As a society, it is comfortable and normal to say ‘I’m sorry’ when we hear something bad or unfortunate happened to someone – I’m sorry you’re hurt, I’m sorry you’re sick, I’m sorry for your loss. It’s unclear when this became the societal norm – this one phrase that is used in an attempt to comfort someone. This phrase is so comfortable and normal, that we tend to forget what else can be done or said. The funny thing is though – ‘I’m sorry’ has come to have minimal meaning. It shows no emotion or validation to what was heard. ‘I’m sorry’ offers no support in a time of need. The word “sorry” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “feeling sorrow or regret.” Often times, an individual going through a hard time, whether it be a sexual assault, a divorce or break-up, an illness or a loss, does not need someone else’s sorrow or regret, especially when that person did not have anything to do with it in the first place.
So what can I do to help a loved one? This article is written in an attempt to get individuals to move away from using ‘I’m sorry’ and move towards more meaningful responses. Using ‘I’m sorry’ may do more harm than good for a number of reasons:
- It can stop a conversation. What can you say after someone says I’m sorry? The traditional response to this phrase is “thank you”. There is little room for an individual to open up further. The focus moves away from the person hurting to the person stating sorrow.
- ‘I’m sorry’ can be used for an apology. In addition to using sorry to express sorrow for someone’s unfortunate comings, it is also used as an apology when one does a bad thing to another. When someone discloses a rape, a break-up, or an illness, ‘sorry’ does little to help the individual. An apology does not take away the pain, especially when the apologizer may not have played any role in the hurt. The person hurting does not need an outsiders apology to begin healing.
- Sorrow may also imply pity. ‘I’m sorry you’re feeling this way’ may seem like a validation, but again, the regret is turning someone’s feelings into something that seems like it should be regretful. We do not need to be sorry for someone else’s misfortunes. We need to be there and take action.
- Saying I’m sorry doesn’t take away the pain of what happened. It doesn’t rewind the clock and undo it all. By using stronger, empathetic, validating words and phrases, you move from pity to I’m here to help and I’m with you.
The major thing here is, empathy helps healing a lot better than sympathy. With ‘I’m sorry’, you’re sympathizing with the person hurting. By using empathy, you’re connecting with that person and are better able to help them through it. It’s not easy for someone to share grief with another individual. Generally, no one wants to put their hurt and pain on others. There’s many other ways to aid a situation and help everyone get to a comfortable place. Instead of ‘I’m sorry’, let’s start using words and phrases to help each other. The next time someone shares their pain with you, I challenge you to try:
- “I hear you’re feeling …” Reflecting what you believe you hear can help you better understand what someone is going through. It also helps the person know that you hear what they are saying and are truly listening.
- “I understand X is happening. How can I help?” In addition to reflection, asking how you can help a person goes a lot further than feeling sorrow for someone going through it. Actions do in fact speak louder than words.
- “Wow, I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. Do you want to talk about it?” Further, there is nothing wrong with being real and admitting you have no idea how the other person is feeling. Let the person tell you what they feel and what they need.
Talking about challenging things can be difficult and uncomfortable. Maybe this is why ‘I’m sorry’ has become so comfortable and normal. It can be used as a way to express sorrow and end a conversation outright. We need to do more though to move away from this comfort zone to truly hear and help others. We can do so much more with our words. There’s hundreds of thousands of words in the English dictionary. Merriam-Webster dictionary alone has more than 460,000 entries. As 2020 starts, a new decade, challenge yourself to widen your vocabulary and use more than ‘I’m sorry’ when you encounter someone in need. Use your voice and use your words to create meaningful actions.
The author would like to thank a friend, a New Jersey social worker, who helped the author talk out her thoughts and feelings on the subject to produce this article.