When “Sorry” is a Sign of Strength

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We've been told that saying "sorry" when we haven't done anything wrong robs us of self-confidence. Learn how "sorry" can be a word of strength.

Last week, I posted a little rant about Barbie and her vlog on "Sorry". Barbie is afraid that saying "sorry" when we haven't done anything wrong damages our self-confidence. I begged to differ.

Maybe you agreed with me. Or maybe you thought I was dismissing something that really does need some consideration. Today, I'm going to continue that same line of thought and flesh it out a little further with a specific example. Let me know what you think.

We've been told that saying "sorry" when we haven't done anything wrong robs us of self-confidence. Learn how "sorry" can be a word of strength.

We Do Have a Problem with Apologies

After I published the last post, I heard from quite a number of you who shared that you have actually experienced or fallen into the very pattern Barbie described. (Side note: It seems really weird to keep referring to her as an actual person, but I'm at a loss for how to reference that content succinctly otherwise!)

You shared all kinds of examples where you've apologized for something when you really didn't need to. One mom aptly described it as "feeling as if I should apologize for even existing, like I have no right to even take up space." Another mom said it was a leftover habit from a previous relationship where she was constantly having to "walk on eggshells".

From a different angle, other moms shared that the word "sorry" had become flippant, sarcastic, or so over-used that it was virtually meaningless in their homes. Some families have adopted other ways of wording apologies in order to avoid this problem.

It may surprise you to learn that I heard and acknowledged all of those concerns and I completely agree. We definitely have a problem with apologizing for guilt that is not ours. And we have a problem with using the word "sorry" carelessly.

So Where's the Rub?

I spent last week defending the word "sorry". As I hope to show you today, it can actually be a demonstration of strength and confidence. So let's get down to the distinctions. Here are the three specific things I think Barbie gets wrong.

  1. You shouldn't use the word "sorry" unless you are apologizing.
  2. Saying "sorry" when you haven't done anything wrong damages your self-confidence.
  3. The issue is in the way we phrase things, so choosing a different phrase will solve the problem.

1. "Sorry" is not an Apology

My goal last week was to lay the ground work for us to see that the word "sorry" doesn't necessarily suggest guilt or blame. It simply means "I am sorrowing" or "I am sad".

When we talk with our children about the word "sorry," I think it's important that we emphasize the meaning the word carries as distinct from an apology. Why?

First, it reminds us that, all by itself, "sorry" really isn't a sufficient apology. It is good that you are sad about what happened to the person. That's an important first step. But in order to actually apologize, you need to admit responsibility for your actions.

In our premarital counseling, our pastor suggested this model:

I'm sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me.

Secondly, detaching "sorry" from blame or guilt also helps us to see that we can use it appropriately in other situations where we haven't done anything wrong, or didn't have malicious intent. More on that in a moment.

2. It isn't "Sorry" that Damages Your Self Confidence

Apologizing when you don't bear any guilt or responsibility damages your self-confidence. This is why I believe it's crucial to work at separating "apologizing" from saying "sorry".

Let's be clear. The Bible doesn't ever command us to "say you are sorry". It does require us to confess sin when we've done wrong, but it doesn't give any specific formula. Perhaps "Forgive us our debts" as used in the Lord's prayer?

But my motivation for encouraging my children to say "sorry" is actually separate from any connection with confession of sin. It's this verse:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15

It can be very challenging to rejoice with a brother or sister who is getting a special treat you are not getting. It can also be very challenging to weep with a brother or sister who is experiencing a sorrow you are not experiencing. Yet this is what love looks like and what I want to encourage in my children.

One mom shared that she requires her children to admit that they've done wrong but not to say "sorry" as that might be encouraging them to say something that isn't true - express an emotion they do not feel.

I wholeheartedly agree that we shouldn't encourage our children to say things that aren't true (yet). But I do think we are called to guide them towards a sympathetic frame of mind because the Lord calls them to it.

3. The Issue Isn't in the Phrases

Barbie says that we can avoid this problem by replacing "sorry" with "thank you" (or another appropriate phrase). I do think that taking the time to choose our words deliberately can, by extension, also help us to modify our thinking.

But the conversation needs to go a lot deeper than simply a change of phrase, especially for our children.

