I’m (Not) Sorry

 

Brenda behind mug

Guest blogger Brenda van Dyck is no longer in a sorry state

I’ll admit it—I don’t generally set a lot of goals for myself. I live in Minnesota, after all, the land of the naturally above average. But I have set a big goal for myself: to stop saying “I’m sorry.” I blame my Minnesota roots.  It didn’t even occur to me that this was a thing until I saw a mug at the “I Like Me” store booth at—where else?—the Minnesota State Fair. It was a simple mug with the shape of Minnesota and the words “I’m Sorry” written across the front. It was a forehead-slapping moment.

Here in the North Star state, we have much to apologize for. We apologize for these harsh Minnesota winters. Who would willingly subject themselves to subzero weather and live in a climate that keeps us hidden from our neighbors for half of the year? And then there is the mosquito, the unofficial state bird, that attacks any exposed flesh for the three nice months of the year.

And we’re not even as nice as our moniker “Minnesota Nice” would suggest. I was shocked to hear that non-natives have trouble breaking into our tight web of social and familial connections. Of course, I felt bad about that.

We Minnesotans have perfected the art of passive-aggressiveness. We have trouble being direct and assertive, for fear of confronting people; we couch our behavior behind the cloak of “I’m sorry.” When someone budges in line at a store, we say, “I’m sorry, but I think I was next.” Or when the waiter gets our order wrong: “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I ordered.” We’re not sorry! We just don’t want to come off as too brash, too–might I say–East Coast.

But it’s more than just being from Minnesota, the land of perpetual guilt. Growing up Catholic adds to this sorry state. I remember preparing for my first confession as a child. While I was not perfect, I was stumped when it came to confession, something that I had to tell the priest I was truly sorry for. Without being able to come up with anything egregious, I may have said that I was mean to my brother. The memories are fuzzy now.  The truth was that if I was mean to my brother, he probably had it coming. He usually did.

We’ve all encountered people who fall over themselves unnecessarily apologizing for things. These are people who feel bad about everything. At least I’m not that bad. I think.

Over the years, I’ve perfected the art of the “apology.” I apologize when I have to ask for something and I’m afraid the person will say no.

I apologize when I think I’m bothering someone. “I’m sorry to call so late…” even when it’s not really that late.

I apologize in order to ingratiate myself to others. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier…” when I knowingly procrastinated.

I apologize sometimes to spare someone’s feelings, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

I say “I’m sorry” as an imprecise verbal filler, as in “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your skirt is tucked into your tights.”

I have said, “I’m sorry to have to ask… “ “I’m sorry you were caught in the middle of that… “ “I’m sorry to be a bother….”

I’ve had to stop myself from starting emails with “I’m sorry, but…” as a buffer to break bad news.

Maybe apologizing is an effort to be perfect. Often these words simply come out of my mouth because I don’t want to cause offense and I fear falling out of people’s favor.

Alternatively, we’ve all heard the “non-apology” apology. “I’m sorry IF you were offended…”

Then there are the insincere apologies of children, the sarcastic “I’m ssooorrrrryy,” we force them to make to classmates or siblings. But if I say I’m sorry and I’m really not, isn’t that the same thing?

Why have I been doing this all these years? Can it really be that I am afraid of offending people? That I’m afraid of what people may think of me if I offend them, even unintentionally? Yes. And yes. There it is. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I should be a little braver in my everyday life. That I should stand up for my true feelings instead of acting and reacting the way that I think people expect me to. Or in a way that risks putting me in disfavor.

I’m sorry that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” all these years without giving it a second thought. Now when I find myself composing an email and I have more time for reflection, I delete the words “I’m sorry” from the beginning of an email. And in speaking to people, I’ve stopped myself from saying, “I’m sorry” when it’s not appropriate.

If I only say I’m sorry for things that I am truly sorry for, doesn’t that make my apologies more sincere and meaningful?

I would like to try the tactic of replacing the words “thank you” for “sorry,” as the comic artist Yao Xiao illustrates in her comic strip Baopu #15. She suggests, for instance, instead of apologizing for being late, say “thank you for waiting for me” or when you feel like you’re rambling, not to apologize but to thank the person who is listening to you. It’s a subtle verbal shift in words, but a seismic mental one.

I am not sorry about not saying sorry any more.

 

Brenda van Dyck is an occasional guest blogger on WordSisters. To learn more about her or our other guest bloggers, click on Guests above.

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Mom’s Inspiration

For years, my mom had a clipping stuck on her refrigerator with a magnet.

moms-resolution

Although it was in a semi-public place, the clipping was a private message for her, not a directive for the family and friends who might see it.

Mom knew she’d be in and out of the refrigerator numerous times a day. She probably hoped that by putting the clipping right there she’d be forced to notice it. At least once a day, she’d really see the words and be reminded of her intentions. Every day, she could rededicate herself to the effort of becoming her best self.

As a visitor, I saw it often but never thought too hard about it. They were her goals, not mine, and Mom wasn’t in the habit of preaching about her values or goals.

