I squeezed myself in around other people’s priorities and problems, all the while saying: Take up all the room you want. I will make myself fit.
The first thing a nice girl learns to do is say she’s sorry.
I’m in the third grade at a Catholic school in a navy skirt that we’re not allowed to do cartwheels in and I can’t figure out how we’re supposed to sit at lunch. There’s a system involving taking a popsicle stick that’s more intricate than the seating arrangements for a wedding and no one pauses to tell me, until one day, months into the semester, they realize I’ve been sitting in the wrong place the entire time. I never asked; I didn’t want to be told I should’ve known better.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell my teacher, earnest in my attempt to apologize away the sin of not knowing.
I’m barely out of high school and someone I thought was my friend, someone a few years older than me, locks me in the car. He leans over from the driver’s side; I lean hard against the passenger-side door, as if the force of my will and body weight could pop it open. He says he’s sorry as his hands fumble over me, as he grabs me when I’ve made it clear I don’t want to be touched; I don’t want this. For the first and only time in my memory, I scream, shrill and urgent and—worst of all—impolite. He unlocks the door.
“I’m sorry for screaming,” I say, finally free, backing away from the car. My hands shake even now when I type it: I said I was sorry for screaming.
I’m walking with a friend a few weeks ago and she asks, “What are you even sorry for?” I don’t know. For venting, I think? For talking her ear off. For having not done it all right; for sometimes not being all right. She tells me I add value to the world, that I don’t have to apologize for taking up space in it. A half laugh, half sob catches in my throat and comes out sounding like a scoff. All I know how to do is shrug off the empathy and say I’m sorry for not deserving it too. But I play it back as I walk home, thoughts of all my reflexive apologies drown out the crinkle of newly fallen leaves under my feet.
My sorries begin instinctive and automatic, as both a defense and a confession. These default sorries feel distinct from the practice of actual apologizing—which, to me, includes acknowledgement of wrong or harm, acceptance of responsibility, and a commitment to making amends. In a real apology, there’s respect and remorse, no qualifiers or “buts.” There’s intention and effort. I apologize a lot. Because there’s a lot I want to do better. I think “I’m sorry” can be part of a healer.
But it’s these particular spineless sorries—the ones where there is nothing to be sorry for; the ones where I’m sorry every time I ask for something, be it help or for a boundary to be respected; the ones that are symptoms of me squishing myself inward to take up less space—that have been the constant hum of my twenties. They swell up into the cracks left by perfectionism that say anything “lesserthan” is worthy of being sorry for. Lesser than what I’ll never know—for not being the unflappable nice girl, all poise and good manners; for not being the all-together girl, unfazed by everything and open to anything; for being the girl who never knows what she wants quite enough not to hear everyone else’s opinion; for being the girl who never was quite enough of whatever the elusive it was supposed to be.
The first thing a nice girl learns to do is say she’s sorry.
They bellow, deep and loud in my hollow chest, and drown out the times I secretly wonder if someone should apologize to me. They are shields made of shame.
And worse, in a dues-paying culture that rewards the above-and-beyonders, the nice people (instead of kind people, which are distinctly different), and the personal-responsibility clingers, saying sorry this way is considered admirable. It’s considered nice, a word and way of being that lacks teeth.
A nice person says she’s sorry for being frustrated or angry. A nice girl says sorry for saying no or throwing down a boundary that asks no permission and takes no chances. A nice person ensures everyone is comfortable, even when they shouldn’t be, even when she isn’t. I’ll never know where I learned it—if anything, I had parents eager to help a cautious, careful daughter learn to stand up for herself—but deep in my bones, it feels all I have to offer is an endless array of sorries. Excuses for the behavior of others I can’t control, flashlights beaming onto the sensation I feel when a “sorry” falls out of my mouth before my brain agrees: that I spend an awful lot of time apologizing for things that have happened to me, for things I feel, for things that aren’t mine to hold.
“I don’t think I know how not to apologize,” I joked to a therapist recently, after I’d done it twice in a row in a span of eight minutes—once in regard to a scheduling mistake she’d made. I smiled politely and picked the skin around my fingers out of the line of vision of the Zoom screen, a holdover anxious habit that means I’ll never have the kind of hands you draw attention to with rings. But we both knew it wasn’t a joke. Empty apologies, I’d internalized, are a virtue around which a life must be built.
Perhaps it could be, but what a rickety foundation it made. Like pinpricks in a balloon, every empty apology slowly deflated me. I was constantly leaking sorries out, and everyone chirped the same thing: You’reso laid back. But inside, I wasn’t peaceful at all. I raged like thunder; I swore and stormed and stopped short of any of it ever coming out of my mouth. What did stumble out were apologies: for not meeting impossible deadlines or getting an old boss’s coffee order wrong (I didn’t; she just changed her mind and expected me to read it, I’ve always wanted to point out); for not saying yes when I wanted to say no and being expected to explain the no.
I’m sorry, when somebody else picked a fight. I’m sorry, for turning down drinks I never wanted. I’m sorry, for not laughing at the jokes at my expense like the cool, nice girl is supposed to.
