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Do you need to stop apologising?

girl apologising by writing a note

How many times you do you find yourself injecting the word ‘sorry’ into your interactions with people even when you have nothing to be sorry for? For example, do you automatically say sorry when someone else bumps into you? Do you apologise for chasing someone up when they’re the one who’s late delivering what they promised? Sometimes the apologies are so regular, it’s almost as if you’re apologising for your very existence.

There are many reasons why you might default to saying sorry when you’re not sorry. For example, if you’ve had a difficult upbringing or unhealthy relationships in the past, you might be more likely to jump straight to apologising because it’s how you’ve learned to keep yourself safe. (Side note: all of us have behaviours we adopted because they worked for us at the time, but often realise later they’re not working for us – but that’s for another post!)

Women and girls are especially prone to apologising because we’re socially conditioned to be nice, polite and agreeable. Whereas qualities such as confidence, courage, leadership and ambition might be encouraged in both boys and girls, it’s usually girls who have the added expectation of being attuned and empathetic to the needs of others. We’re raised to care how we make other people feel, and to not be too brash or loud or opinionated. Therefore, it’s girls who are more likely to receive social disapproval when those strong leadership qualities are perceived as bossy or rude.

When you apologise unnecessarily, you send a message that you doubt yourself. When you diminish yourself in this way, even if you think you’re just being polite, you inadvertently give others a reason to also doubt you and your credibility. If you apologise for something that’s not your fault, you potentially take the blame for stuff that is absolutely not your fault.

In addition to the unnecessary apology, this conditioning manifests as inserting other qualifiers into conversation. “I could be wrong, but…” or “I was just wondering if maybe…” These are all ways women in particular communicate in a way that is not perceived as too direct or intrusive – even when they have every right to be.

If you know you’re a chronic apologiser and would prefer to break the habit, it starts with noticing your pattern and then taking steps to do something differently.

1. Take a breath

Next time you feel the inclination to start a sentence with “Sorry”, pause and ask yourself if you genuinely have something to apologise for. If you don’t, see if you can resist that urge, even if it feels uncomfortable. Often the words are out of your mouth before you know it, so in those instances I’d suggest making a mental note of the times, places, people and scenarios that tend to trigger an automatic apology from you.

If you find it difficult to temper your need to apologise, perhaps start practising with your written communication. If you regularly write, ‘Sorry for the delay’ or ‘Sorry to bother you again’ in your emails, go back and delete those phrases before you hit send.

2. Swap it out

Some people suggest swapping out ‘sorry’ for ‘thank you’. For example, instead of “Sorry I’m late”, you can say, “Thank you for waiting”. There are lots of ways you can insert gratitude instead of apology and I’d encourage you to play around with finding alternatives. “I appreciate you doing this.” or “I’d be grateful if you followed this up” are some more examples. Note that while gratitude can be preferable to apology, I would still caution you to not express too much gratitude for something that most would consider to be a reasonable expectation, not a favour.

3. Offer a solution

If you feel you do owe someone an apology because you’ve failed to meet a deadline or you haven’t delivered what you promised, I can assure you the person you’ve let down is more interested in how you’re going to resolve the situation than listen to you apologise. We’re all human and things get overlooked. You might say you’re sorry but immediately follow it up with, “I haven’t been able to do what you asked, however this is what I’m doing instead.” A perfectly reasonable alternative might be, “I know we agreed on this date but that’s not going to be possible for me. Would you mind if I got it to you by this other date?”

As you can see, the point is not to doggedly refuse to apologise but to be mindful of instances where you are diminishing your own worth and credibility by being overly and unnecessarily apologetic.

Checkout Amy Schumer’s lighthearted (but not unrealistic) take on women’s ridiculous propensity to apologise HERE.

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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