We all know the famous tale “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” A child regularly alerts the village that there is a wolf on the prowl, causing the villagers to panic. After several days of this child’s frightening warnings, sans a wolf in site, the villagers start to ignore his cries. Then one night, when a wolf truly does come to terrorize the boy, no one heeds his cry, and the boy falls victim to the wolf.
The words “I’m sorry” are powerful. They have the potential to bring accord to nations, to sow seeds of peace between loved ones and communities. But just like the famous fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” they also possess the potential to go on deaf ears and even plant weeds of weakness from within.
According to neuroscientist and author, Tara Swart (author of The Source: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life), “Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.” This habit of serially apologizing loses its value on the receiver much like the villagers in Aesop’s fable. And while the “I’m sorry” habit isn’t going to cause us to get eaten by a wolf, it does possess the unhealthy potential to damage our credibility and erode our self-esteem over time.
Statistically, women do apologize more than men. Perhaps it’s from centuries of Machiavelli meme-like quotes (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”), the façade of weakness often used by women to get men to do what they felt needed to be accomplished.
Serial apologizers need not be from remnants of pre-suffragette beliefs or from women alone. Often adults who are products of childhood abuse or trauma carry their “I’m Sorry” badge in their psyche, ready to appease and stave off the ghost of punishment with it’s familiar, almost knee-jerk three syllabled phrase.
Regardless of why the “I’m Sorry” habit lingers in some of us, like any habit, we have the power to substitute those words with other phrases that restore our empowerment.
“I’m Sorry” needs to be restored to a world of heartfelt regret and genuine empathy or sympathy. It belongs in the ears of people who are suffering. “I’m Sorry” needs to be reserved like a powerful antibiotic, taken as directed for egregious acts or victims of violence. For the recipient to feel the balm of an apology, it needs to be used sparingly. When we serve “I’m Sorry” to our loved ones and colleagues like Costco-sized water bottles, the elixir of an apology is diluted and does little to soothe the recipient.
We all deserve to feel empowered; we all deserve to be a source of comfort. When we make a conscious effort to choose when to apologize, we are doing both. Remember: when we serve others, we are also serving ourselves.