Who’s Sorry Now?

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Who’s Sorry Now?


 I could swear my grocery-laden supermarket bags are heavier than the weights my trainer used to recommend. Walking home the other day, my right arm started hurting. As I stopped near a corner and lowered the bags onto the footpath, there was a rattle of wheels and a flash of silver. 

Looking up, I caught a glimpse of tattooed calf muscles topped with a flowing beard and man bun. Decades of motherhood have left me with good reflexes. A nanosecond before his scooter was due to collide with my buttocks, I flung myself on the nature strip.

“Sorry!” I called after him. He gave his scooter an extra push and hurtled down the street without a backward glance.

Gathering up my shopping, I felt a surge of anger – not so much with the man boy, or the tomatoes oozing on to the pavement, but with my own reaction. Why on Earth had I apologised to him?

Thinking back, I’d already said sorry three times that morning  – to the woman who’d barged in front of me for takeaway coffee, at the post office counter when handing back a wrongly addressed parcel, and to a disembodied voice in Mumbai on the other end of the landline.  Multiplied over a lifetime, I was more than a billion times sorry.

While I’m all for people expressing remorse when they’re at fault, I’d become a compulsive apologiser. The habit stemmed from childhood, when I was trained to beg forgiveness for staining my apron while my brother could run wild. Good mannered girls always said sorry, as if we were taking up too much space on the planet. We were told people would like us, and respect us more if apologized our way through life. It was a lie.

In hospital after a mastectomy a while back, I was desperate for pain relief and pressed the buzzer. When the nurse finally appeared, I apologized for disturbing her. Instead of plumping my pillows for being a well-mannered patient, she rolled her eyes.

Every time I said sorry something crumpled inside. I’d reached the point where I’d rather swallow a cup of cold coffee than approach a barista with the regulation “I’m very sorry, but ….”

Dusting down my skirt as the scooter disappeared into the distance, I decided change was overdue. Next morning, when the greengrocer unleashed an avalanche of lemons at my feet, I helped pick them up, but drew a breath and kept the “s” word to myself. The unfamiliar shift in dynamics gave him a chance to thank me.

Side view of a lemon.

When an acquaintance phoned to cancel lunch, I allowed her time to make excuses instead of gushing in with “Oh I’m so sorry!”

As I trained myself to stop apologising, I stood taller and felt stronger. I gave up saying “It’s only me” on the phone. At the cinema, when the man in the next seat claimed possession of the armrest, I refrained from withdrawing my elbow.

It’s not too late to unravel a lifetime’s conditioning. And I’m not sorry.

Showing 11 comments
  • Chloe Martin

    I love the book Cleo that you wrote! At school, I’m doing a project about it!

    • Helen Brown

      Thanks, Chloe. That’s great you’re doing a project about Cleo. Let me know if you have any questions.

  • Eliz

    I know what you mean about being sorry all the time – I have been a serial apologiser but I am trying now to reserve it for appropriate ‘fessing up’ situations, such as upfront “I have to apologise that I have not completed that report yet”. Getting in early seems to change the dynamic to one of strength, while acknowledging that the job still needs to be done. Interestingly, when done that way, colleagues (even very senior) tend to apologise for something too!

    I agree that in our generation, we have been taught to over apologise and I am watching that my daughter doesn’t start heading that way. However, we have a conundrum: we mostly seem to live in a non-apologising world now such that even when someone, for example in a service role, has clearly messed something up, they never apologise even though they have demonstrably caused inconvenience and are at fault. A frequent response implies that in their having to redress the situation, you have inconvenienced them (and hence the temptation to apologise again when you’re not in the wrong).

    How do we reach a happy medium? Strength should mean that you shouldn’t be inappropriately apologising but that you do take appropriate responsibility and can acknowledge when you’re in the wrong.

    • Helen Brown

      Hear hear! It’s all about holding our ground….gently.

  • Helen Brown

    Hear hear! It’s all about holding our ground…gently.

  • Jennie Mack

    I can actually get through the day now without apologising – saying’ sorry’ when it is not my fault.

    • Helen Brown

      Fantastic, Jennie! Keep up the good work. Stay strong.

  • Jan Colhoun

    It’s certainly a woman thing to apologize
    Not sure if gen y women would bother
    Keep this up I’m trying to as well

    • Helen Brown

      Good on you, Jan.

  • Julie Wenger

    I really enjoy your books. Keep up the good work! I am a cat lover who has visited both Australia and New Zealand. I wept over Sam. Your Siamese is so typical. I was owned by one. I am happy that he found a good home- not many people could put up with his problems- hope that he has settled down…….Julie in Florida

    • Helen Brown

      Hi Julie,
      Apologies for not replying sooner. Many thanks for your kind words, and your tears for Sam.
      Jonah is maturing into a more manageable character, though he still rules the roost. We love him to bits.
      I hope Florida is treating you well.
      Warmest wishes,

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