Not everybody is, but if you’re like me, you apologize a lot. If you apologize a lot, you have probably had people point out to you that you apologize a lot. (As if that were news to you.) And chances are that in that case, you have apologized for apologizing at least once or twice, too.
Apologizers like us evidently feel responsible for everything. Responsible for our own comfort level. Responsible for the comfort level of the other people in the room. Responsible for our personal backstory that triggered us into crying in the spiritual direction or therapy session or Stepping Into the Story class. (You will probably cry at least once in Stepping Into the Story. But I’m not apologizing for that, and you shouldn’t either.) Responsible for someone else’s grief even when we weren’t directly connected to the person or situation they’re grieving.
When I was training as a chaplain, one of my supervisors challenged me and my cohort never to say, “I’m sorry,” as an expression of sympathy to patients or the bereaved. Why not? Because the diagnoses and the deaths were not our faults! Nor was the grief. How, we all wondered, were we supposed to effectively minister to people with such hard-heartedness? We didn’t go into this caring type of ministry to be so cold! What kind of CPE supervisor had we landed ourselves with?
A really excellent one, in turned out. He insisted that we find other, more precise, expressions of sympathy. Doing this was–and still is–much harder than offering an apology, because saying “I’m so sad about your cancer diagnosis!” is not a default and feels weird. It’s also hard because at least in this part of the world, we’re conditioned to expect people to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” when someone dies, like we say “Bless you,” when someone sneezes without even thinking about it. It’s just polite. People notice if you don’t say it even if they know it’s meaningless. On the other hand, when the grief is particularly deep, sometimes “I’m sorry for your loss” feels gapingly hollow and perfunctory. It’s more effort–but ultimately also more honest and truthful and sympathetic to do the work of calling up, engaging, and naming the real emotions on the other person’s behalf, than defaulting to the expected phrase.
I don’t have default phrases anymore, and so sometimes if I myself am feeling emotionally depleted, an “I’m so sorry” will escape me and that might be all I have to offer. But on better days, I will put in the work to push through the feeling of unnaturalness that arises when searching for words of comfort to offer that are distinct to the person. I might say, “I’m so sad to hear that,” or “That’s heartbreaking” (if it is–obviously overstating something isn’t helpful either), or “That sounds so overwhelming.” This week a friend was wrestling with the effects of some insecurities that rose up in a situation and I said, “I’m really angry on your behalf that your insecurities are giving you such a hard time right now.” The unnatural phrase might be a little more awkward–for me and the recipient. But their situation isn’t natural either. They deserve more in their struggle than a set phrase or a pat answer, and usually they receive it like a handcrafted gift and find that it feels better, after all, that I engaged their own emotion instead of acknowledging but deflecting it with an apology.