3 Empowering Ways for Sensitive Introverts to Use ‘I’m Sorry’

A woman says “I’m sorry” to her friend

For highly sensitive introverts, ultimately, it comes down to our true intent for using the phrase “I’m sorry.” 

I don’t make my kids say they’re sorry. It’s advice I came across long before my firstborn could talk and the theory resonated with me. It suggests that forcing apologies does little other than… force an apology. 

Instead, the idea is to model our values in our communications with, and around, children so they organically pick up on when to say all the polite things we want them to say: please, thank you, I’m sorry, and so on.

It’s proven to be a good strategy with my kids. Now nine and five, they surprise me with their proficiency in confidence and politeness, especially since I have done little to encourage it beyond modeling. They offer up apologies freely and from their own perceived need for them. 

There’s just one catch. 

They’ve picked up on their mom’s problematic “I’m sorry”s, too. 

I notice them spit out the phrase in an attempt to throw a band-aid on hurt feelings or wrongdoing. They’ll repeat “I’m sorry, sorry, I’m SORRY” with each other, as if they are just waiting for the magic phrase to suddenly fix the situation. I’ve also heard both kids yell, “I’m SORRYYYY!” out of pure irritation that the other one is mad. 

I’d be alarmed if it didn’t sound so painfully familiar. It turns out you don’t get to pick and choose when your kids absorb your behaviors. 

Observing how my kids have emulated my use of “I’m sorry” has gotten me interested in the cultural conversation around our use, misuse, and overuse of the phrase in recent years. While a lot of the commentary around how we misuse “I’m sorry” is warranted, I think some of the criticism misses the mark. 

As a highly sensitive introvert, I hold the phrase “I’m sorry” in high esteem.

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The Cultural Apology for ‘I’m Sorry’

It is very in vogue to ditch the phrase “I’m sorry,” or at least lessen our overuse of it, and this is not without merit. The tendency to over-apologize is particularly problematic when it is paired with insincerity or even malintent, as a manipulative or passive-aggressive catch-all. 

At the same time, much has been said about an association between “chronic apologies” and perceived weakness.

In a Forbes article entitled “How Women Can Stop Apologizing and Take Their Power Back,” neuroscientist and author Tara Swart was quoted saying, “…Compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.”

In researching the cultural fascination with saying “I’m sorry,” a focus on gender popped up again and again. While some theorize that women use the phrase more than men due to stereotypes, like women’s insecurities and men’s fragile egos, one widely cited study debunks this idea while also conceding that women do tend to apologize more than men. 

Researchers Karina Schumann and Michael Ross compared how men and women perceive offenses they commit — and how often they apologized for those offenses. They found that both men and women apologized for their offensive behavior at the same rates, but women apologize more because they self-report more offenses than men. In other words, women feel they have more to apologize for than men. The study concluded that men have a “higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior” than women.

While their emphasis on “higher” and “lower” thresholds for being offensive rubs me the wrong way, I don’t disagree with it. I’m all for analyzing how we use and misuse “I’m sorry,” especially as highly sensitive introverts

But of course, we don’t just employ the phrase to communicate remorse for our committed offenses. We use it in all sorts of ways, which often have nothing to do with our own wrongdoing. Some see this multifaceted use of “I’m sorry” as equally part of the over-apologizing problem. I don’t see it that way. 

When I think about how I use “I’m sorry” in the context of apologizing for offenses as a sensitive person, I probably do perceive more offenses than others. I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think I need to “toughen up” and turn a blind eye to those things. As a deeply empathetic person, I have a right to express how I feel about those offenses, as well as the ones I had nothing to do with. In either case, I am sorry they happened. I am simply expressing what are often deep, complex emotions in a succinct way. 

To suggest that saying “I’m sorry” implies weakness — all because I am more sensitive to the ways I might have committed an offense, or that I am insecure because I employ it when I am not to blame — simply does not represent my experience. If others perceive this as weakness, they likely perceive sensitivity as weakness, too.

I’m sorry, I just don’t have time for that. 

