If you're around children—or even adults—for any length of time, you will eventually hear "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it" or "I'm sorry, it wasn't my intention to hurt you." And then the child or person goes along their merry way like nothing ever happened.
But if we didn't mean it, why did we do it? Why do we so easily dismiss our behavior when we hurt someone that it was okay just because we "didn't mean to"? This statement has become so common that we have come to accept it as true. Let's look a little deeper.
All actions speak louder and truer than our words. When our words don't match our actions, it is our actions that parade our truest motive. Sorry, not sorry doesn't cut it. As the late Austrian psychiatrist, Dr. Alfred Adler was known to say,
"Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words."
The biggest culprit of hurtful behavior is unprocessed emotions, unconscious pain, and unmet needs. What we may intend by "I didn't mean it" is that it wasn't instigated by conscious thought or motive. But if we look deeper, we often find hidden feelings that we simply haven't acknowledged yet. We may be hurting ourselves when we hurt another person. An unkind act upon another can be an unconscious way to communicate our pain, to send an SOS that we are hurting. It may or may not have been that particular person who hurt us, especially with children.
Of course, when a person's self-control is wonky because they drank too much or their addictions overrode their ability to control themselves cognitively, careless and hurtful words might come out sideways. However, even under those circumstances, the words may have roots of unresolved emotions or pain that squeak out when impulse control is lowered. With children, their capacity to control themselves is affected by developmental immaturity, so it's up to adults to help regulate their emotions and teach them how to express their feelings in healthy ways.
My point here is to be more aware of our feelings and pay attention to our words. Words can hurt or help build healthy relationships.
Am I a bad person for hurting others?
A child may come to school and push another child or a teen around bullying them. Another may emotionally humiliate another student, not because that person has done anything to them, but because of a feeling of helplessness or a misunderstood internal conflict or unacknowledged hurt feeling.
How many times has a spouse come home and yelled at their kids? Did they do it because they were angry with the children? Not usually. It is much more likely to have been due to a difficult day at work or the result of unmet needs surfacing.
Bad behavior doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you human. And unkind actions usually point to a need for self-care and self-compassion.
Related reading: "Empathy and the Empathetic Apology: the New, Improved 'I am Sorry'"
In all personal growth and in every relationship, the key to loving our self and each other is becoming aware of the roots of our actions. Until we are aware of the cause of our actions and the beliefs that fuel them, we will continue to emotionally react and dump on others inadvertently. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are necessary to improve communication.
Sometimes, we're just having a bad day and need someone to understand, even when we act badly. However, it's also critical to acknowledge honestly what we're feeling and what we need.
Increasing Self-Awareness: Mean What You Say and Say What You Mean
You may have heard that saying; it's great advice. Whenever you hear yourself say, "Sorry, I didn't mean it," search your heart.
Is there a reason you just might have meant it?
Did repressed resentment bubble up unexpectedly because you were unable to communicate your feelings directly?
Has that person recently been ignoring you or did they say or do something hurtful to you that never got repaired?
Or perhaps it's as simple as the person canceling a date for dinner, even if they had a legitimate reason.
Related reading: "The 4 Types of Ineffective Apologies."
How to Discern Our Internal Motivation and Find Out What We Need
A foundational stepping-stone to loving consciously and having more empathy for others is by determining whenever we are unloving. When you find yourself doing or saying something unkind, ask yourself afterward, "If I had a really good reason to act that way, what would it be?" (Not intended as an excuse for acting unkindly; this question is an introspective exercise to get more honest with ourselves.
Next, explore if you need anything to regain your peaceful sense of self. Perhaps you would like an apology or make-up or you feel that you would like to talk to the person about what is bothering you. Or maybe all you need to do is be more present with your own emotions and empathize with yourself. In any case, take action as soon as you uncover what feels right.
Each time you do this process, you'll feel more and more inner peace and have fewer and fewer outbursts toward others. Each time we make a conscious effort to understand our true motives, instead of dismissing our actions too quickly, we grow in self-esteem. And every time you take action to remedy whatever is in the way of closeness in a relationship, you build more respect, closeness, and understanding.
Next time you hear yourself say, "Sorry, I didn't mean it!" dig a little deeper and find out if that's really true.
UPDATE: If you're interested in this topic and eager to explore your "inner terrain," an excellent article that was published after mine is "'I Didn't Mean It,' or 'It Didn't Mean Anything'" by Andrea Mathews, LPC, Ph.D. She refers to "Disclaimers of Wholeness" in the subtitle, which I think is so accurate. Insightful article!
For more tools to learn how to improve communication in your relationship and to live authentically, check out our marriage resources. Learn how to build thriving relationships!