I lack confidence and I’m ineffectual. I’m exhausting and irritating. I have low self-esteem and feel powerless. I’m incredibly compassionate. I like keeping the peace and I lack faith in my personal judgment. I’ve suffered emotional abuse and am ultra-sensitive to the idea of situations or relationships going awry. Or so say some of the many articles I’ve read while doing research the past few days.
While texting back and forth with a good friend of mine a week or so back, she asked me to do her a favor. She asked me to quit saying “I’m sorry”. She told me that someone as kind and giving as me should not be apologizing for things. Because I know this friend loves me, I put a lot of thought into what she’d said. She’s right. The words, “I’m sorry” do come out of my mouth a lot. Apologizing is something I’ve always done since as far back as I can remember. After she asked me to stop, I decided to figure out why I fall back on those words so often.
I remember being a little girl. I hid many things, especially when I was in the presence of my father. He was a very impatient man and not known for his understanding nature. He wasn’t very big. He was at least a couple of inches short of six feet tall, and his build was average. His size was not intimidating, and he had a pleasant voice. He was a musician and I grew up listening to him while he sang. I liked hearing his voice when music was involved, but it was an entirely different thing when he was angry or even the slightest bit inconvenienced. I suffered physical abuse from my dad, but his voice was the real weapon. Never has anything in my life deflated me, belittled me, torn me down, or made me feel as small as the words my dad spoke. If I got hurt, I’d deny it so I wouldn’t have to hear about how clumsy I was. If I left crayons or watercolors out, I’d try to clean them up as quickly as I could so I wouldn’t hear about how messy I was. I would never ask him what our plans for the day were because I remember him telling me that I was greedy, that we didn’t need to be doing things all the time, that I shouldn’t expect him to entertain me when I was with him. He called me selfish and demanding and that made me feel sick to my stomach. I said I was sorry a lot. I was sorry for being clumsy. I was sorry for being messy. I was sorry that I wasn’t the kind of kid my dad wanted to spend time with. I was always sorry for all the things about me I couldn’t change. I was always sorry for the things I couldn’t hide.
My dad died many years ago. Almost a lifetime ago when I think about what’s happened between the last time I saw him and today. I have two children, one firmly seated in adulthood and the other close on her heels. I’ve been without my dad now for longer than I had him. I take responsibility for who I am and what kind of person I’ve become—and trust me when I say I’ve worked hard on me. It’s a never-ending process. I do believe, however, that seeds are planted in a child’s psyche, and both good and bad things grow in that fertile soil. We all try to cultivate the beautiful things that bloom while trying to control and clear out the poisonous vines. Some of those thorns and weeds are hearty. Sometimes they remain even when we think we’ve pulled them all from the garden.
I lacked confidence for a long time. I didn’t like confrontation. I would hear a raised voice and I would shrivel up inside. I wanted to make the anger go away. I would do anything to make it stop. It scared me. The noise was too much. It overpowered me, overwhelmed me, and if I said, “I’m sorry”, it still seethed but on a much quieter level. I was powerless to stop it, but I could soothe it ever so slightly. I believed I had caused the already off-balanced relationship my dad and I shared to go off track. I had done something, said something to set it askew. I had been too much myself.
This carried on even once I’d graduated from high school. It was with little things. I always had the desire to be as polite as possible. Even when someone bumped into me, or something happened that was completely out of my control, I would be the one to say I was sorry. I was the peacekeeper. I worked at a bookstore in a mall for a time. There was a manager there, her name was Kit, and she was a rather cantankerous woman. She didn’t like me. I’m not sure she liked anyone, but we spent our shifts together in relative calm because no matter what happened, I took the blame for it. I look back on that now and realize I allowed her to load my lowly cashier and stock person shoulders with things that were far above my pay grade.
I did this with friends, too. I put myself in many difficult—some dangerous, some heartbreaking—situations by not trusting my personal judgment. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was too compassionate to others who wound up hurting me because I made it easy for them. I know to some of those friends I was undoubtedly exhausting and irritating. Hearing “I’m sorry” so often made me seem meek, unsure, and undeserving, and ultimately, they used that to their advantage. And I not only allowed it to happen, I unknowingly invited it.
While those people meant a great deal to me back then, it’s more than obvious to me now that they were not really my friends. I’m much older now, and I have gained a better perspective and a whole lot more self-respect. When this friend—this true, beautiful, kind friend—told me to stop saying “I’m sorry”, I listened. Like I said before, I’ve worked a lot on me. I decided to dig deep.
I still hate the sound of raised voices. Loud noises in general set off a deep-seated anxiety. My stomach flips. I sweat. I feel my fight or flight impulse kick in. When someone yells at me, all I want to do is escape. And that’s usually what I do, but first, I make it clear that I don’t like being yelled at and I leave. I don’t try to soothe it. I don’t apologize.
I’ve made some big mistakes over the years, but I don’t doubt my personal judgment. Everyone makes mistakes. We make decisions based on the information we have in front of us. Circumstances change, situations evolve. Sometimes I wish things had turned out differently, but more oftentimes than not, I look back and realize I made the best decision I could at the time.
Ultra-sensitive and compassionate … well, you’ve got me there. I’m still both of those things. When someone I love is struggling in some way, big or small, or if they are feeling pain, I often say “I’m sorry”. And I mean it. I know I didn’t cause it, but I don’t like it, either. That’s empathy, not self-blame.
When my friend told me not to say, “I’m sorry”, she meant I should stop apologizing for being late. For not responding to a text right away. For being occupied with my kids, for being sick, or busy, or tired. She told me to stop apologizing for having a life. She told me to stop apologizing for things I have no control over. I don’t know if she realized what kind of self-reflection she nudged, but I’m glad she did. I’ve caused myself a lot of turmoil and pain by uttering those two words when I should have been asserting myself and establishing my right to make my way in the world. I believe I will always be a peacekeeper. I will always be sensitive and compassionate. That’s who I am, and I’m proud of that. I’m certainly not sorry.