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When “Sorry” isn’t enough

Mimi Montgomery Maddock

Today’s column is a thank you tribute to my good friend and frequent group member Mimi Montgomery Maddock, former publisher and editor of this Columbia Star Newspaper.  More than a friend, Mimi was also a talented and caring teacher, not only to her many students in classrooms in Atlanta and Columbia, but also to me.   

I’m especially grateful for one comment she made during our group when she told me, “You don’t need to apologize so much,” calling my attention to adding the word SORRY so often.  Suddenly my unconscious habit of needlessly saying “I’m sorry” became perfectly clear. 

Sorry is often an automatic response like “um” or “uh” and it takes practice to overcome.  It was obvious Mimi was right and I had some work to do to slow down enough to hear myself think.

By apologizing before you even begin a sentence, a negative tone is set and a feeling of guilt may undermine self-esteem.  Offering too many apologies sounds submissive.  To avoid overusing this old cliché, take a breath and reconsider before speaking.   

It’s very different when you’re truly remorseful.  When it’s important to separate needless apologies from important necessary apologies.  Ask yourself silent questions such as, “Did I actually do something wrong?  Did I really want to think I did?”

The best and quickest way to reframe “Sorry” is to simply say “Thank you.”  For instants, instead of “I’m sorry you had to run that errand,” say “I’m so grateful you did me this favor!” Use specific examples to illustrate appreciation such as:

  • Thank you for your patience.
  • Thank you for understanding me.
  • Thank you for spending time with me.
  • Thank you for appreciating me. 
  • Thank you for having hope in me this whole time. 

Research from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition suggests that two thirds of the time, Americans respond to compliments with something other than – or in addition to “Thank you.”

Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen explains that “Women are trapped in a double bind…weak when they speak in the ‘feminine,’ but domineering if they speak in the ‘masculine’ way. For many women, and a fair number of men, saying ‘I’m sorry’ isn’t literally an apology; it’s a ritual way of restoring balance to a conversation.”

“How to Accept a Compliment,” an article in the New York Times (5-20-18), suggests ways we avoid offering a simple thank you by:

  • Shifting the credit – “My mom picked this dress out for me.”
  • Making a historical comment – “I bought it on sale.”
  • Questioning the one who pays the compliment -“Hmm, you think so?”
  • Returning a compliment instead – “I like your outfit too.”
  • Deprecating the compliment – “This thing is so old I was about to give it to Goodwill.”
  • Rejecting it outright – “I feel like I look like a hobo.”
  • Treating the compliment as a request – “You want to borrow it?” 

If writing an apology to another person is an option, rather than simply saying “I’m sorry” consider following the template below.   When I led groups for woman in prison, a member of one group brought in an article from a magazine that included the template.  She told us how it had helped her write to her family.  The recipient as well as the writer may benefit from this positive note whether or not it is ever mailed.

Fill in the blanks with your own words keeping it simple but truthful and heartfelt. 

Dear _______________________

I’ve been thinking about __________________

And I realized I never thanked you.

Through your __________________

I came to understand that _________________

And I have changed for the better.

All because of you!   

Like so many of Mimi’s students in classrooms in Atlanta and Columbia, I’m a better person for having known her.  Since her untimely death May 26, 2018, her legacy continues through all who knew her and benefited from her generous and loving spirit.  Thank you, Mimi!

Susan Hendricks leads personal writing groups and workshops approved for CEU credits by the SC Social Work Examiners Board for mental health counselors and is an instructor for the Therapeutic Writing Institute online. Her Columbia Star columns are online at: www.susanhendricks.com/columbia-star-news. More online:  https://www.wholistictherapyandcoaching.com/

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