“I’m Sorry” On Repeat: Apologizing for our Chronic Illness and Pain

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Since chronic pain set in, I’m constantly apologizing for my limitations. Constantly.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry the kitchen looks like a bomb exploded and I didn’t clean it up.”

“I’m sorry I can’t go out tonight.”

“I’m sorry I’m not the person I used to be.”

“I’m sorry I can’t be there for you when you need me.”

“I’m sorry” plays on repeat, as over and over again I feel guilty for saying no to chores, going out, and all the other things I used to do and the ways I used to be when I was healthy.

And I’m realizing that this simple act of saying “I’m sorry” is sending significant messages to those around me about how I view my chronic pain, and how society by extension views those who are beset with physical limitations.

It is our fault we are ill, and so we must apologize profusely for this burden we place on those around us. 

By definition, “I’m sorry” implies fault and culpability. It implies that we have committed something morally wrong, and so we must then apologize, repenting and asking forgiveness for a sinful act. “I’m sorry” is an extension of the guilt we feel for being sick. We are in essence saying: It’s my fault I’m sick. It’s my fault I’m a burden to you. It’s my fault I’m chronically ill, in pain, and physically limited. Please forgive me for being such a horrible human being. 

But, we are not sick of our own doing. The limitations we apologize for are not morally wrong or sinful. We are sending wrong messages to the world when we apologize as an act of contrition.

What are you really meaning or implying when you say, “I’m sorry”?

I ask this because there is another meaning to “I’m sorry” that may be appropriate in the context of chronic pain and limitation. Sometimes “I’m sorry” is an expression of condolence. We say “I’m sorry” when someone’s family member dies, when tragedy occurs, and in the face of loss. People tell us they are sorry we are sick, and we never believe this to mean they are taking responsibility for our sickness. They are simply expressing that our pain is hard and they wish they could do something about it. “I’m sorry” express their sadness that we live in such a hard and fallen world.

Perhaps we can use “I’m sorry” in this way. Sometimes an “I’m sorry” to those around us can be an acknowledgement that our pain and the losses we carry also affect our family and friends. “I’m sorry” recognizes that those around us have also experienced loss as a result of our pain.

If we can learn how to say “I’m sorry” without implying we are guilty or at fault, I think it can become a good thing.

I’m thinking through how it might sound to apologize not for our pain, our body, or our limitations, but for how it affects those around us. We are sorry, not for our sickness, but for the losses and adjustments those around us also have to face in the midst of a situation that is no one’s fault.

“I’m sorry you have to take over the chores I can’t do. I know that it is a lot of extra work.”

“I’m in too much pain to go out tonight. I’m sorry this affects you too.”

“I’m sorry you have had to adjust to this new me.”

“I truly wish I could be there for you. I’m sorry you have to deal with this on your own.”

The difference is subtle, but I believe it is significant. Somehow we have to move past this need to take the blame for being sick. Somehow we need to stop suggesting to those around us that we are somehow, even in small ways, at fault for the things we can and can’t do.

Perhaps this begins with the subtle ways we talk about our pain and illness.

Do you find yourself apologizing for your pain or illness? Have you seen this as a good or a bad thing?

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  1. Always, always, always. Sorry comes out of my mouth several times in a day. I don’t tend to make new years resolutions however I did say to myself I am going to reduce the number of times I say sorry in 2015. I am particularly going to stop saying sorry for existing! This is what I apologise for the most. Sorry I am going slow. Sorry I am in your way. I even say sorry when someone gets in my way. I think using sorry has become a bit of a bad habit, and it is one I am determined to kick in 2015.

    1. That’s great you are wanting to focus on that for this year. I’d be really curious to know how that affects you – how it changes the way you relate to others, how it makes you feel about yourself, and if others change the way they respond to you. I may take the same goal on and see what happens 🙂

    2. i get so tired of saying i’m sorry that i stay home 95% of the time and when i do go out i come home so frustrated and tired from trying to move along and then i look around at what i cannot accomplish around the house it all takes so long to do minor things–my thoughts are they shoot horses don’t they….

