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October's My Mighty Month Challenge: Realistic Apologies

A few years ago, I unexpectedly got sick. At the height of the doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, blood tests and scans, my mother called me and told me she wanted to send a message to my family, updating them as to my current health woes.

“Fine,” I sighed, as I’m not usually one to share. “I just have one request,” I told her. “I don’t want anyone to tell me they are ‘sorry.’”

There are two reasons I hate apologies when I’m not feeling well:

1. The person saying “sorry” has nothing to apologize for. Unless they poisoned my food and are the reason I am sick, they did nothing wrong.

2. I then feel like I have to console them, which likely isn’t what I want to be doing at that moment.

Person who cares about me: I’m sorry you don’t feel well. 

Me: It’s OK. (Except it’s not OK, I’m in pain, but now I feel bad that you feel bad that I feel bad.)

From a psychology standpoint, it makes sense that these apologies make me feel uncomfortable. According to Allycin Powell-Hicks, PhD, a California-based therapist, apologizing is a “prosocial behavior,” meaning we do it to stay in the good graces of our community — be it friends, loved ones or peers.

“In order to apologize to a person, you have to align yourself with a person on an emotional level,” Powell-Hicks told The Mighty. “So you experience this shared emotion with someone and then you’re able to identify that they’re experiencing an emotion that maybe you wouldn’t enjoy, so you sympathize with them and you experience guilt.”

In cases where you genuinely feel guilty for something you’ve done wrong, apologizing can be great for your health. “Apologizing can decrease levels of stress and anxiety, and clearly, stress and anxiety can have a lot of negative impacts on health,” Powell-Hicks said.

However, when you apologize for things you don’t think you’ve done wrong, it can have the opposite effect. “Sometimes we can experience unrealistic guilt,” Powell-Hicks said. “Unrealistic guilt results in this kind of anxious apologizing, where you’re apologizing for being alive, you’re apologizing for existing, for being sick, for being the person who you are, for being a burden.”

These “anxious” apologies not only increase anxiety, they can lower your self-esteem, too. “If you feel guilty for something you actually didn’t do, like be born… you can’t feel guilty for being born because you didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “So there’s no way to actually apologize and feel better for something like that.”

Which brings us to this month’s challenge: realistic apologies. For the month of October, we’re asking you to apologize only when you mean it and only for things that are within your control. 

It’s important to differentiate between realistic and unrealistic apologies. Before apologizing, try to ask yourself, “Did I do something concrete to harm this person?” If the answer is yes, apologize. If the answer is no, come up with an alternative. In the example I gave above about my family apologizing for my poor health, the alternative I’d want to hear is, “That sucks you aren’t feeling well. Let me know if I can do anything.”

You can also dedicate a journal or space in your phone’s note-taking app to documenting cases where you offer a quick “sorry” without thinking it through, like forgetting to take out the trash or missing a phone call. Reflect on those instances and whether they were realistic or unrealistic. For times where an apology maybe wasn’t the best response, brainstorm some alternatives you can use next time.

But, you may be wondering, what about times where it’s the social norm to apologize, like if you bump into someone? In cases like this, Powell-Hicks uses “pardon me” instead.

If you find yourself apologizing because you are late or you messed up something at work, trying saying everything after the “I’m sorry.” For example, if you handed in an assignment late at work and your boss says something, instead of saying “I’m sorry, I meant to have it to you sooner…” Start with everything after the “I’m sorry.” “I meant to have it to you sooner. It was a busy week, I’ll do better next time.”

Want to make October a Mighty Month? Join us on Facebook at My Mighty Month, and don’t forget to tag any social media posts with #MyMightyMonth. You can also sign up for our weekly email, (select “Mighty Monthly Challenges” from the newsletter options), which includes tips and reminders designed to keep you motivated.