Why Are We All So Sorry?

It used to bug me when I’d tell someone I was having a rough day or I’d stubbed my toe and they’d reply with, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I’d say.

To say “I’m sorry” actually means, “I am filled with sorrow.” We equate “sorry” with admitting fault, but it simply means to feel sorrow or regret. And those are appropriate emotions when expressing compassion or apology. However, “I’m sorry” has become such a cliché that it has lost most of its weight. Many people use the phrase habitually to the point that they sound pitiful (yet another definition of “sorry”).

There’s nothing wrong with admitting fault or expressing compassion. In fact, accountability and empathy are important ingredients in demonstrating credibility, presence, and leadership. Yet, do we really want to sound so sad and sorry all the time? Not if you want to inspire confidence in others! “I’m sorry” doesn’t send a powerful, positive message. It is possible to convey compassion and apology while focusing on the positive.

If you want to establish or increase your credibility, keep these tips in mind to reduce your “sorryness”:

1. Go beyond the cliché. How would you like it if every time you shared some little negative thing with someone, like, “I’m really tired today” or “My phone battery just died,” they responded with, “That makes me so sad!”? Would you feel better? Not likely.

Most of the time, people aren’t trying to make you feel bad; they’re looking for connection and understanding. So give it to them. “I’m sorry” works, but so do, “I know how that feels” or “I’d be so annoyed!” Once the person feels heard (and only once they do), you can turn the conversation to a more positive tone: “How can I help?” or “With that in mind, what do you need from me?” (Many times though, understanding is all they need, not solutions.)

Often, we say, “I’m sorry” because we’re expected to say SOMETHING and we’re trying to move the conversation along. Take one minute to actually experience and express empathy, and the conversation will move itself along.

2. Never admit fault for something that … isn’t your fault. How often do you say, “I’m sorry” when something beyond your control goes awry? Or worse, when the other person is actually at fault? I used to do that: Someone would bump into me, for example, and I’d be the one to apologize, as if I was overstepping my bounds by simply being.

Stop that, if you want to present yourself as a credible leader. Now, if someone bumps into me, I just give a gracious smile. Little bumps happen—it’s not something to feel sad and sorrowful over.

Another great way to turn a negative “I’m sorry” into a positive is to turn it into a “Thank you.”  Instead of, “I’m sorry I’m late; there was an accident,” say, “Thanks for waiting.” Instead of, “I’m sorry it’s so cold in here,” say, “Thanks for putting up with the cold.” Especially when the situation is not your fault, reduce the negativity by focusing on gratitude.

3. Truly apologize. If you have made a mistake, done something wrong, or hurt someone (even inadvertently), then by all means, apologize! A sincere apology builds trust and actually increases your credibility because it’s honest and real.

But, do you know how to apologize?

If you truly are at fault, your apology will go a lot further if it includes these elements:

  • Clearly express regret or sorrow
  • State what you did wrong
  • Acknowledge how it impacted the other person
  • Offer to fix the problem, make amends, or state what you will do in the future to avoid making the same mistake
  • Ask for forgiveness

The first step is “I’m sorry.” But from there, move on to accountability, empathy, growth, and reconciliation. Don’t wallow in sorrow and guilt. Move forward to more positive territory.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with saying, “I’m sorry”! Yet use the term sparingly, when it’s truly warranted. By reducing your “sorrys,” you increase your credibility.

Be bold. Be real. Be a communication rock star. 


I’m Rachel Beohm, coach and trainer here at FORTE. Through nonverbal communication, I empower clients to show up as their biggest, boldest selves. If you’d like to learn more about increasing your credibility, sign up for my upcoming webinar Do You Have a Seat at the Table? 3 Ways to Increase Your Confidence & Credibility.

8 thoughts on “Why Are We All So Sorry?

  1. I like your tips on how to apologize, Rachel. Recently, an incredible mom I really respect told me that she coaches her kids to start with “I was wrong to…” instead of “I’m sorry” because for those kids who just spout out a flippant “sorry” all the time over serious matters are not truly apologizing. In this circumstance having to admit “I was wrong” really helped the kids to feel empathy and sorrow over whatever hurt they created in their peer/sister/brother, etc.

    1. Tasha,

      Thanks for sharing! I like that. It focuses on accountability, instead of just trying to put a band-aid on the situation, and leads to empathy, too. When my kids have a conflict, I always sit them down and ask each one what THEY did wrong to escalate the incident. They’re really quick to point out what the other person did, but sometimes don’t even see what they did. That leads to a discussion, and often much more true “sorrow” than just being forced to say “I’m sorry.” It works about half the time. 😉

  2. I appreciate this reminder so much and I’m working to incorporate it into my daily life. Often, “I’m sorry” slips out of my mouth too quickly for my brain to pick it up…especially when someone bumps into me! You are right, I’m not overstepping my bounds by simply existing in that space and time! I want to be mindful of this a lot more. Thank you, Rachel!

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