Apologising for being sorry

Copyright © Jenn Shallvey

Copyright © Jenn Shallvey

Do you apologise a lot? You are probably not aware of whether you do or not. Consider a normal day or week. Try and recall how many times you said “I’m sorry”. If not able to recall, then maybe take a day and observe yourself.

You can also observe others. Are there people in your life that apologise a lot?

You are probably wondering why I want you to look at this one aspect of your life?  I want to help you see what you apologise for and what impact this may have on you and your relationships with others.

Apologising as a skill

Before we analyse lets first acknowledge that apologising is an appropriate social skill.  It shows that we are aware of the impact of our actions on others and cause and effect in relationships.  Saying you are sorry also diffuses anger in a dispute when two parties are in disagreement.  There is a place for saying sorry. This also assumes the apology is genuine. An empty apology is just a series of words.

I remember in the early 80’s taking a class in school called “Family Life”. The class covered all aspects of life, relationships and self awareness in context of these topics.  A progressive approach for it’s time.  Among the many teachings that are still with me today one stands out.  We were given a book about relationships. I still have this book.  One of the key lessons for a lasting relationship was to say sorry when you knew you were in the wrong. This approach countered a more typical response of avoidance, being stubborn, arms folded, no budging on your point.  It took the competitiveness out of the exchange. 

Today I can say I am happily married to the person I met 25 years ago. We have both changed and grown over the years, respecting each other as individuals.  As a couple saying sorry helps. When there is a disagreement and I am in the wrong I apologise. I may do something that I do not think caused a problem and all my husband has to do is look at me with a certain expression and no words.  I say sorry. To add some humour to the situation he might even suggest this to me.  Usually it relates to me not wanting to admit I am wrong. A genuine response of I’m sorry in that moment addresses an issue rather than let it build up and become a problem. If I am clear and know that what I have done is actually right for me then we have a different conversation.

Why I illustrate with this example is I want to highlight the power and importance of being first to own up to your mistakes. We all make them. We all live with them. We all impact people we love with them.

So this is our base level of using the words I’m sorry.

Saying sorry for being sorry

But what about a seemingly trivial use of it. Another example. Over the years when I used to play tennis, or as a kid, badminton in the back yard, I would always say sorry if I messed up. I can distinctly remember one game. We had the badminton nets up, nice summer day, I was 11 my sister 9.  We were still getting the hang of the game so the birdie ended up in the bushes or out of bounds a lot.  Every time I hit the birdie in a way that made my sister go off to retrieve it I apologised. But strangely I never expected her to apologise to me. Then it hit me (not the birdie, but an insight). Why was I saying sorry after almost every hit. I was learning.  So I apologised for saying I’m sorry so much!  I know my 11 year old self did not fully understand what I know now. Yet my awareness was telling me something.

Even so a habit like this does not go away easily.  Fast forward to years later playing tennis as a mother with my kids or husband and I can still recall still doing this. I can also recall catching myself saying ‘I’m sorry’ and thinking what am I sorry about.  (I do not play tennis or badminton anymore. Maybe time to test myself again.)

The difference here is I was not harming anyone. I didn’t hurt my playing partner by making them run after the ball more than necessary. I may have created a situation where my opponent was frustrated and probably questioned playing with me again. Yet we played knowing my skill level so all was clear.  The experience though was different.  So why did I have to say sorry so much?

I expected myself to be better. I also felt that by not being better for the other person I was letting the other person down. Given I cared about my sister and wanted to play skillfully, the need to do well increased. The fact that sports wise I am not a great tennis player probably showed up too.  I look back at those times as indicators of my own out of balance self view and my need then to compare to others when not at their level.  The over use of apologising was an indication of my need to please. Yes there are many other levels of interpretation but not for this post.

So there are times when saying sorry is key to success in a relationship.  There are times when saying sorry is a cover up for low self opinion.  The first is a valid way of managing, the second not.

Not apologising

Then there are times when apologising or saying sorry has no place. This is the most challenging of all. Why? Because others may perceive you should apologise so there will be pressure.  You may also be in a situation where the game was not clear up front so others misunderstand your role and your reasons for playing.  If you don’t go along and say ‘I’m sorry’ then you will more than likely invite the annoyance, judgement even wrath of others. 

What I am talking about here is not being sorry for being you.  This is not a justification for getting away with what you do by saying ‘oh I am just being me’. No. This is about knowing you, being clear about what you stand for and then not apologising for it.  

The challenge with not apologising for being you is that sometimes you may push the buttons of others.  By standing in your own light, clarity and knowing, you are showing others that you get it. You have an awareness that empowers you. This can be unconsciously challenging to others who do not.

My own learning

I know. For as long as I can remember I have been learning. Every person I meet is a teacher who gives me the opportunity to practice being me. Not always easy. For when we start being more aware about being true to ourselves we realise that others may not agree. So people in our life come along. Some support us, get us, encourage us even, to be true to our self. Others challenge and test us.

I have had teachers and mentors who I highly regard. My reasons for being in a learning relationship with them is many fold. Some I worked with because they had more acquired knowledge than I on a subject, others had more practical experience, some could see me better than I saw myself. In each learning relationship there was a beginning, middle and end.  How did I know when there was an end?  It was when I stopped apologising for me. I stopped being the little girl playing badminton saying sorry for everything I did wrong.  When I saw my teachers as equals but with different areas of focus than mine the exchange changed. 


When you work on knowing you and being you there is a need to validate. By this I mean test your awareness, not have people approve.  So when you are exploring and testing out new ways of being, you will bump into others who resist, challenge, reject or just do not get you.  Even people that know you well. If they are not privy to your inner dialogue and personal journey then they will be shaken when the world as they know it changes.

I apologise when there is a wrong. I do not apologise, for being me. 

As I am always learning, evolving and developing personally, what I apologise and do not apologise about also changes. 

This is the beauty of the essence of saying ‘I’m sorry’ – especially when most times saying sorry is not related to trivial matters.

When it is truly the right path you will know. You will be validated in saying it. The recipient will also respond accordingly.

When it is not the right path you will also know. You will feel internal congruence and not necessarily external congruence.

Jenn Shallvey