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Patel: Don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ when you feel pity for someone

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Patel: Don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ when you feel pity for someone

Meera Patel, Columnist

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Apologies are necessary when you have done something wrong. If you have messed up, it is good to admit it. Admitting you have made a mistake is a form of taking responsibility for your actions.

But if you are comforting your friend, do not apologize if you’re not the cause of their feelings.

“I’m sorry” gives no comfort unless you are the cause of the confusion or sadness. If you are feeling pity for a friend because they are going through a rough time, by all means, figure out a way to help. But if you tell them you’re sorry for the way they are feeling, that brings your emotions into the picture when really we’re talking about their emotions.

Even if you leave the “I’m” part unsaid, there is an unsaid first person subject in the phrase. The “I” in “I’m sorry” puts emphasis on the person who is making the statement, not the person to whom you are apologizing. The emphasis only needs to be on the person making the apology if they really have done something wrong; if they haven’t done anything wrong, then they are just saying how they feel.

I’m not saying it’s always bad to say how you’re feeling. I am saying that if you are trying to comfort a friend about a situation and you feel bad for them, chances are they’re already feeling pretty bad for themselves and you saying that you feel bad for them can add an unnecessary layer of guilt and emotion.

You’re trying to help your friends feel better about their situation. You don’t want to minimize their experience by not acknowledging that they are going through a tough situation, but you also don’t want to make them feel like the situation is worse than it actually is. There’s a fine line between saying the wrong and right words.

Really think about how they are feeling. Would you want someone to say “I’m sorry” and make it clear that they feel pity for you? Does the person you are trying to comfort want to be pitied?

Sometimes people make it clear that they are going through a rough patch and that they want your sympathy. If you think they need someone to acknowledge further that their situation is a bad one, then by all means, show them that you feel pity for them and say “I’m sorry.”

Other times, people are really having a hard time and realize it. Indecisiveness is a terrible feeling; if your friend is talking about a moral dilemma that they’re clearly very confused about, saying “I’m sorry”  adds another layer of feelings and guilt that makes the indecisiveness worse, and makes them feel bad for telling you what’s going on because now you, the adviser, are feeling sorry for them.

People in need sometimes need to be reminded that they are capable of handling their own situations. “I’m sorry” subliminally makes it seem like you are in a place to be apologizing for something that you haven’t done and taking responsibility that isn’t yours to take on. Taking responsibility can make it seem like you are in a position of power over that person. If they are coming to you with a problem and you treat them as if you are superior to them by saying you’re sorry, it isn’t going to make them feel better and they are probably not going to want to approach you with problems in the future.

The point I’m trying to make is that we really need to think about the person who is coming to us for help and not about ourselves in these situations. If someone is coming to you for help, really think about where they are coming from, especially if they are in a delicate situation. Make them the focus of the conversation. Think about how they are feeling; don’t talk about how you feel unless the situation directly relates to you and you explaining how you feel will somehow make them feel better. Take responsibility when you’ve made a mistake, but figure out a different way to help a friend if you feel pity for them.

Meera Patel is a McCormick junior. She can be reached at meera@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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