And one night, stumbling away from a car with a boy who’d locked me inside just moments before: I’m sorry I startled you when you tried to assault me.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Thinking of this in terms of my twenties, I wonder about need. For many people, the late teens and early twenties are a time of negotiating needs. What you need in terms of resources, like wages and safe, affordable housing and support, but also the needs that feel more abstract and shape how we feel as we move through our days, like community; safety; self-actualization; determining priorities, standards, and boundaries; and understanding what you want and who you are as an individual and a community member. It’s an ongoing process, one in which we learn more about ourselves as we age. But a lot of establishing the wants and needs of our lives and selves is thought to manifest in young adulthood.
Some research states that from the late teens to the midtwenties, the ability to accept responsibility for yourself, make independent decisions, and assume financial independence are three of the most important factors of becoming an adult. Of course, this also assumes every young adult can be financially independent and is responsible only for themselves—an enduring myth. But making independent decisions matters, and not just about where you live and what jobs you apply for either. Making decisions means assessing what works for you, why it works, and whether it should work.
Often, during a time of life when autonomy is supposed to be increasing in some way—like if you want to paint your walls or pierce your nose, the level of permission isn’t the same as what you needed when you were younger—so does assessment. How we’re going to structure our days, who we want around us, and what customs or traditions or routines from growing up are we going to carry into the next phase of life all become major considerations. But figuring out our needs means having them to begin with. This is the great breakdown between what we’re taught and what I learned is necessary to live a whole, fulfilling life in my twenties: My chronic sorries lied to me. They told me I didn’t need boundaries, that my nos didn’t matter, that my niceness was all I was worth.
When we feel inadequate, we often end up apologizing for having any needs at all. Anyone that’s been made to feel bad for expressing something they need knows this feeling: the shame that signals we need to hide away our needs for fear of revealing something broken or bad about ourselves. This feels ripe in our twenties, when “going with the flow” is spun as being engaged and enlightened and being nice feels like a necessity—for not blowing up at work, at your doctor who keeps downplaying your symptoms, or at friends who aren’t really friends. It doesn’t just apply to the twenties, but if you couple a time of figuring out what your needs are with wondering whether you’re actually allowed to express any of them without destroying your life, it can add up to the internalization that niceness is a neutral value, agreeability matters above all else, and maybe your standards were just too high anyway?
My workaround for learning to express needs was cautious self-evaluation. I couldn’t really be hurt or scared or second-guessing if I grabbed hold of the responsibility and said I was sorry, right? Even when I wasn’t. Even when I shouldn’t have been.
Did you think I needed that shame? I want to ask the third-grade teacher who punished third-grade me for not knowing where to sit.
Did you think I wouldn’t scream? I want to bellow at the boy in the car until my throat aches, bleeding from the fury that even I didn’t know I’d scream; I didn’t know if I was capable; I don’t know if I could do it again.
I am here and I have agency. I am here and I want space. I am here and I say no.
Am I really easygoing, or am I just agreeable? I wondered recently, after someone attempted to compliment me. But there was never really doubt in the answer. Being easygoing is, in fact, easy, while ignoring every need you have in favor of the pressure to appear easygoing is not.
As I got deeper into adulthood, and my relationships and decisions and circumstances became more nuanced, my sorries felt like something I was hiding behind. What I could not do was say, I am here and I have agency. I am here and I want space. I am here and I say no. The guilt and panic that emerged whenever I wasn’t perfectly neutral was so disorienting, it felt easier to take responsibility for everything. “I’m sorry” was a placeholder for everything else I didn’t know how to be.
I squeezed myself in around other people’s priorities and problems and promises, and I didn’t realize the message I was signaling: Take up all the room you want. I will make myself fit.
Here’s the thing: I’m still sorry.
I thought about my apologies when my friend told me to stop apologizing—which I, of course, promptly apologized for. Sorry for not going above and beyond at work. Sorry for saying no. Sorry for dropping out, or quitting a job, or being unable to quit a job. Sorry for not being whoever I was supposed to be.
The wise thing to do would be to examine the apologies. Why did I fear conflict so much that I was willing to be in conflict with myself to avoid it? What need was I ignoring when “sorry” tripped off my tongue for no reason—and worse, did the bounty of needless sorries take away from the needed ones, the necessary ones? The ones that were directed toward the wrong people all along?
Because I’m sorry to the third grader who didn’t know where to sit at lunch and didn’t feel safe enough to ask her teacher for help; to the high school girl who thought she owed it to a manipulative boy to be polite in her terror and outrage; to the self who put her needs and desires and agency aside and carried herself as if she could squash them down until they disappeared, taking the parts of her that weren’t palatable with them.
I wonder if I can forgive her; I wonder what I owe her now.
When I work with students in writing workshops, I try to make the space for them to tell me no without shame and without second-guessing themselves. With friends, I try to defend fiercely and listen with care. It feels like the forms of kindness we should all be afforded, the very sort I haven’t captured for myself yet. What I try to do instead with myself is forgive.
You should have known better. But I didn’t. It’s the conversation that’s a drum beat in my brain. But that’s the work of forgiveness, at least for me: I didn’t know better, but I can move forward now.Not undoing. I can’t reach back and save my other versions, but I can learn, again and again and again, there is vulnerability in forgiving yourself, grace in articulating what you need, and kindness that’s stronger than niceness when it goes both ways.
I can unlock the car door, and I can walk her home.
Rainesford Stauffer is a freelance writer and Kentuckian. She is the author ofAn Ordinary Age (Harper Perennial, 2021) and All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive (forthcoming from Hachette Books, May 2023).