For many of us, the word "sorry" has become something we reactively utter, regardless of whether we've done anything wrong. This seemingly harmless habit can actually lower your self-esteem, justify other people's poor actions, and turn you into a complete pushover. Image by Nick Criscuolo.
There's nothing wrong with apologising for the bad things you've done. But when saying sorry becomes your automatic response to anything that makes you feel a little uncomfortable, it can be problematic. For example, I tend to apologise when someone else bumps into me at a bar or club. I'll immediately put my hand up in peace and quickly say "sorry" with a smile, even though they just spilled half of my $18 drink on the floor. Is it courteous for me to do that? Perhaps, but I wasn't the one who needed to apologise. In fact, I wasn't actually sorry at all, I was annoyed, and you've probably felt the same way at one point or another. That "sorry" that escapes your own mouth isn't to apologise, it's to avoid rocking the boat and making things awkward (the woman who read this over my shoulder in the coffee shop while I wrote this agreed).
Lori Deschene at Tiny Buddha suggests that your apologies will automatically tell others that you think you are responsible for the issue. That person at the bar who spilled my drink may now assume that I was at fault (or that it was at least a mutual bumping into), and that I'm the jerk who almost spilled my drink all over their brand new shoes. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't actually matter whose fault it was. But the more you turn this into a habit, the more you'll use it in situations that do matter.
Unnecessary apologies also send the message that you'd rather be agreeable than be honest. Over time, your abundant apologies will come across as submissive and make you a pushover that others will try to take advantage of at work and at home. Over-apologising also needlessly creates guilt in your mind and undermines your own self-esteem. Not only are you constantly telling others that you're responsible for everything that goes wrong, you're also telling yourself. It's hard to feel good about yourself when you keep falling on a sword that shouldn't come out of its sheathe in the first place.
Have an Apology Recap
If you catch yourself apologising often, don't fret. Make something out of it by taking a few moments for a little self-reflection. Lori Deschene at Tiny Buddha recommends two simple questions you can ask yourself each time you apologise:
- "Did I actually do something wrong?"
- And if not, "Did I really want to communicate that I think I did?"
This exercise takes only a few seconds to do in your head, but it helps you reprogram your brain to look at apologies differently. You'll begin to separate your unnecessary apologies from your real apologies, and eventually you won't have to recap at all.
Change Your Vocabulary
If you're looking for an easy way to turn your sorrys into something else, a simple change in vocabulary will make a world of difference. Saying "sorry" can be a speech tic like "um" or "uh", so it just takes a little practice to overcome. Lisa Washington at AllWomensTalk suggests you start thinking about the circumstances of your apologies:
...take a good, hard look at your speech patterns and take note of the who, what, when, where and how of the conversations that lead to you apologizing. Are you talking to family members, friends or coworkers? Are you apologizing to avoid conflict or are you placating someone? Be aware of the environment and circumstances surrounding the occurrences that bring out apologies to get a better idea of what drives this habit.
For me, it's strangers. When you identify who or what makes you apologise the most, you can turn those awkward moments into a trigger point for your new phrases. For example, after becoming aware of my habit, I switched from saying "sorry" to bumping-bar-bros to saying "pardon me" or "excuse me" instead. I can still be nice without subjecting myself to blame upfront.
Ask Questions Without Invalidating Yourself
Asking questions can also be a hotbed of "I'm sorry" activity. Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations, explains that we invalidate ourselves when we apologise while asking a question. For example, Flagg suggests an easy workaround for when you want to ask for help:
. . .you shouldn't apologise if you're requesting help or clarification. All you need to say is 'Can you please help me understand that?' Or 'Could you please explain that a bit further?
If you want to ask a more direct question, and you don't want to be rude, you can open with "If you don't mind me asking…" instead of "I'm sorry, can I ask you something?" It lets you be courteous without short-changing yourself or setting up the question like it will be rude.
Turn Your "I'm Sorry" Into a "Thank You"
A "sorry" can often be a "thank you" in disguise. When someone does something that makes you both look good, don't apologise for not doing it yourself. Show some gratitude instead. Juliana Breines, PhD, at Psychology Today explains:
When your roommate or significant other does the dishes, rather than apologizing for not having done them yourself (which just burdens them with the need to reassure you), express your gratitude (which makes them feel happy and appreciated, and probably more apt to voluntarily do the dishes again later).
Then again, Breines' example only works if you generally do your share of the chores, so keep that in mind. Still, giving thanks over an apology can work in a lot of different situations. If someone critiques your work, you can thank them for the input instead of apologising for what you worked hard on. If you want to share your honest feelings with someone, you can thank them for hearing you out or understanding instead of apologising for doing so. Trading in blame and self-guilt for gratitude sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.