Coming from an Irish background, my experience is that over apologising, for anything and everything, is rampant and real for many of us. It can be a cultural thing. Some research I have seen show people in the UK do it twice as much as Americans, and research also suggests women tend to do it more than men.
The jury is out on why but a couple of theories are;
1. wanting to appear polite
2. feeling anxious and afraid of punishment
Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with saying sorry and apologising when it’s something I know I’ve overlooked, got wrong or could have done better but this habit of over apologising, can be debilitating and have its roots in poor self-esteem and unworthiness. In my opinion, it’s a poor communication habit that can be disempowering, especially for women and especially for aspiring female leaders.
People are sorry for all sorts of unnecessary reasons. For getting in the way or for almost bumping into each other, for being real and saying it like it is for them, and for getting emotional or causing someone else to feel emotional. We say sorry even when it was someone else’s fault!
I spoke to my aunt about this recently. She is blind and walks with her guide dog or walking stick. She recognised, it’s so ingrained in her that when people are obviously not paying attention (likely looking at their mobile phones), and walk straight into her, she often apologises profusely!
Many years ago, I noticed the roots of over apologising in poor self esteem personally when I was regulary apologising for speaking up. I’m small in stature to begin with and I noticed ironically, when I said it, I was sorry for taking up too much space and attention. This was back in the day when my sense of self-esteem and self-worth was not as healthy as it is today.
Through being committed to overcoming this low self-esteem over the years, I took some big steps to put myself out there at times, and started watching how I felt when I would share an article I had written or step up to present or to sing in public. Much of the time, I was sorry and felt shameful that I was daring to share and stand up, front and centre. That I was daring to let myself take up space and attention.
Now, with many years of boldly putting myself out there under my belt, I’ve learned that sharing publicly brings a lot of joy and learning, not only for myself but for others as well. I’ve since developed a healthier self-esteem around enjoying a certain kind of attention, and I’m not sorry for that.
A part of my practise has been to consciously use appropriate language other than sorry for minor misdemeanours including, ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’ or ‘after you’. And another big one is to practise not apologising when I start to cry or become emotional. That one has been difficult to shake but I’m getting better and I really encourage you to give it a go the next time you feel vulnerable, on the verge of tears or even if you break out into a full, ugly cry.
With my aunt and a couple of good friends and who have been working through the same theme, we have turned it into a running joke. We go the other way and polarise it. When we catch ourselves over apologising, we add, “oh that’s right, sorry I was born” and then have a good laugh about it. Humour is a great way of lightening the load of unworthiness. Afterall in the words of a favourite author of mine, Alan Cohen, ‘Unworthiness is just a case of mistaken identity’.
My challenge to you is this.
Next time you say sorry, take note of what you are saying it for – was it for a genuine mistake or situation you are taking responsibility for? Or is it because you suddenly felt yourself taking up too much space, feeling ‘on the spot’ or trying to diffuse a situation you actually didn’t cause and aren’t at fault for?
If it’s the former and your sorry is genuine, that’s the appropriate language for that situation. If it’s for any other reason, try changing your language or taking a moment to figure out the real reason behind your ‘sorry’ – because you deserve to take up space and have your space respected!
Over apologising is not the easiest habit to change but I can attest, it does wonders for your self- esteem and like the ad says, ‘We’re worth it!’.
A recovering over apologiser