The words we speak have power.
One of my exes used to yell at me whenever I apologized.
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry,” he’d say.
“Just stop doing things to be sorry for.”
The first problem with this charming little dialogue is that being in a relationship with someone who yells at you when you say you’re sorry is super fucked up.
The second problem is that no one’s perfect. We all mess up and need to ask forgiveness, all the time. (Especially if you’re in a relationship with an asshole who gets pissed off at you for every little thing, and often for nothing at all.)
Still, for a long time I adopted this mindset as my goal. “Don’t say you’re sorry,” I’d tell myself. “Just stop doing things to be sorry for.” I tried hard to behave impeccably at all times. I could never be late, never keep him waiting, never interrupt him, never joke around in a way that might accidentally hurt his feelings, never have anything come up that would cause me to need to change my plans, never be in a bad mood, and never not feel like doing something he wanted to do. I could also never talk to anyone he didn’t like, never do anything he didn’t also want to do, and never let him down or disappoint him.
Even after I finally got out of that nightmarish relationship, I kept on believing that saying sorry all the time was a sign of my terrible character. I kept trying to never do anything I’d have to apologize for. Then I ran across a comic that changed my life. Or at least, it changed my point of view on saying ‘I’m sorry.’
What do you really want to say?
New York based artist Yao Xiao‘s comic, If you want to say thank you, don’t say sorry, went viral; I guess it hit a nerve with more people than just me. Basically, it says that no matter what situation you’re in, you can swap out ‘I’m sorry’ for ‘thank you,’ with just a little reframing of the situation. Late to meet a friend? Instead of saying you’re sorry, say “Thank you for waiting”. Feel like you’ve been going on and on about your problems and your friend must be sick of hearing you moan? Swallow the impulse to say “Sorry for talking so much” and say “Thank you for listening.” Not feeling well, in a bad mood, or otherwise in a funk? Rather than saying “Sorry I’m such a drag,” you can try “Thank you for spending time with me.”
This may feel a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of reframing things this way, it becomes addictive. It’s not that you’ll never tell anyone you’re sorry ever again – there’s definitely a time and place for apologies. But you’ll learn to be more deliberate about choosing your words, and only saying you’re sorry when that’s what you really mean.
The power of language
If this idea seems silly or trivial to you, consider that the words you choose have more power than you may think. Author and pastor Joel Osteen says the words we speak shape our destiny.
“If we considered the power behind our words, we might choose them more carefully,” says Osteen.
“Our words are like seeds, and they will produce fruit. Everything you have in your life today is a direct result of what you’ve been saying and believing up to this point. You may think those words don’t matter, but those words are being planted and will bring a harvest in the future.”
Changing the way you speak really can change the way you feel, and the way people react to you, too. Has anyone ever said to you, “I wish you could hear yourself?” All too often, we can’t hear what we sound like to others. Saying “Thank you” instead of “I’m sorry” is one way to become more conscious of the words you use, and deliberately choose empowering language, rather than language that makes you feel – and appear – weak.
Taking the focus off yourself
Another thing swapping “I’m sorry” for “Thank you” does is take the focus off how bad you feel and put it on how awesome your friend (or partner, or co-worker, or family member) is. Who doesn’t feel good when someone thanks them for being patient, or understanding, or kind?
If you really feel like you need to be forgiven, look at it this way: people are more likely to forgive you if they have warm feelings toward you – and if you’ve just complimented someone, they’ll probably be feeling good about you. So you can be forgiven without even having to ask, or them having to say it.
Gratitude is always a good habit to foster. Looking for things to be grateful for – like your friends putting up with you running late all the time, or always being willing to text you back when you’re having a relationship crisis, or spot you some cash when you’re running low until payday – puts you in a better state of mind than apologizing to everyone all the time does.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, ‘In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.’
Besides, if you were really so awful, you wouldn’t have any friends. Think about all the times you’ve been there for the people you love: don’t you give them the same support, the same room to make mistakes, that they give you? Do you need them to tell you they’re sorry all the time? I’m betting you don’t. When you stop and think about it, we all have a lot to be grateful for.
Images via tumblr.com, mentalfloss.com, giphy.com, youtube.com
Comment: Do you find yourself apologizing all the time? Could you start saying “thank you” instead?
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Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.