“I’m sorry.” Seem simple, doesn’t it? But it’s not – depending on its context, it can mean radically different things, and if we aren’t clear with ourselves and others about it, it can severely impact how we relate with others.
The main problem with “I’m sorry” is that it can mean either sympathy or apology. The distinction between the two seems straightforward, but in common usage the difference is often subtle, even to the person saying it.
“I’m sorry” to express sympathy.
One common use of “I’m sorry” is to express sympathy:
I’m sorry that happened.
I’m sorry your goldfish died.
I’m sorry you feel sick.
We often feel sympathy for others, and sometimes the best thing to do is to just say it. Saying I’m sorry isn’t apologizing, but it’s expressing sympathy (notably not pity) for someone. This is the easy I’m sorry; the next one is the hard one.
“I’m sorry” to apologize.
The other common use of I’m sorry is to express apology:
I’m sorry I did that.
I’m sorry I said that.
I’m sorry I made you feel that way.
Apologizing is a key part of healthy communication. A quick Google search will lead to plenty of explanations of how to effectively apologize, but at its core, a sincere apology consists of two key pieces:
- An acknowledgement of remorse, regret, or shame over your actions.
- An acknowledgement of the hurt your actions have caused someone else.
The problem with “I’m sorry.”
The problem is that it’s easy to substitute an apologetic “I’m sorry” with a sympathetic “I’m sorry.” This looks like:
I’m sorry you feel bad about the thing I did.
This is problematic because it’s often used as an apology without actually apologizing, making it insincere. It addresses the second part of a genuine apology (acknowledging the hurt), but avoids the first part: acknowledging remorse, regret, or shame for the offending actions.
By acknowledging the effects of their actions (the hurt) but acknowledging no regret or remorse for those actions (“I regret that you were hurt, but I don’t regret the actions that led to that hurt”), the transgressor (the one apologizing) abdicates agency in their own actions (“I was forced to do it”).
If they aren’t at fault for the hurtful actions, who is to blame for the hurt? The only agent left is the transgressed. They are to blame – both for causing the hurtful actions to begin with, and for feeling hurt by them:
This hurts me more than it hurts you.
This is sometimes intentional, or even part of a larger pattern of abuse, but it’s often completely unintentional or even self-justified as compassionate:
I genuinely feel bad that those actions hurt her.
Regardless, the effect is the same: this “apology” is not an apology at all. It avoids responsibility, diminishes the transgressed, and shifts blame away from the transgressor. The transgressed is made responsible for the actions as well as the hurt, and the transgressor escapes cleanly.
Our responsibility is to apologize thoughtfully.
It’s our responsibility as compassionate people – in relationships with our partners, our friends, and our colleagues – to understand the subtle and unintended effects of our words. Perhaps we should “I’m sorry” liberally, but conscientiously, and understand how we’re using it when we use it.
Or perhaps we should limit “I’m sorry” to expressing condolences, and not use it to apologize. Instead, we could use this construction: “I’d like to apologize; I regret doing that thing, and know it made you feel bad.”