How often do you apologize in a typical day? Do you find yourself saying ‘sorry’ when you accidentally bump into someone … or even when they bump into you? If you’re guilty as charged, then read on. I invite you to negotiate with yourself to go on an apology fast. Apologizing typically doesn’t serve you. In fact, it can become a dis-empowering habit that undermines your credibility, confidence and self-esteem.
I recently accepted a challenge for an apology fast when it was pointed out to me how often I said “Sorry” over the course of a 4 day Mastermind event. As a Canadian woman I’m doubly challenged in that regard.
Women tend to apologize more than men. That’s perhaps not surprising after a lifetime of conditioning to be people-pleasers. It’s also not surprising when you consider that as women, we tend to live our lives based on other people’s expectations of us, looking for external validation rather than finding it internally. As children, we’re taught that apologizing is polite and expected. Yet interestingly, parents tend to expect apologies more from daughters than sons – as if young girls inherently have more to apologize for. Or at least, I wonder if that’s what we take away from it. That somehow, we ought to feel the need to beg forgiveness for wanting things, the need to justify our desires and decisions. This shame response arises in part from a need to belong and for acceptance. What if you turned that habit on its head? What if you decided that you were entitled to want things without guilt or fear of judgement? That you’re entitled to have a voice, be heard, and take up space without asking to be excused for it? What if you didn’t need to justify yourself, didn’t need others’ approval or permission? What if, today, you decided that you’re entitled to negotiate your life on your terms?
I invite you to consider how often and in what circumstances you currently apologize. As mentioned above, do you apologize when you accidentally bump into someone, or even when they bump into you? How about when you sneeze? Maybe even when someone interrupts you? Do you preface unwelcome news with ‘I’m sorry to say’? Or leave a ‘Sorry I’m not here’ or ‘Sorry I missed your call’ message on your voicemail? Do you even apologize to your pets? We often apologize reflexively. Do you sometimes say sorry for things you’re not sorry about but expect may have displeased the other person? Maybe you went out for the night and that meant your partner (or boss or whoever was affected) had to step up to take care of something you normally would have done. When they mention it do you reflexively apologize even though you enjoyed your night out and know you deserved it? Women often do this in our self-appointed role as peacekeepers, to try to restore balance in the relationship. At the other end of the spectrum, do you ever find yourself apologizing when you’re really asserting your needs, desires or rights? For example, instead of saying “Please turn down that #@!* T.V.,” you say, “I’m sorry, I can’t concentrate with the T.V up so loud.” Or instead of saying “I’m not going to pay for that package because I didn’t order it,” you say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t ask for the upgraded package.”
Do you worry that not softening these positions with a “sorry” will seem aggressive, thoughtless, offensive, or less feminine? Perhaps these patterns are left-over vestiges from generations of having to maneuver to have our needs met in perceived socially palatable or acceptable ways in a society where we had so few rights. Maybe it’s time to recognize that kind of preemptive apologizing no longer serves you and acknowledge it’s time to let it go.
Some purported negotiation experts advocate using the apology as a negotiation strategy to get what you want – to soften the ‘ask’. I caution this approach for women, who already tend to over-apologize. While it’s admittedly important to apologize when you cause real injury to another (whether emotional or physical), I invite you to choose your apologies with care and intention. There are significant downsides to excessive apologizing.
- Psychologists suggest that compulsive apologizing presents as weakness, reflecting lack of confidence and sending the message that you’re ineffectual. Some go so far as to posit that it gives permission to others to treat you poorly.
- At the other end, studies suggested that refusing to express remorse increased self-esteem, sense of control and empowerment.
- Added to that, consider that you may be doing a dis-service to the people you’re apologizing to. Neuro-scientists found that both giving and receiving apologies pumped up cortisol levels in our brains as they triggered ‘survival emotions’ like anger, disgust, shame, fear, etc.
- Apologizing can open unnecessary doubt, introducing the idea you’ve done something wrong and causing others to attribute blame they otherwise wouldn’t have contemplated.
- It can also trigger internal guilt and self-blame, which undermines confidence, and ironically induces more apologies in a toxic destructive cycle.
- Habitual apologizing also dilutes your apologies. If you’re constantly apologizing over things that don’t warrant it, your sincere apologies will have less impact and won’t land. You run the risk that all your apologies come across as disingenuous and meaningless.
- Chronic apologizers often annoy and irritate others, and tend to cause people to tune them out.
None of these impacts serve your needs, personally or professionally
How do you train yourself out of apologizing? The first step is to increase your awareness. To that end, I challenge you to track your apologies over the next week. Get an accountability partner or partners if need be. Once you have a handle on how often and in what circumstances you’re apologizing, find easy ways to change your language or flip the script. Here are some examples:
- If you make an error and it gets pointed out, rather than saying “I’m sorry”, try “thanks for catching that”.
- If someone is trying to push past you, rather than a reflexive “Sorry” try “Here, let me get out of your way”.
- Don’t feel the need to apologize for saying ‘no’. If you want to decline an invitation, practice resisting the urge to say “Sorry” and instead simply say “I can’t make it. Maybe next time.”
- If you bump into someone by accident, instead of ‘Sorry’, say ‘excuse me’, ‘pardon me’, ‘go ahead’, or ‘after you’.
- If you’re running late, instead of apologizing, try ‘thanks for waiting for me’.
You get the idea. This is just a teaser to get you thinking of alternative ways of expressing yourself.
And so, I’m officially throwing down the glove and challenging you to go on an apology fast. Negotiate with yourself to stop saying ‘sorry’. Instead, re-train yourself to find more empowering ways to communicate that allow you to stand in your power and not dilute your confidence, credibility or self-esteem.