Just last week, I heard three unnecessary apologies within a single day; someone I know apologized to her partner for how she looked after a long day of travel, a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance said “sorry” as he started to cry, and I myself uttered an apology after a woman bumped into me at the supermarket. Of all the words that someone could blurt out, “sorry” is surely not the worst but that’s not to say that it’s harmless. Being overly apologetic not only corrodes our self-image but also negatively impacts how others perceive us, giving us plenty of reason to drop this habit for good.
Why Are We Always So “Sorry”?
Before we can break a habit, we must understand the root cause of it. There are so many reasons why someone might be excessively apologetic—low self-esteem, fear of conflict, perfectionism, feeling responsible for others—but most of them stem from childhood trauma or social conditioning. According to Kelly Hendricks, a couple and family therapist in San Diego, “those who over-apologize often feel like a burden to others, as if their wants and needs are not important”. When the world has convinced us that our desires are shameful, we end up prefacing even the most simple requests with an apology: “Sorry, can I have some water please?”
The deeply ingrained belief that “being nice equates to likability” may also prompt us to apologize unnecessarily. We hold back our true feelings and desires for fear that we’ll inconvenience someone and we insert apologies where they’re not needed to ensure that no one gets upset. Women, in particular, are taught to prioritize the needs of others and so it’s not surprising that they “tend to say sorry more than men”. They also often preface their ideas with qualifiers: “This is gonna sound silly but…”
Though we may believe we are being considerate of others in these scenarios, we are ultimately still trying to protect ourselves. As Lindsey Weishar explains:
“For me, “sorry” functions as a preemptive move I make in many social situations. A perfectionist by nature, my “sorrys” shield me from the possibility of criticism by others: “Sorry, my car’s a mess,” I tell a friend as she gets in. She can’t comment on it if I’ve already acknowledged it.”
Many of us believe that our preemptive apologies will make things easier for both ourselves and the other person. The paradox is that saying sorry when it’s uncalled for will almost always make both parties feel worse, especially if this behavior is repeated.
How Over-Apologizing Makes Things Worse
According to Psychology Today, “over-apologizing — or excessively saying sorry when you don’t need to — is a bad habit that can undermine your authority, and more importantly, it hurts your self-esteem”. When you qualify every question and idea you have as dumb or inconvenient—“Sorry, am I interrupting?”—people will stop taking you seriously and that’s not the only self-fulfilling prophecy created by serial apologizers. When you keep uttering unnecessary sorrys, people begin to notice “negative” things about you that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Of course, this habit will also lessen the impact of truly necessary apologies, making it harder for you to make amends in the future.
Although we often apologize to prevent hurt feelings, research shows that this actually makes the other person feel worse. In situations where you have to reject someone’s invitation, for example, your profuse apologies could send the signal that you pity them or that you think they’re deeply affected by what you do. Clearly, the s-word doesn’t quite have the pacifying effect we imagined but more importantly, it distorts how we see ourselves. When we over-apologize to others, we’re also consistently telling ourselves “I’m wrong” or “I’m to blame” which can have detrimental effects on our self-worth and self-confidence over time.
How You Can Start Living Unapologetically
Now that you have more than enough reasons to curb your apologetic behaviors, here are some things you can do to get started.
Give yourself time
If being “sorry” is a deep-seated habit for you, as it is for many of us, don’t expect to eliminate the word from your vocabulary overnight. For people who developed apologetic tendencies in order to survive an abusive situation, it might be a good idea to talk to someone, such as a therapist, who can help in this process. Awareness is the most important thing, which you already have if you’re reading this! Every time you catch yourself being needlessly apologetic it will still reinforce your desire to change and you can even stop yourself mid-apology and rephrase your sentence if you have to.
Recognise what you don’t need to apologize for
The only times you need to apologize are when you’ve hurt somebody or crossed somebody’s personal boundaries. Unfortunately, this distinction often becomes blurred in unhealthy relationships where the other person might claim you are “hurting” them by doing something innocuous like pursuing your passion or hanging out with friends. You should never have to apologize for following your dreams or taking care of yourself, even if that means saying “no” to other people’s requests. You also shouldn’t have to be sorry for what you look like, how you feel, or who you are!
Own your ideas, emotions, and actions
In her TedTalk, Maja Jovanovic recalls how when four leading academics were asked to introduce themselves at a conference she was attending, each of them began with a self-deprecating statement, downplaying their world-class achievements. Whether we’re sharing our strengths or our vulnerabilities we adopt an apologetic tone to ward off the negative judgments that others might make about us. The thing is, no matter what we do we can’t control what others think of us. We can give ourselves internal validation though which releases us from the exhausting habit of justifying everything we do to others. Paradoxically, people will probably admire you more after you do this anyway!
Luckily, the most practical advice for breaking the habit of over-apologizing is also the simplest: replace “sorry” with “thank you”. Most of us over-apologizers have good intentions; we want to acknowledge the experience of others and we still can by showing gratitude. If you’ve spent the last twenty minutes venting to your friend, for example, you can say “thanks for listening to me” rather than “sorry for complaining so much”. This will create a more positive feeling all around because you’re emphasizing the nice thing that your friend did for you, rather than what you did “wrong”.
At times it can still be hard to distinguish what merits an apology and what doesn’t. As someone pointed out to me recently, some people use “sorry” when they really mean “excuse me”, which doesn’t necessarily relate to their self-worth at all. Depending on where you are, your apology may also signify something different; in the United States, for example, an apology is interpreted as “I am the one who is responsible” whereas in Japan apologies are understood as “It is unfortunate that this happened”. With that being said, the only thing you should worry about is showing remorse when you feel you’ve actually done something wrong. Otherwise, keep living unapologetically!