Saying Sorry All The Time: When Constant Apologizing Goes Too Far
Apologizing shows that while we aren’t perfect, we care about other people’s feelings and are willing to change our behavior to make their lives and ours better. If you make a mistake because you aren’t considering another person’s feelings, or because of a lapse in judgement, it can be healing for you and the injured party to deliver a heartfelt apology.
The problem comes when we find ourselves apologizing constantly, especially for things that aren’t our fault. For example, someone steps on your foot and you say sorry for being in the way, or someone says something hurtful to you and you apologize for getting upset. This habit is seemingly harmless, and can even help control social situations where we don’t trust the other person to react or take our feelings seriously. However, the other person isn’t the only one hearing your constant apologies - our brains hear it too, and without our realizing it, saying sorry turns into feeling sorry all the time. We start to believe that our very existence is an obstacle and inconvenience to others, and that can do some pernicious damage to our sense of self over time.
If you find yourself apologizing constantly whether or not you are at fault, it may be useful to examine the reasons why you find yourself reflexively saying sorry in so many situations. Read on to learn where this reflex can come from, and how you can make sure you’re respecting yourself and others by only saying sorry when it really counts.
The Apology Reflex
People who apologize too much tend to feel inadequate, like they’re a burden on others, or that their own existence isn’t worth time and attention, leading them to focus too much on others. Here are a few ways this can manifest.
People pleasing and social anxiety
You are overly focused on other people’s perceptions of you, and have a lot of anxiety around interpersonal conflict. Rather than entering a discussion or argument, you take blame up front hoping that it will prevent further difficult conversations and feelings, and make the other person feel that you are humble and responsible. Saying sorry can be a balm for social discomfort and make you feel that you are in emotional control of a situation, or that you’ve protected yourself from further criticism by taking the first shot.
You set unrealistically high standards for yourself that you can never live up to, and as you inevitably fall short, you feel the need to apologize for your perceived failures. Regardless of the situation, you constantly insist that you “should have known better,” and rather than accepting that you are still learning and growing, you punish yourself for not being ahead of the game. This perfectionism can go even further and lead you to feel responsible for others’ mistakes and to take it upon yourself to “fix” them by apologizing on their behalf.
Of all the people in your life, you rank the lowest, and you don’t feel you deserve the love and support of others. The only way you feel valued is when you’re accepting what you believe is your role - the scapegoat, the caretaker, the martyr. You apologize constantly because you are sorry that you even exist, and you don’t value yourself enough to stand behind your own feelings, thoughts, and actions.
These emotional patterns can stem from childhood experiences with a caretaker who either demonstrated this attribute themselves, or treated you as if you were always at fault. If you had an emotionally volatile or unpredictable parent or guardian, you may be used to prefacing every statement with “I’m sorry” to soften the impact and control the situation. Since you couldn’t predict what would set this person off, you interpreted all your thoughts and actions as a potential irritant, and viewed your most benign speech as weighted with conflict. This perception didn’t go away when you moved on to other important relationships, and will likely come up most with the people you have the strongest feelings for - a partner or close friends.
Female-identified people are more likely to over-apologize than male-identified people, which could stem from society’s conflicting demands on femininity. Women are traditionally responsible both for organizing home and social situations (aka making things happen), and for keeping everyone involved happy. They’re expected to be caregivers as well as productive project managers, and since so many women have struggled to gain the attention and respect of their male counterparts, they’re used to getting what they need through emotional bartering rather than simple order giving. “I‘m sorry but I really need to get dinner on the table” or “I need to get this project in by Wednesday - can you do this for me? I know it’s a bother.” Sound familiar?
Exercises for the Overly Apologetic
A therapist can be a great help sorting through the life experiences and thoughts that lead you to apologize too much. In the meantime, the following exercises can help you notice and interrupt the thought patterns that preface each apology.
Keep track of how often you apologize and why.
It’s not necessary to keep an exhaustive list, but if you can write down at least the most common instances in which you find yourself saying sorry, you can make links between your actions and the feelings that lead to them. These situations may create anxiety and decrease your sense of self worth, and you should pay attention when you’re in these situations to see what it is about them that causes stress.
