I never realized how much I use the phrase “I’m sorry” in conversation until my friend pointed it out to me. “Why are you sorry?” she asked after I apologized for being indecisive about dinner for the hundredth time. Good question. After all, I hadn’t mistreated her in any way, so what was I sorry about? Since then, I’m more mindful about over-apologizing, but it still slips out occasionally. Old habits die hard, and it doesn’t help that quite a few people I know (mostly women) have the same tendency.
What makes some of us apologize more than others?
I consulted Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist with over twenty-five years in the industry and the author of The Power of Apology, to figure out the motivation behind over-apologizing. In her book, she identifies a few factors that contribute to the tendency. Children of parents who teach them to take responsibility for any problems or issues that come up often become over-apologizers, as do children whose parents teach them that apologizing is a form of politeness. Sometimes this happens just by witnessing one parent say “sorry” too much to others. Victims of abuse (emotional, physical, or otherwise) can also over-apologize out of guilt from past traumatic experiences or fear of making others angry.
A fear of conflict is a big reason why many people, especially women, apologize inappropriately. “Women are hard-wired to focus on cooperation and community, versus competition and confrontation, the way men are,” Engel says. That’s why female over-apologizers tend to outnumber male ones. It also has to do with how women are raised compared to men. According to Engel, girls are raised with an emphasis on kindness and keeping the peace, more so than their male counterparts. “Boys are given much more permission to express their anger and are usually not expected to be as polite and well-mannered,” she explains. Women are also more likely to blame themselves for arguments and bad situations than men.
Why is saying sorry too much a bad thing?
You’d think that offering apologies too often is like offering too many compliments—it just shows you’re a nice, caring person, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It actually shows that you’re not confident, feel inadequate, and are easy to walk all over, whether you do it at work or in your personal life. “While apologizing humbles us and lets the other person know that we are no longer a threat to them, there is such a thing as being ‘too humble,’ especially at work,” Engel advises. When you say “sorry” for every little thing at work, your coworkers might lose respect for you and take advantage of what they perceive as your weakness. The same thing can happen outside of the office, too. Over-apologizing sends everyone in your life the message that you’re ineffectual and have low self-esteem, which is dangerous knowledge in the wrong hands. “It can give a certain kind of person permission to treat you poorly, or even abuse you,” Engel warns.
How do we stop being over-apologizers?
Fortunately, over-apologizing is something we can all overcome with effort and patience. Admittance is the first step; once you acknowledge the habit, you can take steps to eliminate it from your life. Engels suggests keeping track of how many times you catch yourself apologizing. If you can’t stop yourself before saying it, make a rule to only say it once and move on.
If you find yourself starting to apologize, think about why that instinct is there. “You need to count to three each time you feel like apologizing,” Engels says. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to apologize? Did I really do anything wrong or am I just apologizing because I’m afraid someone is going to reject me or get angry with me?’” This is similar to what my friend did for me after I begged pardon for my indecisiveness. Over-apologizers get so caught up in the habit that it becomes second nature; we blurt out apologies without really thinking why. Forcing a reason why—and then struggling to come up with something rational—emphasizes how irrational the behavior really is, and that makes the practice easier to abandon.
Making over-apologizing a thing of the past isn’t easy because you have to address the underlying issues that encourage the habit. Since those issues are often low self-esteem, a history of abuse, or simply how we were raised to think, it’s not a change that happens overnight, or even over a few months. It might take a long time to get rid of the over-apologizer label, but the results make the hard work worthwhile. Not only will you feel better about yourself when you don’t take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, but others will respect and value you more as well, which in turn gives you a nice self-esteem boost. And this probably goes without saying, but feeling great about yourself and wanting others to recognize your greatness—well, that’s nothing to apologize for.