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When ‘I’m Sorry’ Means Something Else

when "I'm sorry" means something elsePlease accept my tongue-in-cheek apology for this long-winded column.

Guzzling your morning joe at the local coffee shop, your chair squeaks. You mouth “I’m sorry” to the barista and the adjoining table. They stare at you, a bewildered expression on their faces.

Dashing off to the grocery store, you scrounge for an extra penny in the checkout line. As you rummage through your purse’s netherworld, you murmur an apology to the pimpled kid manning the checkout line. He flashes you a perplexed look.

Rushing to drop off your groceries, you stammer out “I’m sorry” as the elevator closes. Suddenly, an epiphany strikes you. You owe an(other) apology — this time to yourself.

A heartfelt apology expresses contrition. It speaks to our humility and humanity. But its power dissolves as we sprinkle apologies during every interaction. And, please, spare me the apology for the apology.

We over-apologize because it reaffirms our identity. We want to reinforce that we are thoughtful, caring people. But, ask yourself, are there self-serving reasons for your indiscriminate apologies? My premonition: you are drowning in an undercurrent of self-doubt and guilt. An apology represents a life raft.

When riddled with uncertainty, we focus inward. Besieged with self-doubt, we question our thoughts and actions. Our faltering mind spits out error messages. In anxiety’s grip, decisive action crumples into meek submission. Our self-trust splintered, we spray apologies to family, friends, and acquaintances.

Doubt fuels our mental health anxieties. From depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder, we tremble with uncertainty. We obsess about our actions, however trivial. Every action is a test of our self-worth. And to placate the searing guilt, we apologize — incessantly and arbitrarily.

An apology is a type of reassurance. From supervisors to store clerks, we crave validation. Questioning our motives, actions, and memory, an “It’s okay. You are fine” response scratches the insatiable itch. ‘We are thoughtful, good people — and they noticed!,’ we beam to ourselves. The contrived interaction, however, is a temporary balm. The self-doubt lingers, and we continue to pepper our interactions with halfhearted apologies.

Couched in uncertainty, your penchant for apologizing antagonizes family members and work colleagues. Family members question your trepidation. When life seems overwhelming, it is safer, you reason, for them to decide. This passivity protrudes into your work. In the unforgiving workplace, you are characterized as weak or melodramatic. As you apologize for a fabricated faux pas, your supervisors are promoting your confident, self-assured coworker into a leadership position. And they, unlike you, aren’t filled with angst.

While healthy self-awareness is commendable, every unintentional bump on the Metro does not require an emphatic “I’m sorry.” Apologize for malicious acts, not mindless, everyday occurrences. An apology should placate others’ feelings, not your own.

Chance, not certitude, is life’s beauty. Yes, you may offend someone with an ill-advised comment. When you do commit a faux pas, don’t apologize. Instead, mutter something more powerful: I forgive — myself.


When ‘I’m Sorry’ Means Something Else

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). When ‘I’m Sorry’ Means Something Else. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Jun 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.