, under similar circumstances, I’m going to make an effort to behave differently.” Okay, now you are actually saying something! Notice how, here, you are not judging yourself as bad or wrong, nor taking on blame. You behaved the way you did because that’s the best you could have done in the moment. You forgive yourself this, bring awareness to your desire to improve, and set an intention for the future, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will actually behave differently under similar circumstances. In this way, the communication creates a new possibility and builds toward something different, rather than focusing on that which has already transpired.

An apology like this is not a means of asking for forgiveness. After all, whether or not someone forgives you is up to them and you give them permission either way. In this type of apology, you’re not asking to be forgiven or trying to make another person feel better; you’re sharing information about yourself, information that can contribute to the growth of the relationship by enhancing your understanding of one another. This information is comprised of three, primary elements. You address: 1) the past, 2) the present, and 3) the future.

  1. The past: When addressing the past, you want to do so in a way that neither admits fault nor aims to explain or defend yourself. You can give permission to someone for interpreting that what you did as wrong, understanding that, in fact, you were doing the best you can and that your past behavior was merely an expression of who you were in that moment. For instance, after slamming a door during an argument, you might later say, “I can see how that was not the most mature response and I wish I would have been better able to express my frustration in a healthy way.” You recognize that you were not “your ideal self” without blaming yourself for this. Here, you are giving yourself permission to have been as you were.

  1. The present: It is helpful to briefly mention how you think and feel right now. What is your goal for apologizing? What’s the point? This can sound something like, “You are one of the most important people in my life and I want us to have the best relationship possible with one another.” This present-moment expression of wants reminds your partner of your ambitions for a closer, healthier, more intimate and harmonious relationship. It demonstrates that you are an ally, a member on a common team and that, because of this, there is no need to argue or be combative with one another.

  1. The future: When addressing the future, you set an intention to behave differently under similar circumstances, without promising that you will be able to do so. “Next time, before things get that heated, I’ll strive to remain calm. Maybe I’ll step outside to cool down for a moment if I feel myself getting that upset again.” Ask for patience as you strive to improve this learned, behavioral pattern. By vocalizing this intention, both to yourself and another, it will become more likely, when the impulse next arises to slam a door, you will hesitate and, just maybe, choose an alternative course of action.

By following these three steps of healthy apologizing, you show that you are self-aware about some aspect of your conditioning which has room for improvement—not because another person disapproves, but because you understand that the behavior undermines your own goals for happiness and a loving relationship. You take a stand for what it is you want to create in yourself and your relationship, both for the present and future. And you assure someone that you are willing to take responsibility to change, such that a similar incident is less likely to recur. After all, this is generally what others most want to know. Will this happen again?

So, you see, this new type of apology acts as a formative experience which builds, rather than merely repairs. By avoiding the offering of a terse and usually token “I’m sorry”, you circumvent the risk of reinforcing codependency and move further toward an extraordinary relationship, one in which both individuals remain emotionally autonomous and respect each other’s imperfections while sharing a journey of growth together.

One last point about the phrase “I’m sorry”. Have you ever stopped to consider what the word “sorry” really means. It means “pitiful, useless, in poor condition”. Is this really how you want to proclaim yourself to be? I certainly hope not. You’re not pitiful, you’re human; you’re not useless or in poor condition, you’re conditioned to think, feel, speak, and act in certain ways. And that’s okay. So, please, do yourself—and your relationships—a huge gesture of kindness. Strike the phrase “I’m sorry” from your vernacular. There are infinitely more extraordinary ways to apologize.