What We Should Say Instead of Apologizing About Having an Illness

Alex Tomlinson
two women friends talking

One of the most habitual parts of being human is the feeling that we always have to apologize.

The words “I’m sorry” flow out in regular conversation far too often, and although it can be a sincere response to a whole slew of things, it often isn’t appropriate. We say it unconsciously.

But eliminating something like “I’m sorry” from our regular conversations requires a bit of self reflection and a deeper understanding.

First, we have to identify when in our lives we’re apologizing for things we don’t need to be.

An apology implies we’ve done something inherently wrong and are seeking forgiveness.

Now, your instant response when you’ve inquired about an illness or you’re trying to better understand what migraine is and how it impacts someone’s day to day life seems a bit more incorrect. Roughly 99% of people I interact with at some point or another tell me they’re sorry.

Related:What Healing Means in My Life With an Incurable Chronic Illness

The root of the issue is that people just don’t know what to say, and I’ll get to what I think should be said instead in a bit.

But telling me you’re sorry I’m going through this implies that my illness is something that is inherently wrong. That my existence and my “suffering” (I put it in quotes because I don’t like the word) are things that need to be forgiven by those around me.

My illness isn’t wrong. It doesn’t need to be forgiven. My existence doesn’t need to be apologized for.

It would be a little awkward if after a conversation about my migraine history was answered with “I’m sorry” and I turned around and said “I forgive you,” now wouldn’t it?

But an apology is the natural response to suffering. It’s the natural response to a break-up. Or death. Or any inconvenience in life.

And so, I propose to you something new.

Related:Battling Impostor Syndrome as Someone With an Invisible Disability

The next time you have the urge to say you’re sorry for something happening in someone else’s life that you have no control over, tell them “I’m here.”

I’m here.

That leaves an awful lot of room for interpretation, but also more room for you to figure out what someone may need and if it’s something you can help with. Because apologizing for circumstance doesn’t accomplish anything, but responding to it with comfort and presence does a lot.

Maybe you’re simply “here” and are letting the person know they aren’t alone.

Maybe you can be more than “here” by adding on the following:

  • “I’m here if you need any advice.”
  • “I’m here, let me know you need help with errands or fixing up dinner one night.”
  • “I’m here if you need a space to express your frustrations free of judgment.”
  • “I’m here, let me know if I can do some research for you/help you find a new doctor/therapist.”

Related:8 Tips for Road Trips With a Chronic Illness

The list could go on and on, but the foundation of the phrase allows you to extend yourself without going beyond your personal boundaries while leaving room to help.

And saying “I’m here” instead of “I’m sorry” feels much more genuine.

But aside from changing what we say, we have to think about when and why we’re saying it.

So many of us apologize for everything under the sun.

For my spoonies, chronic pain and illness buddies out there, stop apologizing when you assume an inconvenience towards someone else.

Stop apologizing for putting your health first.

Stop apologizing for having to cancel plans.

Stop apologizing for not wanting to go to a specific venue or participate in an activity that may lead to a flare.

Stop apologizing when you need to ask for help.

Stop apologizing for talking about your condition. For so many of us, we don’t have much else going on and managing our health is our full time priority, so it’s going to become a topic of discussion.

Stop apologizing.

In this instance, this isn’t when you say “I’m here,” it’s when you start showing gratitude.

You wake up after a rough night of tossing and turning, the pain is already creeping in but you’re planning to meet your best friend for coffee at 10? Stop sending that generic “I’m so sorry I’m not going to make it, I woke up in a lot of pain… ” text message. Instead replace it with: “Hey, let’s reschedule, today’s not a great day. I appreciate you for understanding.”

If it’s a group thing, don’t apologize. Simply say: “Thank you for the invite, looks like I won’t make it but hopefully I’ll be able to come next time.”

When your buddy from high school or sibling or cousin takes time out of their day off to go to the ER with you, don’t apologize for messing with their plans. Thank them for wanting to be with you and thank them for keeping you company in the chilly hospital room.

And you aren’t thanking them for their benefit. Reframing apologies helps us leave the mindset of being burdensome to those around us. You are thanking them for your benefit.

We have different needs. We can’t have the same consistency as our friends all the time.

We often dig ourselves into a hole that we can’t get out of by constantly apologizing. Whether we recognize it or not, our subconscious believes we’ve done something wrong. Which serves as fuel to negative thought patterns and beliefs that tell us that the people around us see us as a burden.

If we don’t present our condition and our need to adjust things on a last minute basis as something that needs to be forgiven, it won’t be perceived as so.

Gratitude is contagious.

So are apologies.

Read more stories like this on The Mighty:

How to Know if Your Migraine Warrants a Trip to the ER

We Need to Talk About This Lesser-Known Migraine Symptom

Why I'm Actually Relieved About My Chronic Migraine Diagnosis