But when the clipping turned up in a box of Mom’s things that my sister had saved, I realized how much her example has influenced me. I, too, regularly rededicate myself to the effort of being my better self.

I make New Year’s resolutions (often the same ones about health and writing – they’re still good, because I frequently stray from my goals). Throughout the year, I also take stock and evaluate whether or not I’m living the life I want to live. For example, I might ask myself: Am I too bizzy with household tasks that don’t matter? Am I letting other people’s agendas overtake my own? Can I be more tolerant and easygoing and let go of irritation faster? Am I pushing myself creatively? And more.

My refrigerator is bare. Unlike Mom, I keep my resolutions and inspirations in journals or in the Notes app on my phone where I see them often. When I reread my intentions, I’m pleased to see that I’ve followed through on some. Others, not so much. But I’m easy with myself – effort counts. I’m a work in progress and I just need to keep trying.

Mom’s clipping lists five goals. I love that she circled the two that were most meaningful to her. As her daughter, I can tell you that most days, she nailed them.

Revising My 10-Point Plan for Happiness (a.k.a. the Lure of Possibility)

More than 30 years ago, a good friend and I regularly launched what we mockingly called our “10-Point Plan for Happiness.” Our plans always included these steps: Quit going to the bars so much, especially during the week. Stop dating losers. Work out more. No more French fries/potato chips/chocolate or whatever indulgence was tempting us that week. Oh yeah, and save more money. But over the years, I’ve shortened up the list.

Even as my friend and I made those resolutions, we knew we were likely to backslide.

But there’s something very appealing about setting goals and having a plan—it helped me feel in control of my life. Setting goals is the means to accomplishing something and the counterpoint to daydreaming, but never doing. If I just follow these simple steps, I can make my life better—who wouldn’t want that?

Butterfly

Believing change is possible is ingrained in the American psyche. The lure of possibility is undeniable. If you’re fat and out of shape you can be transformed, especially if you win a chance to be on The Biggest Loser. If you’re clueless about clothes and your personal appearance, Stacy and Clinton can reform you on What Not to Wear. If you’re a philandering politician, you can humble yourself, ask your spouse and voters to forgive you and after some time has passed, you can be re-elected like U.S. representative Mark Sanford (ex-governor of South Carolina).

I believe real change is possible, but it isn’t fast or easy—it takes a lot more effort than making lists as I did in my 20’s or a going on a whirlwind clothes-buying spree. The people I’ve known who have reinvented themselves worked hard at it for years.

Sometimes my life feels like it’s one big Continuous Quality Improvement project. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the changes I need to undertake are refinements, not sweeping transformations. So I try to be a better writer, and I tinker with how to squeeze in more time for projects I enjoy, travel, family, friends, and fun. That focus has made my life richer and more fulfilled.

I no longer believe that I’m capable of making major improvements to myself . . . or that I even need to. That’s not smug self-satisfaction, but another way of saying I’m learning to accept my flaws. I’ll keep trying to think before I speak. I’ll also try not to offer advice unless asked. However, I know I’m going to backslide sometimes, and even though I’ll fall short on those goals (and others), I’m still basically OK.

If the goal is happiness, perfection is not required  . . . or even useful. So my current Plan for Happiness has a mere three points:

  1. Be kinder to myself— accept and forgive my shortcomings.
  2. Continue to focus on being healthy (food, exercise, stress management), but don’t fret too much about any of those items.
  3. Continue to spend more time doing what I love, less on what I don’t.

What works for you?

Resigning as MVP of the Eating Team

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 8.21.20 PMI like the idea of a New Year and New Year’s resolutions. I want to believe that change is possible.

Achievable improvement has lots of appeal. So at very least, I’ll lose the weight I gained as a MVP on the Eating Team (Best All-Around Consumption – entrées, sweets, snacks, and alcohol). Nothing but fruits, vegetables and low-fat healthy everything from now until at least March.

But seriously, in a perverse way, I enjoy being virtuous . . . for a little while. I’ll obsessively calculate my Weight Watcher points (but I’ll spare you the details). I’ll be pleased when I no longer need to cram myself into my jeans and disguise my newly acquired spare tire with big sweaters.

I have other loftier goals—to be more generous, to be more tolerant, to think before I speak, to improve my writing. But I regularly make those resolutions and then backslide, so I’m realistic about the resolutions—I recognize that all I’m likely to accomplish is incremental improvements.

I have also learned that any time I’m dissatisfied with how I’m spending my days, I need to recalibrate—I can’t wait until another New Year rolls around. Taking stock and making resolutions is an ongoing process for me.

At heart, I’m an optimist. Lodged in my belief that I can change is a belief that the world can change, too. I’m hopeful about America—despite the political stupidity and individual selfishness that is rampant in our culture. I still believe Americans collectively strive to be better than we have been, and at very least, we will make incremental improvements in 2013.

But for right now, I’m focused on eating a juicy tangerine—a change I can control.