how to drop your sorry reflex
Learning to stop saying “I’m Sorry” and begin saying “Thank You” instead
Any parent has experienced it. The total, drop out exhausted, overstimulated toddler meltdown in public. The point where a little one just has to release in order to find the capacity to be quiet again.
I was on the flight home with my daughter after visiting my family for six days. Six days of nearly nonstop time with people that aren’t a part of my daughter’s daily routine. For anyone it would be a lot. For an eighteen month old with strong opinions of likes and dislikes yet limited capacity to communicate, it was a lot to take in. When she was done she was done. In her frustration and exhaustion she was melting down.
Toddlers are remarkably strong. And then remarkably floppy, and when unhappy, deploy whichever form - rigid or floppy - that causes the most challenge for whomever is trying to keep their little bodies safe. My daughter flopped and rolled around on the floor. When I picked her up, she straightened her arms and pushed me away. Then she hit me, and immediately started crying harder, as if she regretted it, hugging me while she cried, before pushing me away again.
This wasn't being naughty, this was desperation on her part. She was saying “all done” while using baby sign language to sign the same, as if to emphasize the message. She wanted out and I wasn't helping her because I couldn't - we were stuck in our seat. I became the object of her frustration.
I held her, I let her be. I tried to calm her with shhhhhing sounds. I sang to her, trying all of her favorite songs. I played her favorite song on my phone and held it up for her to hear - she grabbed the phone and threw it. I rocked her. I put her down and let her roll around on the floor of the plane again, trying not to imagine what was down there, mentally noting to give her a bath when we got home. I picked her up and held her again. I patted her on the back. I breathed slowly, intentionally, encouraging her to do the same, while internally part of me felt helpless.
After twenty minutes of trying to comfort her, her movement eased and her crying slowed. She cried into my lap. Slowly, she released. I picked her up and held her tightly. She didn’t fight me. Whatever made her cry wasn't as strong as her exhaustion. She fell asleep on my chest. Hard. Like the infant she was a year before.
And oh, that moment. The pure, peaceful calm after the storm of emotions passed. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and held her tightly. Internally, I let go, so grateful that she was peaceful.
Once I trusted she was truly asleep, and once I felt a sense of calm, I looked at the woman seated next to me who had been patient throughout the chaos that the tantrum had at times spilled over into her space, and said, “Thank you.”
During the tantrum she had smiled at me a few times, a gesture I interpreted as understanding, of being of quiet support while I was managing the tantrum and my own stress response towards it. In response, she once again smiled at me. Thank you.
It wasn't long ago that my first words would have been, “I’m so sorry,” and then I would have spilled out possible explanations or excuses for the disruptive behavior, likely peppered with additional apologies throughout. It wasn’t too long ago that I would have been preoccupied about the disturbance to my fellow passengers as all this was going on, even as I was caring for my child. I would likely have apologized as she cried. I would have felt embarrassed. I would have felt stressed about the impact on others, and she would have picked up on my emotional state and that would have likely amplified her feelings of distress. I know I would have apologized to anyone within earshot after she fell asleep. Instead, the words of my daughter’s pediatrician were in my mind, a reminder I received after I reflexively apologized during an appointment when my daughter cried while the doctor was checking her ears for what turned out to be a painful ear infection: "Never apologize for your child's behavior. It's age appropriate. It’s situationally appropriate. Don't apologize because there's nothing wrong with it.”
The doctor's gentle chiding reminded me of advice I'd received from a friend that I had been working hard to put into practice in all aspects of my life, advice I feel so many people in our culture, especially women, need to remember - a caution that we often say "I'm sorry" when we should say, "Thank You.”
Culturally, we often apologize for the things that are out of our control, like a toddler crying or even throwing a tantrum, or being absent from work because we’re ill. We apologize for asking for what others should want us to have: for someone's time who should want to willingly give it to us as it's in their best interest to help us be successful - a boss, a more senior colleague, a professor, our clients. We apologize for inconveniencing others, often routinely doing so, when we can avoid the action for which we apologize, when we are free and capable to make other choices: for being late to dinner; for working on our smartphone when we should be present for the person across from us; for taking a call that can wait until after a meal or a meeting; for letting others take on a greater, unequal burden of shared responsibilities as we focus our attention elsewhere, to other tasks or work or pursuits.
There are situations for “I’m sorry,” when the phrase is needed, deserved, the necessary first step in creating healing where we’ve hurt another or a group of people, or to begin repairing damage to a relationship. “I’m sorry” is a powerful phrase when used appropriately. At the same time, I strongly believe that overuse and misuse of “I’m sorry” cheapens the value, and overtime, that erodes trust. Apologizing when we could have avoided the action and resulting event, yet chose to take the offending action anyway, risks feeling insincere. Apologizing for asking for a boss’ time risks suggesting we feel like we don’t deserve it. Apologizing with strangers when it’s unwarranted, like apologizing for our children behaving like children, or for accidentally brushing into someone on a street corner when it causes no harm, makes us appear meek: it gives away our power.
If overusing “I’m sorry” feels familiar, I invite you to try saying thank you where you may be conditioned to reflexively say, I’m sorry. Try it out. Play with it. Try substituting thank you for sorry when thank you is more appropriate. See how it feels, how you feel. Say “thank you for your patience,” or “thank you for your time,” or “thank you for the feedback,” or “thank you for your understanding….” “Thank you __________ …”
A few examples:
Thank you for being patient when I was late to our meeting because I prioritized something else.
Thank you for taking on my responsibilities in addition to yours when I was out sick - knowing you were there to help enabled me to rest and heal.
Thank you for doing more than your fair share of the parenting tonight because I had a deadline to meet.
Thank you for picking up the slack I dropped - I noticed and I'm grateful and I look forward to doing the same in return when you need extra help.
Thank you for keeping your door open - your input on the project you assigned me has helped me create a better product.
Thank you for the feedback you gave me - it will make me better at what I do, which will make me a stronger member of this team.
If you like this shift and yet you still occasionally catch yourself in old habits, be kind to yourself. Treat it as a practice and please show yourself the grace you would bestow upon another - we’re all learning, every day. Thank yourself for trying something new.
From me? Thank you for reading.