The Word I Used to Be Too Shy to Say

What do you do when you made someone really upset at you?

Seven years ago, I would have tried to make it up to them by doing something extra nice.

Like when I said something mean to my brother, I would buy him something nice. Or when I made my best friend sad, I would compliment her on things I used to not notice.

‘Your drawings are really nice,’ I would tell her. She didn’t believe me, but I would say it a few times over the week so her anger did subside over time.

I did many things, but there was one thing I never did.

No matter how upset I made someone feel, I would never say ‘I’m sorry’.

Actions are louder than words

‘Miss H, my father made my mother really upset yesterday. No matter how nice he treated her afterward, she did not want to talk to him. What do you think he should do?’ I asked my teacher.

‘Well, did he say he was sorry?’ she asked me.

I thought about it. The idea of saying sorry to someone you had upset was foreign to me. Sorry was just a word. You could say sorry and not mean it.

The better way, I thought, was to show how sorry you were.

‘He didn’t,’ I said, then asked her, ‘but isn’t it better to show that you’re sorry than say it?’

She shook her head, ‘What if someone made you really upset and never said sorry? You might not even relate them being nice to you as them being sorry. Sure, you can be nice to someone after you have made them upset. But more importantly, you need to say, “I’m sorry”.’

Sorry means sorry

I was a second-year student in college. I did not have good relationships with my family and friends.

I was successful academically but I failed in being a good daughter, sister and friend. Hearing my teacher say that made me think about all the bad things I did to the people who loved me.

Though I was always very sorry, I thought, I never said the words “I’m sorry”.

Maybe they thought I was not really sorry and kept the incidents inside their hearts.

The thought of that made me feel sad and misunderstood. I had spoken to people in a language they did not understand.

I knew I should have said it more often, but my Asian upbringing made it feel abnormal to do so.


The First Time In a Long Time

‘I’m sorry I shouted at you last night,’ I typed, ‘you are not a bad brother. I have a bad temper.’

I sent it to my brother the morning after a heated argument. I knew he was upset with me.

I sent it not because I felt his points were right, but because I did not want to start a cold war with him.

‘It is okay,’ he replied back, ‘next time don’t do do it again.’

‘OK,’ I typed back.

Of course, we continued to fight many times after that. But no matter what we fought about, I would always say sorry.

“You say sorry not because you are wrong…

… but because you value the relationship much more than being right.”

When I was little, my mother told me I would make a good lawyer. ‘You argue like it’s your job to win,’ she told me, ‘you should become a lawyer when you grow up.’

So up until I was 14, I wanted to become a lawyer. My mother helped me build up my speaking skills. She was as keen as I was about the profession until one day, a very famous lawyer in Malaysia was kidnapped and killed by people he helped put in jail.

‘Lu Wee,’ she told me, ‘I think you should not be a lawyer.’

‘HA?!’ I scoffed in disbelief, ‘WHY!’

‘You are quite good at arguing to win,’ she said, ‘like that lawyer who got kidnapped and killed.’

‘I don’t want you to be kidnapped and killed.’

I crossed out lawyering from my mental list of professions. In its place, I put ‘Medicine’.


Though I did not become a lawyer, my habit of wanting to win arguments stayed with me for many years.

For many such years, I argued because I wanted to win. I wanted to prove to people that they were wrong and stupid.

As I grew older, I realized that this was the perfect way to make enemies with everyone.

Since I did not want to end up in a scary world full of enemies, I decided to stop arguing for the sake of winning.

‘It is never worth it to win an argument and lose a relationship,’ I thought.

From then onwards I decided that not all battles are worth fighting. Winning some battles come at too high a cost.


I am no longer shy to say ‘I’m sorry’, but I am too proud to do so every time the situation requires it.

It is easy when you know you are wrong. But what about when you feel only half wrong? Or not wrong at all?

That is when it gets pretty difficult.

My method is to force myself to remember how important those relationships is to me. Because of how angry I get at the moment, this works only 70% of the time. 30% of the time I screw up and say something mean instead of ‘I’m sorry’.

30% of the time I screw up and say something mean instead of ‘I’m sorry’.

Regardless, I’m glad I learned how to get over my shyness of saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ At least, I get to make things a lot better 70% of the time.

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