      1. Hi Diane, I’m truly sorry – I feel so much pain and hurt in your words. Life with pain can be a horrible struggle. In response to your last words, I want you to know that I truly believe you have just as much worth and value as those in health. What we are able to do or accomplish does not define us, make us more important, or give us more value. That is simply a lie many of us are fed over and over by the attitudes of those around us. Send an email if you need to talk lifeinslowmotionblog@gmail.com

    3. NEVER apologize for being in pain, I never do. I’m sick of people acting like this is my fault and then I’m a drug addict for taking pain pills. people can all go stuff it because I deal with my pain as best I can I get up every day and go to work even though I feel like my knees are on fire and my neck gives me constant headaches. to hell with the people who want me to apologize they can apologize to me! please don’t apologize and try to keep your spirits up

  2. This surely resonates with me. I have found that I have learned to stop saying it so much to my family, because I don’t need to explain myself…they know why I can’t clean up the dishes in the kitchen. I am always sure to thank them too when they help out. As for others who may not know about my limitations, I hate having to explain myself and why I can’t do something. And yes, “I’m sorry” inevitably comes out. But I am usually pretty quick to follow it with, “I wish that I could do that, and I surely would if I could. But I have limitations.” After more than 10 years of having to apologize for limitations, I have found that my friends and family who are still around and supporting me don’t need to hear me say “I’m sorry” anymore. They know I’m sorry and they know that I would if I could. And they still love me anyway. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Spoons, Sailing, CRPS and Penguins and commented:
    This brilliant piece of writing by Life in Slow Motion explains perfectly the phenomenon of feeling the need to apologise all the time for our chronic pain and illness. This is something I have noticed I do a lot. I don’t go around saying “I am sorry I am sick” or “I am sorry I am in pain” it is more like “I’m sorry I am in your way”, “I’m sorry I can’t move any faster”, or “I’m sorry I take up so much space in my wheelchair” and many others of a similar nature, including ones similar to what Life in Slow Motion writes about.

    Sorry comes out of my mouth several times a day, many times unnecessarily, and it is only afterwards I think “why am I apologising for being me!”. I am no less worthy of the space I am occupying than the next person, and I am certainly no less worthy of the air I breathe. I may be disabled, I may walk on crutches and use a wheelchair, and I may do things differently since becoming disabled, however I still have value. It is sad that everything has such a value applied, to the point you devalue yourself based on your own perception of what you think society expects is “the norm”.

    Our perception of ourselves, and our value in comparison to others, is instilled from an early age, and not enough focus is put on the fact that difference (be it colour, religion, disability or any other differences) should also be valued. There should be no reason whatsoever to apologise for your own existence. So with this said I intend to reduce the number of times I say sorry in 2015, in particular I am going to stop saying sorry for existing! No more sorrys for going slow, or being in the way, or taking up space – saying sorry in these situations has become a bit of a bad habit, and it is one I am determined to kick in 2015!

  4. Wow! Very powerful. Thank you. I don’t say that “I am sorry” that often because I have the habit of overdoing it and just about killing myself but when I do, it is laced with guilt that I should not have to own. It makes everything worse. So, I am going to think about your post and find new ways to address the need to acknowledge how my disease impacts everyone else’s life without the need to feel guilty for it

  5. Who among us can really meet all the expectations, satisfy all the demands, say “yes” to all the requests that come to us? We only THINK that we can . . . until the camel’s back gives out and we melt down all over the unlucky last requester. You, on the other hand, have become wise because of your pain, and among the hard lessons which you have shared with us today is this: sometimes you have to say “no!”
    Thank you for this post.

    1. I laughed at the picture of how “we melt down all over the unlucky last requester.” So true. And yes, learning how to say no is so important, for people in general, but especially for those who struggle with health. I think we fall into thinking it is a sin or morally wrong to do so, but it really is not. I have to remember this constantly.

  6. I love that you are comparing the dual meanings of “I’m sorry.” It really is intuitive to say I’m sorry for all of it, but as you said, it isn’t something to be guilty about. The second use of “I’m Sorry” would imply compassion for ourselves and what we are facing. That’s harder to do. I love this perspective you have taken. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. Oh gosh. All. The. Time.

    So I started doing little microblogs on Facebook with a daily “I am thankful for…” post. I don’t care if anyone even reads it, it’s for me to remind myself that this is just my life now, and I shouldn’t apologize for living.