The Case for Using ‘I’m Sorry’ as a Highly Sensitive Introvert

As my kids make painfully evident, I am nowhere close to saying “I’m sorry” only when I truly value its contribution to what I want to express. There is certainly room for us, especially women, especially people-pleasing women, to evaluate our use of the phrase and realize when we use it poorly. If we can work on utilizing better phrases when we don’t really want to say that we are sorry, we can let our “sorry”s carry the weight they truly warrant — the depth we attach to them and various types of sensitive, empathetic people

This depth doesn’t just apply to the big stuff. As highly sensitive introverts, our “I’m sorry”s are very often genuine, even over little things. I am sorry I bumped into you or that my turn in the checkout line took a little longer. I am sorry that you’ve had a bad day or aren’t feeling well. Maybe less sensitive people think it’s trite, but for us, it is most often genuine. I don’t think we should throw that away just because others don’t see it. 

Admittedly, I also employ “I’m sorry” when I need a quick representation of my empathy and understanding. Again, I don’t see this as weakness or insincerity. Sensitive introverts feel and process things so deeply that their words don’t always come quickly. So for us, “I’m sorry” can be a go-to phrase to express all that is going through our finely-tuned nervous systems, regardless of the size of the offense or whether we had anything to do with it. Using “I’m sorry” as a social salve doesn’t sit well with some, but for highly sensitive introverts, it’s a useful tool. 

Considering nearly a third of the population is highly sensitive, perhaps most others don’t feel the same way. Perhaps many scoff at utilizing “I’m sorry” the way I do. Maybe they see it as a misplaced responsibility to act as a “social cushion.” I understand that. But I don’t mind offering that social balm. It bubbles up naturally for me. Offering a simple “I’m sorry” often acts as an empathy quick-release valve. It is a genuine overflow of my true self. Isn’t that the definition of self-confidence? 

Ultimately, it comes down to our true intent for using the phrase. We sensitive folks can use it wisely and often, while also recognizing when we use it ineffectively or insincerely. We may have to accept that others may question our authenticity, but if it is genuine and helpful to us to express it, and it is kind to the receivers, saying “I’m sorry” can be an empowering experience. Here’s how.

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3 Empowering Ways for Sensitive Introverts to Use ‘I’m Sorry’

1. When you are taking ownership of your actions

Even with all the cultural pushback on the phrase, one thing everyone agrees on is that saying “I’m sorry” as a sincere apology for wrongdoing is appropriate. It’s accurately hailed as a sign of strength to be able to own up to our transgressions. No doubt, those who say “I’m sorry” the least in our society could stand to practice using it in this way more often. 

2. When a little social cushioning is useful

One of my pet peeves is when I say “I’m sorry” and get the response, “Don’t be sorry, you didn’t do it!” 

As Kristin Wong wrote for The New York Times, it’s not that I’m taking responsibility for the situation. I’m just sorry about it. I am expressing a feeling. This is probably where sensitive introverts are most often accused of over-apologizing, but that’s not an accurate account of our use of the phrase in these moments. 

For highly sensitive introverts who feel everything deeply, but often struggle to find the right words in the moment, having a go-to phrase is useful. This doesn’t make it trite; it makes it smart. I think more extroverted, less sensitive folks may struggle to relate to this. “I’m sorry” is a helpful phrase I can lean on to effectively move through those little interactions throughout the day. Even in these brief exchanges, I can still mean it with all my heart. Again, our underlying sense of self should guide our use of “I’m sorry.”

3. When words fail to adequately portray your empathy

No matter who you are, there are moments when words fail. For sensitive introverts, these moments may be more frequent, because our deep processing and abundant internal work can make it difficult to communicate our truth in real time. 

When there is no “right” response, when the “right” words don’t exist, when our minds go blank and our empathy runs high, I think “I’m sorry” is appropriate. It’s not perfect, but in times like that, nothing is. Sometimes, it’s the truest thing we can say.

As a highly sensitive, introverted parent, I implement these uses of “I’m sorry” rather naturally in my relationship with my kids. I tell them “I’m sorry” when I regret how I interacted with them, when they’ve just had a bad day, or when there is nothing else I can do or say that will fix their situation. I’m working on using it freely when it’s true for me and choosing other ways to express myself when I find myself using it insincerely. Hopefully, my kids will continue to observe my process and grow up to use such a useful, powerful phrase in a healthy way.

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