Turning Sorry into Thank You

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

Elizabeth was had a huge project at work.  It was a make or break career opportunity and she had to spend a lot of long hours at work.  But this meant that her stress was higher, her free time was close to zero, which meant she had little time to decompress or even see her friends and family.  But every time she did see the people she cared about she found herself complaining about all the stress. Her friends always listened to her and validated her and gave her suggestions and affirmations that helped at the the time.  Her husband, Theo, was also being very helpful. He took over all the household cleaning and taking care of the kids. It was much more stress on him, but he kept telling her to focus on her project.

When Elizabeth did get some chances to just be with herself it wasn’t just the stress and anxiety she felt.  She also felt the guilt. She felt guilty for not being a good mother and not having times to spend with her kids.  She felt guilty that she relied on Theo to take care of all the childcare and household work. She didn’t like that it didn’t feel balanced and she couldn’t be there for him.  She also felt guilty for not being a good friend and complaining and venting to her friends. Again it didn’t feel balanced. She wasn’t able to spend time with her friends and she wasn’t able to support her friends like she was asking.  The grief felt overwhelming sometimes that Elizabeth would cry. Elizabeth felt like she was a burden onto others.

In various degrees, many of us have been in Elizabeth’s shoes.  How do we respond when we feel like a burden? We often say “I’m sorry.”   I’m sorry for always complaining. I’m sorry this isn’t fair. I’m sorry I’m not around as much.  I’m sorry for saying I’m sorry so often. In some of these cases if feels like there isn’t enough apologizing that can appease out guilt.

However saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem to appease our guilt.  Friends and even some clients have suggested this is a very American thing if not a western culture tradition.  If we feel guilty then we need to apologize. But what are we feeling guilty for? What is it that feel this urge we need to apologize.  

For Elizabeth she feels like she doesn’t have enough to give others.  She is tapped out. If you ask her what she feels sorry for she might say everything.  She isn’t being a good parent, partner or friend. But her friends will point out that she is doing the best she can.  Her husband understands what she is going through. Yet Elizabeth still may feel like a burden.

This aspect that we shouldn’t be a burden is a big theme for many.  I should be self sufficient and have all my life together. But we can’t do that all the time.  Sometimes we need to share our burden with others so we don’t feel like we are drowning in it. Elizabeth needs her friends to vent to.  She needs her husbands support to manage the household while she brings more security to their income. She need the patience from her kids that she isn’t around so much.

This is where the American value of that we often hear as “pull yourself by your bootstraps” comes in and possibly why Americans say I’m sorry more often.  We have the value of self sufficiency. In and of itself it is not a bad value, but we can not be self sufficient all the time. We do need to take care of ourselves but sometimes we need that support too.  But what do we do with this guilt if we can not direct it anywhere?

I had a client had start practicing turing “I’m sorry” into “thank you.”  What she came to realized was truly astounding. She said to me, “You know I think I got it wrong.  I think all this guilt I thought I was feeling was really my gratitude.” I was really taken aback by this statement.  Sometimes we mislabel our emotions. Anxiety and excitement can feel very similar in our bodies. Sometimes we don’t have enough words to describe all the feeling we have.  

When we share the burden that we are suffering by ourselves with others there is a sense of relief.  The guilt may come from not wanting to put other is pain but people may choose to do that for us. And then we need to share our gratitude.  

Elizabeth can now try putting this into practice.  She sits with her kids and starts to feel the guilt of not being around as much.  She stops herself and tells the kids “I know I’m not around so much, but I’m really thankful for being able to have time with you kids.”  Elizabeth vents to her friends about her work stress and instead of saying I’m sorry share how thankful she is to her friends for being there for her.  At work she is late with one of her reports. When she hands it in she stops herself from eating “sorry this is late” and instead says “thank you for your patience.”  And instead of not knowing how to her apologies to her husband Theo, she is trying to figure out ways to show he appreciation, which doesn’t feel so bad.

Where can you find space to replace a sorry into thanks?