    1. That’s a great idea to write out thankful posts. I haven’t been brave enough to share all of this on facebook or beyond my anonymous pages.

      In the past days since writing this post, I’m realizing this is even more of an issue than I thought. I knew I felt like I needed to apologize all the time, but now I am noticing that I do this multiple times a day. Crazyness. Still working on it.

  8. Reblogged this on Wear, Tear, & Care and commented:
    This is such a huge issue for me. I feel like I’m constantly apologizing and that I’m eventually going to tear apart my marriage. I hate upsetting my husband, even if I know it’s not my fault. This post hits home.

  9. This is something I struggle with as well, everyday though not always saying it out loud. And at least for me it’s just as crushing to my self image and psyche whether it’s out loud or bouncing around the thoughts spinning in my head as I separate myself the rest of the world.

    Some days are better than others. And some days we can fake it and make it.
    Good Luck and I look forward to reading more of your blog!

      1. Thank you for writing it! I thought I had gotten so much better about not apologizing for what my body cannot do anymore, but after reading this, I’ve come to realize how much further I have to go. I haven’t stopped thinking about it, and I’m sure it has had the same impact on others as well.

        1. It’s really interesting how this post has affected me. Each comment that is left causes me to reflect further, and I also have realized that I have a great deal further to go in regards to this. My reflection on it did lead to several good conversations with friends and sharing the spoon theory with a few people. I’m trying to work on it from both ends – (1) explaining better so people understand and I don’t feel pressured to apologize (2) working to not pressure myself and not respond to the pressure of others. It is a work in progress!

          1. Your post is like the gift that keeps on giving! 😉
            It continues to teach others and it is still teaching you. God is leading you, girl. Keep shining!

  10. WOW! Have you so hit the ‘Nail on the Head’ with this one! A ‘Chronic Sorry’ is on my lips like the ‘Chronic Pain’ in my hips. ;~)

    The duel sides of Sorry may have just changed my life, I knew thre were duel sides. (Two sides to every story and all ;~) ). There was something about seeing them in print for me, reading them slowly? I don’t know…that just made them or the understanding of them just astounding to my Soul.

    Thank You for sharing LifeinSlowMotion Great Blog.

  11. i can completely relate to this post! i feel like i’m always apologizing for my limitations, which i agree sends the wrong message – that i have something to be sorry for. i didn’t ask for this illness, and i don’t want it.

    i think you’re right on that there are subtle differences in how we apologize, and we should be aware of those differences. after all, how we respond to our illness affects how others respond to it, too! great post!

    1. I LOVE how you say, “how we respond to our illness affects how other responds to it, too.” I had not thought of it in those terms, but you are so right. If we give off vibes that we think we should feel guilty, of course other people are going to grab hold of that and say things that make us feel even more guilty. Such a great insight. Thanks!

  12. I did once, but I quickly realized that it made the burden seem larger still to others — and let’s face it, only one person in the room is living in a lake of fire and it’s not them, so it’s crazy to make them feel like they’re being more burdened. It would be cool for them to feel appreciated and valued. I know it’s not easy to deal with my life, and they have a choice about it; I’d like my loved ones to want to come back and keep trying.

    I mulled it over and changed my mindframe to “please” and “thank you” messages. For instance… feeling the surge of regret that I have to stand up a friend, I limit myself to one single “sorry” for changing things (“I’m sorry I can’t make it”), and then I ask for a Plan B — “Would you be able to come over, please? I’d love to see you, I just can’t handle the train” or, maybe, “Can we try again tomorrow?” Then, whatever happens, they feel wanted. This makes it easy to go to the “thank you”, in this case, “I appreciate your being flexible!” And that makes them feel valued. We both wind up feeling ok about things, as a rule.

    The please/thank you approach creates a way forward, even if we don’t have a Plan B we can go to right then. The possibility of future Plan Bs is left very much open. I found that apologizing is uncomfortable all around and makes it harder for others to keep trying. Being appreciated makes them feel welcomed back. I hope that makes sense.

    The please/thank you approach also reduces the mental space and energy that my limitations impose, and make more room for appreciation and flexibility — which is what’s really needed anyway.

    Helps me focus on the positive, even if I have to make it up 🙂

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