The Power of Our Words

I feel like I say the words, “I’m sorry” about a thousand times a day.

And not for things that I need to be legitimately sorry for, either. It’s little things, like bumping into the person standing next to me when the bus lurches to a stop, or starting to speak at the same time as the person I’m on the phone with. I find myself apologizing constantly for ridiculous reasons every day, and I think it’s finally starting to take a toll. For one thing, it puts me in this constant mindset that I have created a problem. Every time I say, “I’m sorry,” it’s like I’m taking the blame for whatever little awkward blunder just happened, and asking the other person to please excuse me for it. And if I am always apologizing and taking this posture of deference, eventually other people will start to buy into it. The constant, compulsive apologizer usually gives the impression of being a weak, insecure person. I don’t mean to, but it’s like I’m writing the words “walk all over me” across my forehead.

Last year, my husband and I spent a year living in China, and we tried to pick up as much of the Chinese language as we could. One of the first beginner phrases I learned was duì bu qǐ (pronounced “DOY boo chi), which is the Mandarin equivalent of “I’m sorry.” I said it over and over again until I felt confident with my pronunciation, and the first time I accidentally bumped into someone in a crowded street, I made use of it. The person turned around and looked at me like I was crazy, and I thought maybe I had mispronounced it somehow. However, every time I used duì bu qǐ after that, I got the same reaction. I finally found out that I was pronouncing the phrase just fine, but there was a cultural discrepancy that I wasn’t aware of. Chinese people have a lot more pride than I do, apparently, and many of them feel a certain amount of shame when they have to use duì bu qǐ and admit that they’ve made a terrible mistake. They often accompany it with bowing their heads in a servile, submissive manner. So it’s really not a phrase that anyone wants to use a whole lot–or overuse, in my case. It’s a phrase that’s reserved for situations when someone has legitimately made a grave error, and they’re asking for someone’s forgiveness. Bumping into someone in the cafeteria at lunchtime and begging for their forgiveness is a little dramatic, though, right? And it certainly warranted those strange looks I kept getting. I only wish flagrant apologizing weren’t so common in the United States.

eleanor quote 1

I’ve seen this Eleanor Roosevelt quote crop up on Facebook and Pinterest quite a bit. It’s a nice sentiment, but I don’t think I ever really let it sink in until recently.

Right now I’m working in retail, and there’s a manager at my store who I always dread working with. It’s like she’s always on the alert for mistakes–always waiting for people to mess up so that she can correct them. A few weeks ago, she walked past me as I was folding some clothes on a display table. “Finally, she’s going to catch me doing something right!” I thought. She turned to me. “Rachel, we’ve got customers waiting at the cash register. Can you go ring them up, please?” She pronounced the word “please” while rolling her eyes like she actually meant to say “stupid.” I turned and saw some customers waiting, and dropped the clothes I had in my hand. “Oh! I’m sorry!” I said, running over to the cash wrap. I started feeling really bad about myself like I always do after she calls me out. I felt dumb for not seeing the customers waiting there, embarrassed for getting caught making a mistake, and I started mentally beating myself up about it.

But all of the sudden, I remembered that Eleanor Roosevelt quote. For whatever reason, I had an epiphany standing behind the cash register. I don’t have to feel bad about what happened. I can choose to not feel inferior right now. And somehow, all of those bad feelings just vanished.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this has changed everything for me.

For the past couple of weeks, every time I work with that manager, I make an active choice to not feel inferior after she criticizes me or points out my mistakes. And let me just reiterate that this manager is not giving me constructive criticism or deserved reprimands, because I would definitely not want to ignore that. She is such a micro-manager of everyone at work, that my co-workers always just shrug and say, “Don’t worry about it…that’s just how she is.” And now I’ve finally joined the ranks of those people who are able to just casually shrug off her words and not let them bother me.

Do you know what I’ve noticed? Most of the time, when she’s at her most critical, it’s because she’s having a bad day. She feels stressed out or she’s feeling pressure from the corporate management, and then she gets extra grumpy with everyone else. All this time I was feeling bad about my “mistakes” and apologizing for everything, and her criticism really didn’t have anything to do with me at all.

When I went searching Google for that Eleanor Roosevelt quote, I found this other one, among a whole host of inspirational words that she’s spoken:

eleanor quote 2

I think now that I’ve started to tackle feeling inferior and chronic apologizing, I should take on fear next. Because I am afraid of some really silly things.

And I’m not talking about things like being afraid of spiders or being afraid of heights. I’m talking about being afraid of asking an acquaintance out to coffee because I feel like if we got to know each other better, we could be really good friends. Or being afraid of dancing in public. Just the thought of a wedding reception or a night club makes my palms start sweating. I told you! Silly.

Which is why I’m going to face both of those fears….THIS WEEK!

Stay tuned friends! It’s about to get crazy up in here. 😉

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8 thoughts on “The Power of Our Words

  1. Tammy

    And the Kool-aid man! Good for you for taking on this new attitude! An you’re totally in the right!

  2. Good for you!!

  3. I used to be an over-sorrier too! A very similiar epiphany moment happened for me though, and I’m so glad that you experienced the same.

    Having lived in China myself, I agree that their culture is not nearly as apologetic as ours. However, (and it could be simply the language barrier and the fact that I am not fluent in Mandarin) I feel like we are better at compassion over here. And for that I’m thankful.

    • I didn’t realize you’d lived in China, Amy! That’s exciting! I think definitely, in terms of associating with people who are outside the norm–disabled people, sick people, overweight people, different sexual orientations, etc–we are WAY more accepting and compassionate. Being conspicuously different from other people in China is like the kiss of death…

  4. I’m excited to hear about your upcoming coffee date… because I know it will happen! Love that you are tackling these fears!

  5. Haha, thanks for the support, Rach! 😀

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