One mom shared a theoretical example of falling into the "sorry" trap. If someone were holding a door for her, she might say

I'm so sorry I made you wait!

She's right. That would be an example of taking blame on yourself needlessly and inappropriately. We don't "make" people do things for us. They choose to do them and they hold the responsibility for the consequences of those actions (like having to wait) and so it isn't ours to apologize for those consequences.

But what if someone was kindly - by their own choice - holding a door for me in the rain and getting wet in the process. Without any sense of guilt, I could say

Oh no! I'm so sorry you got all wet holding the door for me!

In this case, I'm not taking responsibility or blame. I'm simply expressing that I noticed the sacrifice that was made, and I sympathize with it.

Perhaps you'd consider that it would be better to eliminate the word "sorry" altogether in this instance and use something completely different. Fair enough. But my point is that in order to help our kids see the distinction, we need to go beyond telling them to remove one word and replace it with another.

We need to have a conversation (an ongoing conversation) about "sorry", apologizing, guilt, and responsibility. We need to teach our children about personal boundaries and a clean conscience.

The Test Case

I promised last week that I was going to zoom in on one specific scenario that I think will give us a good look at all the angles of the "sorry" dilemma and demonstrate the strength of character behind that word, even when it isn't an apology.

One day recently, my daughter Emma (12) was clearing the table. Joey (3) was drawing a picture. Apparently his magnum opus was falling short of his high ambitions and he was having a bit of a meltdown. He began screaming at Emma for moving one of the colored pencils he was using.

Emma looked up and we made eye contact. A little smile passed her lips. Then, she put her arm around Joey and tenderly said, "Joey, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were using that one. Here you go."

Emma's "sorry" was not from a place of shame or guilt. Quite the opposite. It was from a place of strength and confidence.

Her conscience was clean. She knew she hadn't done anything wrong and she knew she wasn't about to be in trouble just because Joey was accusing her. And it was that strength and confidence that gave her the emotional resources to reach out to Joey and show genuine sympathy, even though he was in the act of being rather unkind to her.

A Few Last Thoughts

Even though I've filled quite a few lines here defending "sorry" I'm actually not inextricably attached to that particular word. I think you could adequately and genuinely both apologize and sympathize with others without that word ever crossing your lips.

I'm not trying to lay down laws God didn't lay down. I just wanted us to pull apart this topic and go a little deeper into the arguments and angles.

Words do not lose their meaning from being "over-used". They lose their meaning from being used insincerely or unintentionally. The remedy is not to toss the word and get a new one, but to open up a conversation about what we say and why.

Next week, I'm going to share some specific and practical tips for talking with your kids about these big and intangible ideas. We'll address how to help them sort out their share of responsibility in conflicts, how to formulate a healthy apology, and how to respond when they are being wrongly accused.

What do you think? Is "sorry" without blame always a mark of shame or low self-confidence? What challenges are you facing helping your children to understand and use "sorry" appropriately?

  • I have never commented before. But I’m surprised to hear you got push back last time. I agreed 100% with your post and this one too. One of the reasons we “force” kids to do or say something they don’t genuinely feel (like “thank you for these socks” at Christmas) is that actions can *create* proper feelings instead of just reflecting them. As CS Lewis observed, we can act as if we love others or love God, and that will actually help create that feeling in us. Kids whose parents are worried about the word “sorry” are not giving their kids practice modeling correct behavior even if their hearts aren’t there yet. Also, we might ask ourselves: what is the bigger problem in our society, kids who aren’t expressing themselves sincerely and are too tightly bound to social conventions, or kids who are frequently disrespectful toward others and apt to shirk responsibility for how their actions affect others online or in real life?

    In my own life, “pardon me” or “excuse me” or “I’m sorry you got hurt” are indeed signs of politeness, strength, and empathy. I think the concern about female apologies is much ado about nothing. Teaching our girls to have inner strength and correct behavior is more valuable than teaching them to police the supposedly patriarchal undertones that *might* lurk beneath common words.

    • Thanks for the support, Emily. The feedback was honestly all good, thoughtful, and reasonable – just the kind of rich dialogue I love best. I agree about outward behavior often leading to an inward attitude change. In the end, discerning our children’s hearts and guiding them in loving and godly behavior is complex and many-sided. Glad to have your perspective in the conversation!