With multiple sclerosis, it’s hard to stop saying ‘I’m sorry,’ but you should
How reflexive apologies are a bad habit I'm trying to change
Even if I resolved to improve my cardiovascular health by taking the stairs more often, I can’t. Mobility problems brought on by my primary progressive multiple sclerosis force me to use a wheelchair. Using a wheelchair, in turn, means that stairs and I are natural enemies (as are curbs and really high thresholds), so I always take the elevator.
In all modesty, I’ve become something of an elevator pro. I’m not sure how exactly one loses their amateur status at this, but I feel that I have. I follow the etiquette to the letter. I never face the back, don’t make eye contact, don’t attempt small talk, and I don’t try to crush other passengers by pressing the “close door” button.
What I frequently do on elevators — what causes me, and probably others, consternation — is I reflexively apologize.
I impulsively say “I’m sorry” lots of places. I apologize to restaurant staff, cashiers, other customers in stores, and so on. Elevators are just where it seems to happen most often, most likely because of the proximity to others and maybe because they’re already in an uncomfortable place.
Not long ago, I boarded one at my local Veterans Affairs hospital. There was only one other person aboard, it wasn’t crowded, he didn’t have to hold the door for me, and I didn’t run over his toes with my wheelchair. I couldn’t have done that, even if I’d tried, because he happened to be in a wheelchair as well. Still, as I maneuvered into position, the words “Sorry, it takes me a second” tumbled out of my mouth.
The other veteran seemed slightly amused, glanced at both our chairs, and replied, “Who are you apologizing to?”
Whom am I apologizing to when I reflexively apologize, and why do I do it? Am I apologizing to others because I feel as though I’ve inconvenienced them? Am I apologizing to (and for) myself because I think I’m an inconvenience? Either way, an automatic apology isn’t remotely sincere, and recipients know it.
An insincere, reflexive apology is often perceived as a lack of confidence. As someone who’s had a near excess of self-confidence over the past two decades, I don’t like that thought very much. When I think about it objectively, however, it makes sense. Multiple sclerosis is inconsistent, but it consistently saps my confidence. It’s hard to be confident in abilities that can change by the hour.
I don’t know what your idea of perfection is. I’m pretty sure we all have something different in mind – varied pictures of what a perfect life should be. My picture doesn’t include MS, so my reality is far from ideal. I wonder if striving so hard for an imaginary perfection is why we reflexively apologize — maybe just to ourselves.
There’s no need to apologize for reality, though. No matter how much it differs from what we want it to be, it is what it is. I’m going to try to replace a reflexive, insincere “I’m sorry” with a sincere “thank you.”
Instead of “I’m sorry I’m slow,” I’ll try, “Thank you for holding the elevator door for me.” I think everyone will like that better. I know I will.
Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.
Thank you for submiktting this. I too have PPM and, although not restricted to a wheel chair yet, rely on a cane and walking sticks. "Sorry" was a word I used as well however, after reading your submission, it isn't what I really mean to say. "Thank you" is more appropriate and I will focus on using it from now on.
Thanks Deb! It was almost a surprise everytime Sorry came out of my mouth. I would immediately think, "that's not what I meant to say, so why did I?".
Thanks for reading!
I just say: "bear with me." I never apologize. When someone holds a door open for me I always say "thank you" cheerfully. All this puts me in charge.
Keeping yourself in charge is probably good for your confidence. Great comment!
Thank you for your article. This makes prefect sense and I will try to say "thank you" more often.
After numerous falls, the last one caused a broken wrist, and after three MRI's, a PPMS diagnosis was given. At that time I was working full time in 2017. I'm now retired and trying to take good care of my body. I too am in a wheelchair a lot of the time.
Thanks for reading Heather! Definitely keep taking the best care of yourself possible and use the chair when needed. I don’t particularly like being in one, but I do like being active in my own life.
Ben, I'm trying to stop apologising too. But I often have people apologising to ME -- like jumping out of my way and saying 'Sorry!' when they weren't even IN my way. It sometimes feels like they're apologising that I'm disabled, or that they're not. I feel like saying, 'Really, it's not your fault!' Do you have this experience?
Jen, I absolutely have that experience and the same confusion. At least it's not the vaguely condescending, "I wish I had a wheelchair and didn't have to walk everywhere."
Hit the nail on the head again, Benjamin! My son tells me this all the time! Stop saying sorry! They should be telling you they are sorry!
Thanks for the comment Kim! Your son is probably right!
Not one person, when standing in front of me in a crowded elevator, has ever apologized to me for presenting me with an eye level and up close view of their posterior. So for the karmic, built-up balance, I figure that I don't owe one "I'm sorry" to anyone until my riderless wheelchair rolls off into the sunset.
Ha! Thanks Joan!
Thank you for your article. I especially liked how you related how you feel about confidence, I feel the same. It comes and goes for me too. MS takes so much from us and yet so many people don't know how much since they only see the physical. It really is no wonder why we are always saying, 'I am sorry' to strangers and our family. Thank you again.
You are so welcome. I feel confident but I sure don't display it when I say "sorry" all the time. Then again, it can be tough to be confident when abilities are so variable.
I missed my mother's funeral last month. That's one of a long list of family events I've not attended. How do you say "I'm sorry" for that? And with MS, its variable nature makes one attendance and skipping another inexplicable to others. I wish I could say all of my family members are understanding, but that's not the case--and "I'm sorry," doesn't cut it.
I think we apologize to our own worst critic -- ourselves, sometimes more than to others. Then again I'd like to think I'm more understanding, so it feels a little better somehow.