Do you apologize reflexively when you interact with strangers? Do you apologize often when you’re in work meetings? Is there a person who you apologize to most? Do you worry that you will irritate someone so much they will stop talking to you? Do you worry about being perceived as needy, incompetent, or weak? Identify what’s at the core of these triggering situations and relationships so you can address the root of the problem.
Learn some new vocabulary.
“I’m sorry” is easy to say but it takes a toll on you emotionally and can reduce the value of your sincere apologies with people you care about. When you’re in one of the triggering situations above, try to give yourself a few extra seconds to react rather than acting on instinct. How do you really feel? Do you feel you can express this to the other person without apologizing for it? Why or why not? You may find yourself being more honest with your loved ones and co-workers and with yourself, which leads to stronger relationships with ourselves and others. Rather than apologizing for everything, observe what is actually happening, how it might affect a person or situation, and clearly explain the facts.
For example, if your boss asks you to have your team work overtime on a project, don’t say “I’m sorry but I have to ask you to work overtime.” Instead, try this: “We need this project done by X date, so our boss has asked that the team work late tonight. I realize that this is unexpected and may change your plans. Thank you for being flexible.” Your colleagues will appreciate that you’re not asking them to work late out of spite, and that you’re working together towards a common goal. You then thank them to show your appreciation for their partnership. There’s nothing to apologize for.
Treat yourself like someone you love.
Many of us can be incredibly empathetic and forgiving of others, but find we have a blind spot when it comes to ourselves. Whatever the reason for this disconnect, if you find yourself apologizing too much you may need to change your perspective on yourself. Rather than criticizing yourself constantly, or feeling eternally at fault or that you need to justify your own existence, think about how you perceive someone you really love.
Do you require constant apologies from them? Do you feel they should justify their existence? Probably not. It would probably hurt you to see them feeling that way. Similarly, the people who love you feel hurt when they see you doubting and criticizing yourself. You may think that apologizing to them shows you care about their feelings, but after a while it stops being about them and starts being about you, and how you don’t measure up in your own eyes. The people who love you want you to see yourself the way they see you - as a valuable person who has every right to take up their space, share their thoughts, and make the world brighter with their presence.
Notice when you’re having a self-critical thought, maybe right before you would normally apologize in one of the triggering situations described above. You can’t get rid of your overly apologetic self immediately, but you can keep it company with the version of you that sees and forgives your friends’ foibles, and even celebrates them. If you hear yourself thinking “this person will be so annoyed when I interrupt them with my request, I should apologize before I ruin their day with it,” accompany that with “but maybe they will be happy to talk to someone kind and polite like me and this will break up their day.”
When Should You Apologize?
Apologies are in order when you make a choice that unnecessarily harms another person physically or emotionally. If you make a mistake that stemmed from carelessness or a lack of empathy, that may be another good time to say you’re sorry.
Here are a few examples of times when you should NOT say sorry, and suggestions for changing your vocabulary around these common interactions.
When giving your opinion
Instead of saying “I’m sorry but I think x,y,z,” try “Bear with me here, I think x,y,z.” You’re entitled to your opinion, and have the right to express it!
When disagreeing with someone: Instead of saying “I’m sorry but I don’t think we should do blank,” say “I get what you’re saying but I think blank.” You can respect the other person’s opinion while having your own.
When getting someone’s attention
Instead of saying “I’m sorry to bother you,” go with “Excuse me” or “pardon me.” They’re both perfectly pleasant ways of announcing yourself, and there’s no harm in being noticed and heard.
When someone upsets you
Instead of saying “I’m sorry but that makes me angry/sad,” just tell the person how you feel. “You did this and it made me really angry.” You don’t need to apologize for what you feel or for expressing it, especially when you’re not the person at fault.
When you say no to someone
Instead of “I’m sorry I can’t x,y,z,” say “Unfortunately I can’t,” or “Right now my answer is no.” It’s not your fault that you’re unable to help this person, and even if it is, very few people (if any) are entitled to your help. Partners, children, or close friends may require more of an explanation, but for the rest of the world if you decide to help it’s because you can and want to, not because you are obligated.
When someone helps you
Instead of “I’m sorry to be such a bother,” just say “thank you.” Good people are happy to be of help, and you are giving them a chance to show their skills, or even just their care for you.
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