Sorry Is…

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– On Apology –

“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of that apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”

We were discussing the frequency with which we hear parents directing their children to issue apologies when some social injustice has occurred. To many, it’s mandatory “good parenting” to require one’s child to utter an “I’m sorry” whenever it seems appropriate.  To me, however, requiring an apology of a child or another adult, that being an omission of responsibility and existence of remorse, falls into the category of damaging and simply continues a legacy of superficial disconnectedness. Empathy generates something quite beautiful, something quite genuine and far reaching. This is what we base our decision to not require, or even suggest our child offer an apology, regardless of the situation.

  • What does it mean to make amends?
  • What is reparation?
  • When a response of simple regret is a matter of polite social interaction, can its authenticity be clearly seen?

How can we, as parents, demonstrate these valuable concepts authentically, so that our children, first, experience the benefit of their effect?

How can we provide a pattern worthy of our children’s observance, one that leads to authentic relating, compassion, empathy, and reconnection?

Let’s take a moment and look at the history behind the phrase, “I’m sorry”.

Originally, “sorry” came from “sore” (Middle English, pre 900)

feeling regret, compunction, sympathy, pity, etc.: to be sorry to leave one’s friends; to be sorry for a remark; to be sorry for someone in trouble.

regrettable or deplorable; unfortunate; tragic: a sorry situation; to come to a sorry end.

sorrowful, grieved, or sad: Was she sorry when her brother died?

associated with sorrow; suggestive of grief or suffering; melancholy; dismal.

(used interjectionally as a conventional apology or expression of regret): Sorry, you’re misinformed. Did I bump you? Sorry.


The Dalai Lama has much to say on forgiveness, as well as the responsibility we have of owning our actions and offering recompense.  It is said that something he has offered, included in the 18 Rules of Living, concerns offering apology when appropriate.

7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it. And do not let your pride get in the way of taking those steps. Apologize, taking full responsibility. That will speak for your character more strongly than the action of making the mistake in the first place.


There is a site entitled Emotional Competency, which discusses the art and beauty of the apology at length. Below is an excerpt:

The Paradox of Apology

A genuine apology provides so much benefit with so little cost, it is surprising and unfortunate it is not more common. The decision to apologize is a tug-of-war between stubborn pride and guilt. Since guilt is authentic, and stubborn pride is not, it seems best to get on with the apology. Making a sincere apology is an act of courage, not a sign of weakness. Many people are reluctant to apologize because they fear either humiliation or retaliation. This is unfortunate because most genuine apologies elicit gratitude as the response. Failing to apologize can be a costly dominance contest that prolongs bad feelings in a relationship that could have been easily avoided or foreshortened.


We have made the decision as a family to not instruct, encourage, or expect apologies from one another, but to instead request them when one feels it would result in reconnection and reparation, personally. We have also made the decision to not offer apologies for the actions of another, nor to expect another to offer an apology, regardless of whether the situation appears to warrant such. If, as an adult, I see a situation occur and I feel compelled to off my acknowledgement of the other person’s difficulty, I will do so.

In simple terms:

I will not instruct my child to offer an apology, I will not bring upon her a sense of shame.

I will not apologize for my child’s actions, that is her right to handle her situation as she sees best.

I will be observant and aware of my child’s interactions with others, and if a situation arises in which I feel compelled to offer my acknowledge and/or empathy for another child/person’s experience, I will offer them my authentic awareness and acknowledgement. My child is likely to witness this interchange, and I choose to communicate my own expressions in such a way that upholds my child, never diminishes my child, and maintains a path, in a positive environment, to give my child the opportunity to make amends if they make that choice.

Finally, if interested – I appreciate some of what Patricia has said here:

The Meaning of ‘I’m Sorry’

JUNE 6, 2011

What exactly do we mean when we say “I’m sorry”? It can be an apology (”oops I didn’t mean to do that”), a regret (”I should have done that.”), an excuse (”not my department”) or an expression of empathy (”I empathize with your pain, suffering, situation, and don’t pretend to have a way to ‘fix’ it so I’ll just be present with you”).

Recently, I have experienced “I’m sorry” as more of an excuse to lessen the punishment and/or as a promise that that they will not do something again such as I’m sorry…I yelled at my employee, stole from the organization, continue to act inappropriately etc. (you get the picture). The unfortunate thing is that people are saying “I’m sorry” without meaning it. Like “I love you” it is important when said genuinely, but prone to overuse leading to cheapening of meaning.

What has happened to individuals saying it to mean what it originally meant: I’m pained by the sadness/grief/trouble that I created. My actions/behaviors will change to reflect how authentic I am with this apology.   An apology is not only a potentially powerful act, but it can be a powerful tool when used appropriately. This power can help with settling conflict and moving forward.  By contrast, a botched apology can exacerbate the conflict and become itself the subject of conflict.

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