One small word carrying the weight of the world is, sorry. Why does saying sorry sometimes feel like the hardest word to say?
Many of us use the word without even thinking about it. Being British, we are renowned around the world for our politeness, quick to get in “Oh, I’m sorry” to complete strangers from fear of being seen as rude or offensive. Yet, at times and often to those who are closest to us, the short, five-letter word becomes stuck in our throats.
So when it matters most, why does saying sorry seem the hardest word to say?
With every conflict, there are two sides. Often an apology is the result of a disagreement or wrongdoing, at times with no apparent ‘perpetrator’ or ‘victim’. What we may not be taking into account is the impact conflict has on the people around us.
Within the working environment, it can make our time spent at work feel uncomfortable, especially if the disagreement splits teams or makes people feel like they are taking sides. This can create awkward tension in the workplace which isn’t great when many of us spend upwards of 40 hours a week working.
Negativity in the air can be internalising – directly influencing the quality of work produced and people’s motivation to be part of a team. The Harvard Business Review looked into over 300 studies on overcoming workplace disagreements. They found creating a supportive environment is beneficial in reducing negativity. Workers feeling able to express emotions but also recognition if you’ve hurt someone’s feelings increased the likelihood of offering an apology.
Avoiding apologies in the workplace is one thing but even more damaging is when someone is unable or doesn’t feel they should apologise within a friendship or family relationship. The Guardian reported in 2018 that couples who argued cogently were ten times more likely to have a happy relationship compared to those who don’t, risking issues building up to a point when arguments come from a place of blame and resentment.
The absence of one small word has left a path of destruction for many friends, lovers, and families. Take, for example, the long-standing feud between the Gallagher brothers; Noel and Liam, who up until their famous split in 2009 were one of the most successful bands of the ’90s, Oasis. Over the years their disagreements have been aired publicly causing damaging rifts not only within their careers but also within the brothers’ family.
What makes a heartfelt apology hard to find?
One of the complications of an apology is that it can appear quite underwhelming. If you are trying to repair broken trust or apologise for past actions, a five-letter word might not seem to cut it. You may become caught up in trying to find ways to show just how sorry you are, and in the meantime, the build-up makes it harder to face the person.
Equally, when someone has apologised, it might not match the ‘victim’s’ expectations of an apology. Frequently there is much more than just a word attached to it. There may be specific actions or changes that someone feels you should carry out to prove just how sorry you are. If you don’t feel these actions match the crime (so to speak) then are you really sorry, or are you just paying lip service?
Take the highly publicised feud between pop stars Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Their differences began back in 2014, taking over five years until both sides apologised and patched up their friendship. What did it take for the two to repair their differences? One of them deciding they were ready to let go, forgive and move on, with an actual olive branch delivered to Swift as a symbol of peace.
What can I do if I’m waiting for an apology?
Waiting for someone to say they’re sorry can cause more tensions and negative feelings than the deed itself. The risk being, when an apology is given you either feel it’s not worth the wait or you deserve more.
Firstly, think about what you’re expecting from this apology. Is it going to repair the damage done? How are you going to benefit from an apology? Are you willing to forgive, or do you want an apology because it is what you are expecting?
Next, think about if you’re ready to let go of these ill feelings. Holding on to negative emotions is much easier than letting them go. Forgiveness isn’t the act of letting someone off the hook, as negative thoughts and feelings impact our mental health and wellbeing.
Research has shown there is a direct correlation between high rates of forgiveness and better health outcomes in areas such as stress, depression, and anxiety. Try looking at the broader picture. Is holding out for an apology really worth the toll of holding onto negative energy?
What can I do if I can’t find the words to apologise?
First things first, we all make mistakes, some much more adverse and hurtful than others, but mistake making is a trait that makes us uniquely human.
Is your hesitance to say sorry because you haven’t or you don’t feel you should forgive yourself? Forgiveness isn’t just about accepting you’ve done something wrong. It’s about reflecting, learning, and putting in place practices to help make ourselves better at not damaging relationships in the future. Before building up to giving an apology, spend some time trying to unpick what it is that is holding you back. Doing this will not only be therapeutic for you, but you will also be able to prepare these resolutions into a sincere apology.
Another reason why someone may be stuck for words is that they may not feel they are in the wrong. This doesn’t mean you are necessarily in the right either, and shouldn’t be a justification to avoid a sincere discussion. Avoidance will breed negativity. Offer an olive branch to get both sides out in the open. You might have to face some problematic conversations, but it can be what is needed to start moving forward.
If you’re stuck for words because you’re anxious, words will get stuck when it comes to the delivery. There are different ways to open up the conversation. Try writing a letter to the person. A letter can either be posted or if you are feeling brave, you can read it aloud to them. Alternatively, ask someone neutral to both sides to act as a mediator. Sometimes having someone who can see both sides of the disagreement can help to offer some perspective.
Sorry might seem to be the hardest thing you say but it can also be the most powerful.
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