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 Britons do it twice as much as Americans, and some research 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!
It used to happen all the time with me. I’m small in stature to begin with and I noticed ironically, when I said it, I was sometimes sorry for taking up too much space or for wanting too much attention. This was back in the day when my sense of self-esteem and self-worth was not so healthy.
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. Most 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 others as well and I’ve since developed a healthier self-esteem around enjoying a certain kind of attention and I’m not sorry for that. Another big 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’.
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 and walk straight into her, she apologises profusely. We have both recommitted to saying ‘excuse me’ or something more appropriate instead.
With a couple of good friends 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 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