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There is a tendency that some people have sometimes to apologize for things that do not require an apology, or to apologize for things that were not their fault.  This is a habit that comes from a place of wanting to be considerate of other people, which is a good trait and a good quality to have.  However, when we over-apologize, it can have the effect making you feel responsible for things that you shouldn’t be responsible for, and this pattern can contribute to a lack of confidence in how you feel and how you come across to other people.

Some people are so accustomed to apologizing for everything that happens, that they feel awkward when they make the effort to NOT apologize when it’s not needed. This can be a people-pleasing tendency that has become an ingrained habit. Other times it may be a response to anxiety or fear of judgement, but it can manifest itself in ways that merely serve to contribute to overall anxiety. The tendency to apologize for things when you have done nothing wrong may make you feel like you are in a constant state of needing to attend to other people’s feelings and comfort, leaving you feeling as though your own feelings and comfort do not matter.

What’s the Problem with Apologizing Too Much?

There is research that suggests that women tend to apologize more not because they are too sensitive or because men have more ego strength, but because women tend to perceive more wrongdoing in their own actions, whereas men tend to perceive smaller offenses as not worthy of requiring an apology.  In other words, women tend to judge their own behaviors more harshly, leading them to find more scenarios in which they feel an apology is merited. Over-apologizing is not a trait only women experience, but it may be more likely to be true if you are a woman, particularly one who has been taught to attend to other people’s feelings more than your own.

Here are some scenarios in which you may have become accustomed to apologizing, but that do not actually require an apology:

  • Expressing remorse for something that was out of your control
  • Apologizing for being in the way when someone else bumps into you
  • Apologizing for being offended at something someone else has done to you
  • Apologizing for having feelings or for crying when you are upset
  • Apologizing when someone else interrupts you
  • Apologizing for making a simple request such as asking the time or a small favor
  • Apologizing for apologizing

All of these situations are scenarios in which either someone else should actually give an apology, or in which there is no need for an apology at all because there has been no offense committed.

For example, have you ever been confiding in a friend about a painful experience, and then when you started to cry, you apologized to your friend for crying? This is an unfortunately common reaction that many people have when they start to cry, and the implication is that you have done something wrong by becoming emotional when talking about a painful experience. However, in this situation your friend is probably not offended at all that you started to cry, and in fact you have done nothing wrong; you are  reacting in a perfectly appropriate way to an expression of your emotions.  Why is an apology required? For disturbing the peace? No, you do not need to apologize in this situation.

When you begin to realize that you do not have to apologize for reacting to situations in perfectly normal ways, you will start to feel more confident in yourself. However, if you start to practice asking yourself whether an apology is needed before you issue one, you might find that you feel strange or uncomfortable when you stop yourself from apologizing.

Isn’t This Just Being Polite?

No, apologizing when it is not needed is not a form of being polite. Some people have this tendency because they have been taught or socialized to believe that they should always make sure other people are comfortable, even when they are personally uncomfortable.  This is true in those cases when someone bumps into you awkwardly, but then you apologize for being in the way.  Sure, you’re trying to just be polite and diffuse the awkwardness of the situation.

However, this is almost an invitation for people to walk all over you. Maybe this will not manifest immediately in the present moment, but over time, this tendency to always present yourself as the one who’s in the way can begin to undermine your own confidence in yourself and shows others that you are not going to stand up for yourself when someone has wronged you. This is most problematic in the way that this habit contributes to your overall demeanor around others. It doesn’t mean someone is going to start bullying you immediately, but over time it contributes to the perception that you will not fault others when they take advantage of or otherwise harm you. You can be polite and kind to others without apologizing for other people’s offenses.

The more assertive way to handle it when someone else bumps into you is to wait for them to apologize to you, which is what would be truly polite, and then accepting the apology with grace by saying simply “Thanks, but I’m okay”, or “You’re excused”. The thanks is for the apology, the reference to being okay or excusing the other person is a verbal forgiveness for the offense of bumping into you. If someone does not apologize for bumping into you, you can either choose to ignore it, or say “You’re excused”.  This way the implication is clear that you are not the one who has done something wrong, but you are gracefully excusing the error regardless of the offender’s reaction.

Practicing this new habit in more inconsequential situations such as an accidental bump in a social setting will help you gain confidence for when you need to stand up for yourself in more consequential situations.  When you really need to speak up for yourself because of unfair treatment in the workplace, or when a friend has said something hurtful to you, you will be better equipped to handle the scenario confidently because you have been practicing accepting responsibility only for the things you are actually responsible for, and not letting others off the hook for their own offenses by taking unnecessary responsibility.

When Is an Apology Really Required?

Genuine remorse is a different experience altogether.  When you have done something for which you are truly remorseful, you should apologize. A genuine apology is an art in itself, and giving a sincere apology is an important part of mending relationships and living up to your own values. A genuine apology should first be sincere, it should explain why what you did was wrong, it should include acceptance of responsibility, and it should include an offer to make amends if possible.

You might need to apologize for snapping at your friend when you were actually upset about something happening at work, or for being late to an appointment where someone was waiting on you, or for not following through with a commitment you made to help with a project. Being able to verbalize a sincere apology is an important skill to have, and can go a long way towards reducing hostility in a relationship or for preserving your reputation.

However, when you apologize for things that do not require an apology, it can undermine your confidence and leave you feeling powerless when others take advantage of you. If this feels like a familiar situation to you, start by beginning to notice all the times you apologize, and begin asking yourself whether that was necessary.  Then start by trying to reverse this habit in those smaller, inconsequential scenarios, so that you can begin to build confidence in your ability to assess when an apology is really needed.  Just taking these small steps can go a long way in boosting your overall confidence and helping you to become a more assertive person.

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