Last week, I was cleaning some equipment that I had rented for my recent rafting trip. The equipment details are not important but let it be said that when in the desert you cannot simply “do your business” wherever you like… you must pack it out, which is where the equipment comes in. After unloading too-much-gear, I discovered that I was missing something. A small, 1 x 2” piece of clear plastic had been inadvertently left out of my rental, and I really needed this piece. Like REALLY. A phone call confirmed that the rental department found the piece I needed, and I reloaded everything and drove over there. Now the employees were polite and all, and handed me the piece with a smile. But as I walked out of the shop I realized that neither of them had offered an apology. Not while I was on the phone, not when they handed me the piece of plastic that stood in the way of me getting my security deposit back, not at all.
It bothered me.
It really bothered me.
And then, it made me really, really angry.
In the midst of my fuming and cleaning, muttering to myself about entitled immature college kids, I did start to wonder why on earth I was so mad. I mean really, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It was an innocent oversight and surely not even their fault. But for some reason, those seven letters and some grammatically appropriate punctuation felt like a lifeline to sanity that I was denied. I was hot, I was tired, I was literally and figuratively having a crappy day.
What did I think that apology would do? Surely for becoming so ticked off about not getting it, there must be some type of magical powers involved. As I reflected on this throughout the evening I shared the admittedly ridiculous story with friends. “That’s totally insane!” they said, “those employees should have been groveling at your feet with apologies!” And everyone agreed that my afternoon was unpleasant and they were so glad that they weren’t in my shoes.
I felt SOOOOOOO much better!
I felt like they understood me! Like they felt my frustration, sweat, and (almost) tears. Like I wasn’t overreacting or being a crybaby, and in fact had handled myself with some semblance of grace. I felt validated.
Ohhhh. That’s the thing.
Why did those seven letters carry so much weight for me? Because they offered me validation! Understanding and empathy for how I was feeling and what I was experiencing. They would’ve let me know that even though it wasn’t their fault, those employees felt badly about what I was going through. It seems so simple to say “I’m sorry”. And in fact, we probably throw those words around too often. “I’m sorry I borrowed your headphones without asking”; “I’m sorry my paperwork’s late again”; “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off when you were talking ”. But how often in addition to admittance of wrongdoing does “I’m sorry” mean more? Two words that don’t just say “yeah, I shouldn’t have done that”, but also “I know I made things harder for you, and I wish I could undo it”, and even “I feel badly that you are feeling badly”. Seven little letters and some grammatically appropriate punctuation can say so, so much.
Sarah Hazelton, LCSW