Your Habit Of Apologizing Too Much Could Be A Sign Of A Bigger Issue
Sorry to break it to you.
For some of us, saying "I'm sorry" is ingrained in how we communicate. While sometimes an apology is called for, often we get into the habit of apologizing even when it's not needed — for example, when speaking up during a meeting or seemingly taking too long to respond to an email, even though it hasn't been that long at all.
Although it may seem like a harmless — even overly polite — habit, it comes with consequences. Mental health professionals say over-apologizing can lead to resentment towards others, shame around one’s identity, and a constant struggle to stand up for oneself. Here's why: "At its core, over-apologizing is self-betrayal," explains Kobe Campbell, a licensed trauma therapist and author of the upcoming book Why Am I Like This?: How to Break Cycles, Heal From Trauma, and Restore Your Faith. "It's saying: 'I will take the blame and the consequences when they don't belong to me,' [which] wires our brain overtime to believe that the fault actually is ours."
In other words, Vienna Pharaon, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Origins of You, says this habit strips away your self-confidence by communicating to yourself that you should stay small, silent, and agreeable. For these reasons, overcoming your habit of over-apologizing is crucial for one’s self-esteem. Ahead, experts explain why people do it and advice on how to break the habit.
Why We Tend To Over-Apologize
The short answer to this: conditioning. "We are socialized to believe that our acceptance from others is based on how polite and compliant we are," Campbell says. "We've also been socialized to always look for our faults in whatever situation is at hand." To put it another way, society has trained us to believe that the feelings of others matter more than our own.
Pharaon adds that this learned behavior is often tied to past experiences. "For example, if you got validation, love, or attention in your family if you successfully pleased those around you, you may have learned that staying quiet or agreeing with others was what you needed to do," she says. "Or maybe you learned that if you spoke up or had an alternative opinion, it would turn into conflict, so you've chosen to keep the peace by apologizing." In which case, apologizing, she explains, becomes a way of diffusing a situation to create a sense of safety for yourself.
Reflect On When You Tend to Apologize
According to experts, the first step in breaking this habit is recognizing when you tend to do it. To do so, reflect on what situations or around which people you feel most pressured to over-apologize. "Ask yourself: What is it about them that makes me want to take on blame that is not mine?" Campbell advises. "And what is it about them that makes me want to engage in self-betrayal, even when it's not intentional?"
Get Curious About Why You Do It
"Over-apologizing reveals an unhealed wound from the past," Pharaon says. So understanding why you do it in the first place is a key part of the healing process. To do so, she recommends getting curious about the origins of the habit by asking yourself: What does it try to protect me from? In what ways has apologizing kept me safe or gotten me something I wanted or needed in the past?
"That understanding becomes the gateway to changing your relationship with the apologizing, and ultimately leads you to feeling more empowered and confident," Pharaon says. "As you begin to unpack what over-apologizing serves, you can start to use apologies when needed and stand in your confidence in the other moments."
Pause Before Responding
"Over-apologizing is often reflexive. We do it before we even realize it," Campbell says. "It often happens when we want to respond to other people's discomfort immediately because we feel uncomfortable when our choices aren't well received." So, rather than responding immediately, she recommends pausing for a moment to assess what is yours to apologize for and what isn't. During this brief pause, she suggests taking a deep breath and saying something like: "Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I need a second to process."
Practice Responding With Alternative Phrases
So if you don't say “sorry,” what do you say? Having some alternative language in your back pocket can be really helpful. "Replacing 'I'm sorry' with 'thank you' is a great place to start," Pharaon says. "There's something disarming when you can acknowledge an experience the other person might have."
Here are some other phrases Campbell recommends using instead of "I'm sorry."
- Thanks for sharing your perspective.
- I'll make sure to make these changes next time.
- I hear you. I'll make adjustments.
- I hear you. Here are my thoughts.
- Thanks for understanding my decision even though we don't see eye to eye.
- Thanks for waiting for me.
- Thanks for adding that. Here's my perspective…
Lastly, remember that if an apology is needed, Campbell says there's nothing wrong with apologizing. The key is to only apologize for what you're sorry and responsible for. However, "deciding to stop over-apologizing is easy," she says. "Doing it is hard.” This is why she recommends preparing yourself by anticipating some of the difficult responses you may receive from others and rehearsing how you'll encourage and comfort yourself. "You're allowed to take up space, have your voice be heard, or offer an opinion — even if those things sound challenging and confronting," Pharaon says.