Why “Thank You” Trumps “I’m Sorry”

Recently, I provided coaching to a couple dealing with a debilitating disease. As a result of the chronic disorder, both husband and wife each had their own significant burden to carry. A superficial look however, might lead one to believe that the spouse affected by the disease had a heavier load to lift than the other. That would not be an accurate assessment though.

This reminds me of an elderly couple who once appeared at an orthopaedic surgeon’s office. She had fallen and severely wounded her ankle and foot. The couple waited to see the physician in the waiting room, sitting next to each other. When the nurse came to call the wife to come into the exam room, the husband helped her up, and carefully escorted her into the doctor’s office.

“What brings you in today Mrs. Smith?” the doctor asked. Before Mrs. Smith could answer, Mr. Smith replied, “Doctor, my wife’s foot hurts us.” Mrs. Smith didn’t apologize. She didn’t say, “Joe, I’m sorry you have to help me get around, drive me to the doctor’s office, sit with me and help me up.” No, she smiled and said “Thank you, Joe.”

The couple I was coaching didn’t quite operate this way. Oh, the husband did an enormous amount of heavy lifting, literally. He was constantly by his wife’s side – gladly and with a heart filled with love and dedication to her wellbeing. And while the wife was of course grateful, all she ever uttered was “I’m sorry.”

thanksAs we discussed their situation, the husband said: “Mary, why don’t you say ‘Thank you’ instead of ‘I’m sorry’?” Before she could reply, sensing he was onto something very important and intuitively knowing Mary would take this as a criticism and probably say ‘I’m sorry’, I asked the husband what he meant. He said: “I mean that don’t you think, Michael, that Mary would feel better filling herself with gratitude, seeing the positive in her life, saying,’Thank you’ instead of thinking she has something to be sorry for, as if this disease is really her fault, and always apologizing for having it?”

Mary blames herself for her illness. And many people blame themselves for any imperfections they focus on. This keeps people from seeing and fully enjoying the good that is in their lives – from caregivers, healers, loving family to the simplest things in life like having a bed to sleep in and nutritional food to eat.

Ahhh, the “sorry syndrome” is at work. You see, frequently saying “I’m sorry” and over-apologizing, often out of fear that another will be angry with you for something, only feeds negative self-esteem and erodes self-compassion. It eats away at self-confidence, self-respect and feeds a sense of personal weakness. It becomes a vicious cycle, with others seeing you in a negative manner and thus losing respect for you.

Mary’s mindset needed reprogramming. It’s difficult to see the good in others if you only see the bad in yourself — and feel the need to apologize for it. Her mindset was filled with how much of a burden she was, how unattractive she’d become, how she’d never be cured and was sure she’d never be out of her wheelchair. Her thoughts were solely focused on how much of a drag she was on her family and friends, and was certain that others felt resentment for her. Her words, her thoughts, took root and nothing but nothing could help her see that by watering those negative and harmful seeds she was creating her own misery and kept herself from seeing all of the good in her life. Her mindset was dragging her down and she believed that was normal. But it wasn’t.

Her husband was onto something. She needed to reprogram her mindset, clear out the “viruses” in her mind, see the good in her life regardless of a completely debilitating disease and what the “experts” have told her about the possibility of recovery, and instead of thinking she saw resentment which only served to make her feel worse, see what was really there — love, joy of helping her, and a sense that, “Doctor, my wife’s foot hurts us.”

The benefits of a “Thank you” mindset

How would a “Thank you” mindset serve us better than an “I’m sorry” mindset? How would the view that nothing ever really happens TO you, but FOR you, and thus prompt you to see the good in everything, increase your wellness and holistic health?

gratitudeResearch from around the world, including in my own backyard at the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine – where I served as an adjunct faculty member years ago – and at the University of California Davis – where I’ve lectured – has found the absolute value of filling up on gratitude, having a “thank you” mindset. Not only recent research, but thousands of year of collective wisdom, have taught us the value of a mindset of gratitude.

Want to lower your blood pressure, boost your immune system, promote better sleep, develop a healthier heart, reduce inflammation, improve your mood and reduce depression and a feeling of fatigue? Want to feel more connected with yourself and others, lower stress, engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part of your nervous system), to release more of the oxytocin “feel good” hormone and decrease your cortisol levels?

You see, developing a “thank you” or grateful mindset increases the closeness of your relationships and paves the way to new ones. Research demonstrates the more grateful one is, the more s/he is likely to take care of themselves, feel fewer aches and pains, and to whatever extent they can, they exercise more. Grateful people are happier, more sensitive to others, react less angrily, and have better self-esteem.

So what’s Mary to do? Mary learned that by saying “thank you” she felt closer to her husband, he felt more appreciated, their spirituality grew, and she began to benefit from a reprogrammed gratitude mindset. No, it did not cure her lifelong illness, it did not bring an end to her paralysis, but it no longer left her mind paralyzed, which it was only in the way she was thinking.

What are we all to learn from this?

Instead of immediately apologizing, take a breath to help you see the good someone has done for you. Express gratitude as a first response when you see the help, the assistance another has offered. Keep in mind that when you say “thank you” you not only retrain your own thinking and fill yourself up with a healthier physical and psychological reaction, but you also lift the other person as well. Saying, “I’m sorry” too frequently only trivializes it and soon others don’t take your “sorry” to mean much.

If you are really not at fault, as in the case of a debilitating disease, what in the world are you apologizing for? You don’t have to apologize for something that isn’t your fault. We all park over the line, accidentally disconnect our phones in the middle of a call, forget to bring home something on the shopping list our spouse or partner requested, and have illnesses we have little or not control over. Embrace the perfect imperfection in your humanity. There’s a Hansa proverb that says, “Give thanks for a little and you’ll find a lot.”