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Sorry, Not Sorry

As the pandemic began and quarantine started, I noticed feeling more on edge and being easily irritated by anything out of place in my house. I was working a lot as many of my clients were struggling with the adjustment and trying to figure out technology issues of doing therapy online. I was also processing my own emotions around this confusing and scary time of collecting extra groceries, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper as they were disappearing from the store. My nerves were frayed and my own abilities of self-control were diminishing as I was burning the candle at both ends. Unfortunately, one of my problematic signals that tends to come out when I am exhausted is impatience to others by pointing out mistakes with a harsh tone and subtle judgmental signals like sighing, eye rolls, and lip curls. As I found myself once again loudly sighing and resentfully saying within earshot of my husband “ugh, why am I the only one that cleans the dishes?”, it dawned on me that I was being unkind. I knew that in order to get myself to stop behaving this way, I would have to use the RO SAGE (Lesson 8) skill of signaling remorse and taking responsibility for the way I was doing harm to the relationship. I could feel that these behaviors didn’t fit with my value system and were unfair to my spouse even as I was acting them out. This mental harsh judgement popped into my head: “where are your RO skills, Jamie? You are failing with your social signals. Did you even improve at all before?” I tried practicing self-kindness while noticing I was making a mistake by saying to myself, “It’s okay. I’m just feeling remorse. I know what to do with this and I can handle it.” So I swallowed my pride and with awareness of my body language slightly shrugged my shoulders and lowered my head and said, “I’m sorry I have been more impatient with you and critical recently. I know that is not fair for me to take my exhaustion out on you. This is my problem and I’m going to try to work on it.” Fortunately I have a spouse who is gracious and he accepted my apology and signaled that he forgave me which welcomed me back into feeling connected with him by showing he wouldn’t reject me for my mistake.

In RO the SAGE skill teaches us to take responsibility for the way that our behaviors negatively impact each other even when we are stressed and overwhelmed. There can be lots of urges to justify our behavior and our detail-oriented brains may want to share all of the reasons why we behaved that way (notice above I purposefully didn’t list all of the reasons I was exhausted to my husband even though I wanted to). The most important things are that the other person knows we are remorseful for the pain we have caused them and that we look remorseful when we are apologizing. It’s possible that when people feel uncomfortable with the vulnerability associated with this remorse they may try to avoid feeling it by rationalizing, making excuses, blaming others, distracting, etc. rather than using it to learn about their values and regain connection with their community. As I have learned and practiced RO for myself I have noticed a few blind spots in my own habits of apologizing. I used to apologize with my head high and shoulders back (i.e. a confident body position) and it wasn’t until teaching this therapy that I learned that the signal of remorse may not successfully reach the other person if I am looking so confident and put together while apologizing. In essence it’s important to look sorry when saying “I’m sorry.” Here are a few other possible blind spots that I have discovered as chatting about the idea of signaling remorse with clients, family members, and friends.

-The Find a Scapegoat Apology: Making excuses or blaming another person within the apology. “I’m sorry I’m late. The jerk driving in front of me was driving so slowly. He needs to learn how to drive correctly.” Shifting the responsibility to another person implies that it was not our fault and can make the remorse signal feel disingenuous.

-The Turning the Tables Apology: Apologizing with implied or overt criticism to the other person. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were so sensitive” or “I’m sorry you feel that way”. Though we may have feedback about how the other person behaved, including that feedback in the apology can make it appear as if we are turning the tables on the other person and are not truly remorseful for our part of the interaction.

-This is the way I am Apology: Apologizing while rigidly saying this is the way I am and don’t expect me to change. For example: “I’m sorry, I’m just a late person.” This may actually communicate a “push back” of stop trying to change me and thus does not communicate true remorse or an intention to prevent harm in the future.

-The Fishing Apology: Apologizing with a question mark at the end: “I’m sorry?” implies “Did I get the right answer or say the right thing?” Watch if your inflection goes up at the end of sentences with curiosity of what does that imply to the other person.

-The You are Stupid for Being Hurt Apology: I’m sorry with an eye roll or lip curl that signals disgust or punishment to the person you are apologizing to. This may make it less likely that the other person will feel safe to share hurt feelings again in the future or provoke a feeling of shame in the other person.

-The Get out of Trouble Apology: Using a dismissive sorry which might look like saying the words very quickly or sighing that implies “are we done talking about this yet?”.

-The Hear What I Mean, Not What I Say Apology: Apologizing while further explaining oneself rather than focusing on the harm done to the other person. “I’m sorry you heard it like that but what I meant was…..”. Though trying to explain what you meant could be helpful information for the other person to have, doing it within the apology could imply that the other person is responsible for not interpreting correctly and should not be hurt.

-The Shot in the Dark Apology: Not naming the behavior that you are apologizing for. Person 1:”I’m sorry”, Person 2:”For what?”, Person 1:”I don’t know.” It’s important to name the harmful behavior when apologizing; otherwise this may come across as trying to pacify the other person. It may be helpful to ask yourself, “What was the observable behavior that caused harm?” We all have emotions, so apologizing for having the emotion may not be as effective as how you managed or what behavior you did with the emotion. For instance, in my above example it may have felt less remorseful to my husband if I said “I’m sorry I have been so tired and overwhelmed.” It was not my exhaustion that did harm to our relationship, it was how I managed my exhaustion (i.e. by taking it out on him through impatience and getting snappy).

-The Feel Sorry for Me Apology: The apology where the person apologizing falls apart crying and looks so upset that in a confusing turn of events the person that was harmed ends up consoling and comforting the person that did harm. Though some amount of looking distressed correlated with the degree of offense is helpful, overdoing it can actually come across as a “don’t hurt me” and send the signal that the person is not taking ownership of their actions.

-The Joker Apology: Apologizing with a joke, laughter, or playful tone. Though we love playfulness in RO, acting playful or joking/laughing while apologizing may send the signal that we aren’t taking the harm done seriously. It’s possible this could be a habit or defense mechanism of laughing or joking during vulnerable moments however during a remorse signal it may be helpful to use a more somber tone or affect.

-And finally, The No Follow Through Apology: Apologizing and then not working hard to keep ourselves from doing the same harm again. This would be like stepping on someone’s toe, apologizing, and then a few minutes later stepping on their toe again. In this situation, if there is no evidence that the person is working to keep themselves from doing the harm again the apology begins to feel disingenuous. The words of I’m sorry are not enough if they are not backed up by actions or behaviors that show that we are so remorseful that we will work to change (of course without expecting that we will always do it perfectly).

The most important thing in an apology is to ask ourselves if our remorse appeared sincere. (If you are unsure if an apology is warranted, there is a list of questions on Handout 8.5 that can help you evaluate this. Any OC folks out there saying “Yay! A chart!”?). Learning how to do healthy remorse signals means that I can get connected again to my community members when I cause harm. Generally many people forgive regularly when they feel that the apology is genuine, and this can lead to increased closeness in relationships by sharing the vulnerable moment and building trust that the other person will take ownership when they do harm. It also helps to break down a barrier of catastrophizing painful emotions or conflict (i.e. Like an attitude of I can’t handle facing this) by empowering us to manage when we do hurtful things in a manner that fits with our value system and doesn’t expect us to be perfect.

About the Author: Jamie Martin, M.Ed. Ed.S. LPC

Jamie is a therapist that specializes in working with personality disorders in Greenville, South Carolina. She implements the evidenced based therapies of standard DBT and RO DBT to help those with too little or too much self control. She is passionate about learning to appreciate the benefits and challenges of each personality style.