Once, a therapist pointed out that I say apologize too much. She said “its like you feel badly for taking up space on the planet”. That really bothered me, and clearly still does, as that conversation took place years ago, yet I still think of it regularly. Since then, I’ve been hyper aware of my tendency to say “sorry”.
You know what I’m talking about, right?
Here’s what I’m NOT talking about: when I have wronged someone or hurt them in some way by something I‘ve said or done, and I go to them with a contrite heart and make amends in whatever way possible, asking for their forgiveness.
I am talking about saying ‘sorry’ to a cashier because its taking me a couple of seconds to count out change.
Or ‘sorry’ to the girl who works at The Gap, whom I ask if a shirt comes in a different size.
To my close friend of 15 years, whom I tell ‘sorry’ for ringing her doorbell when I knew she was expecting me.
I know you know, because most women have this same bizarre habit. Even women who are seemingly confident, self-assured, and successful.
Why do we do this? That’s rhetorical. I don’t really know the answer, but I think its really interesting to observe when women employ the string of “sorrys” and then reflect on why.
I recently read a NY Times article wherein the author suggested that women feel immense pressure to be perceived as polite and unobtrusive. I can get with that.
Why, though, did I apologize when my water broke while standing in the ER waiting room? Or when I told HR that my male supervisor was being sexually inappropriate with his female subordinates? Or when I get a dirty look because my baby is crying in public?
Those are hardly things I should apologize for.
Sloane Crosley, the woman who wrote the Times article posits that she believes these “sorrys” are “tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing.” Whoa.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is a singular explanation for why women tend to do this, nor would the same reasoning apply across the board.
Here are some things that I remind myself of when I become aware that I’ve been saying sorry too frequently and at inappropriate times:
We Are What We Think
I’ve noticed that I feel gross about myself when I constantly repent for who I am or what I have to say. Indeed, I am literally telling another person what to think of me and what I think of myself. I am telling her “I am sorry”. Though I don’t outright believe that I’m a pitiful loser or unworthy, that is what I’m subconsciously communicating. If I said over and over again “I am bright and beautiful”, it would send a message to the people I interact with, and it would solidify that notion in my own brain, so that eventually, it would be my truth.
Sorry Loses Its Meaning
When I say “sorry” for the littlest, silliest things, the word loses its power. So when I really need to apologize, perhaps it doesn’t carry the same weight as it would if I weren’t sorry for every other thing. If I tell you I’m sorry for not being in the mood for Mexican food or I’m sorry that my kid needs a nap, it won’t mean much to you if/when I ever need to seriously apologize. My “sorry” will be empty.
Create a New Habit
This word has become a habit, just like other words, phrases, and gestures we use regularly. A few years ago, I decided that in order to break myself of over-apologizing, when I’d catch myself arbitrarily saying “sorry”, I’d quickly blurt “NOT SORRY”. Please know that this confirmed for people that I’m a complete hot mess, and possibly schizophrenic. BUT it did what I wanted it to do for me. I began to rewire my brain, and it was a great conversation started with other ladies who understood what I was doing, once they stopped laughing at me.
Say What You Mean
What if I said “excuse me” to the person in the grocery store aisle, instead of “sorry”? What if I said a sincere “thank you” to my friend who pays for my lunch, instead of a shameful “sorry”? What if I said “I’ve worked here for two years and have contributed great things to this team. I am requesting a raise,” instead of “I’m sorry, but I have a child to feed and this is really awkward, but I need bigger paychecks. Do you think maybe its possible to pay me a little more? I’m so sorry to ask.”
What if we said what we meant, and as long as we were kind and respectful, no apologies were involved?
My friend, Amy Poehler (we’ve never met, but I know we would hit it off) has a chapter about apologizing in her book “Yes, Please”. In the introduction to that chapter, she writes: “it takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate.”
Find your voice, ladies. And don’t worry if its too loud. Seize your real estate. Stop being sorry.