“Sorry” is today’s version of “like.” It’s practically a space-filler, joining together two sentences while simultaneously smoothing things over: when we’re running late (sorry), when our arm grazes someone’s in a crowd (sorry), when we accidentally hand someone two meeting agendas instead of one (sorry).
It can be overkill, and the words can easily lose their meaning, which is why I can’t stop thinking about Amy Poehler’s chapter on apologies in her memoir-ish essay collection, Yes Please. In it, she describes rushing out to do a skit on Saturday Night Live where she played a mature-beyond-her-years Dakota Fanning, who wasn’t familiar with Hannah Montana, but enjoyed playing with her Hurricane Mary dolls. She didn’t think anything of it, until she received a letter months later from Marianne Leone and Chris Cooper, who scolded her for making light of a severely disabled girl. Poehler thought Hurricane Mary was something the SNL writers’ made up, but it’s the true story of twins with cerebral palsy, and their mother’s fight to give them the same education as any other child. Her skit essentially made light of everything they fought for.
It’s in these cringe-inducing moments when we really screw up that ‘sorry’ takes on a whole new level of meaning, and I loved Poehler’s honesty in her immediate reaction, because it’s so true of how many of us feel: She got defensive.
“I reread the note over and over again. I shared it with other people in the hopes they would agree that Marianne and Chris were overreacting and I was right to believe that I was a good person. … I made a lot of noise because I felt bad about hurting someone’s feelings and I didn’t want to get quiet and really figure out how I felt.” — Amy Poehler, Yes Please
That intense shame can cause you to justify your position and build a case for why you’re not really in the wrong, all so you can get rid of that slimy feeling that you’re The Horrible, Rotten, Cruel, Fail-tastic Screw-Up of All Time. (Because when shame’s involved, our brains have no shortage of awful adjectives to describe us, do they?)
Poehler mentions that Louis C.K. calls guilt “an intersection,” where the only way to free yourself is to make a decision: Apologize, stop stewing over the situation and start moving forward.
That was huge for me. What if I treated feelings of guilt and shame as warning signs? As a big red flare shot into the sky, telling me to investigate further, rather than immediately gchat a friend to tell my side of the story and get validated that I’m still an okay human being? (Guilty. So guilty.)
It was refreshing to see that I wasn’t alone in trying to defend myself when I feel like a screw-up, which is why I especially loved her caution about apologizing: Do so with your heart, not your head, and avoid delving into telling your side of the story. (Another challenge for me.) Sometimes, you just have to accept the blame.
This is a hard line to walk, especially at work, when any minor misstep feels like you’re one step closer to be labeled incompetent — and inching toward getting a Donald Trump-style dismissal. It’s okay to let someone know where you’re coming from, if part of the problem is a miscommunication, but it’s always worth rehearsing your apology in advance so you don’t backslide into a “sorry, but here’s why I’m right” speech. Where do you draw the line? An apology from the heart, Poehler writes, accepts its part in the wrongdoing and for the hurt feelings it caused, while one from the head smacks of self-righteousness; it’s sorry with an asterisk, and the fine print reads, “Remember, I’m the bigger person because I reached out first, and I’m truly not in the wrong here, as you can now see.”
Apologizing, even if the other person refuses to accept it, sets you free. In fact, that could be a way to reframe all of those little, almost meaningless “I’m sorries” scattered throughout our day: To only say them when we feel the need to, and to use them not as a way to save face with someone we maybe, sort-of slighted, but to forgive ourselves for our little missteps, so we don’t carry them with us all day long and play them like a tape on loop as we try to go to bed.
It’s worth a try.
I’m curious though: Where do you draw the line between telling your side of the story and genuinely accepting blame? Is there a hard-and-fast rule you follow, like “Be sincere and just apologize, no back-story needed”? Is it ever worth helping someone understand where you’re coming from?
We zeroed in on just one small chapter of Amy Poehler’s book, which covers everything from lessons learned while doing improv to why you should treat your career like a bad boyfriend (the second runner-up for this Tuesday Takeaway, actually). You can find Yes Please here.
This post is part of Life Between Weekends’ Tuesday Takeaway series. Every Tuesday, we’ll share the most compelling insight we’ve gleaned from a book, movie, tour, documentary or article to inspire you during the workday.
Photos: Candace Braun Davison