They flash in my head like dayglow in the dark and roll off my tongue at rapid speed, like a wakeful child barreling out of bed to the tree on Christmas morning.
Of the thousands of words that I could pull together to respond to benign actions, such as walking in when someone is walking out, unintentionally making someone wait, interrupting someone, walking in front of someone, taking “too long” to get my change out, or making a thoughtful decision at the café counter, it is these two words that spring to mind like a jackrabbit on a sunny spring day.
Whichever of these social infractions I feel I have committed, the two words I offer up like penance after confessing my sins, like the consolation for my crimes, are:
It may sound trivial at first.
But seriously, I challenge all of us to start tracking how often we are apologizing. And for what, exactly? And if you are a woman, you are doing it even more.
A study done back in 2010 looked at the difference between men and women and apologizing behavior. Both sexes apologized at about the same rate when they deemed their behavior offensive. But, women tended to perceive more of their behaviors as offensive and apologized more for them. It seems that women have a lower threshold for their offensive behavior and feel the need to make amends for it with excessive apologies.
But, see, it is much deeper than that. It is not just filler, or slip of the tongue, or social niceties. When we over-apologize, it is likely rooted in some unconscious psychological force. It may be related to our sense of low self-esteem or self-worth—feeling like we are less entitled than or equal to others—for something as innocuous as a place in line, parking spot, entering a store, or taking the last drop of cream. We may preemptively apologize to avoid criticism or someone perceiving us in a negative way.
Who am I to walk in first? Who am I to take the last piece of pie? Who am I to answer first? Who am I to ask for the waiter to return the wrong dish for the one I ordered?
For some of us, we find ourselves apologizing as we enter any room because we inherently believe that we are to blame for everything and anything—and at the same time responsible for putting others at ease. We are hypercritical of ourselves and more expectant of apologies from others, which does not make for smooth communication and shared understanding.
How much time have we wasted deciphering the level of offense we think we may have cast upon someone at a party, in a conversation, or at the grocery store? Or the time spent dissecting the conversation and our offenses once ways have parted? How many conversations have been upended or derailed because we make it about our need to apologize in those moments?
For some of us, apologizing has become like second nature, one that drives us as if on autopilot. Or, it becomes a filler for the awkward space between our actions and the anticipation of the other’s judgment.
Women are biologically wired to preserve relationships. Borne out of that is a sense of responsibility. But over-apologizing mires the lines between self and other, clouding our ending and another’s beginning. A healthy relationship with self and other is one with boundaries that clearly acknowledge what is ours to own and what is the other’s, and that which remains in the middle on which we rest our soft eyes and clear minds.
Awareness is the first step on the path to understanding and changing a behavior.
I was serious when I challenged all of us to start noticing how often we think or say, “I’m sorry.” It may take time to consistently notice our habituated thoughts and feelings that go along with misplaced remorse. But with practice, it’s well worth it.
From awareness comes the sacred pause, the space between believing our thought or speaking the words. The sacred pause gives us expansiveness and time to reflect, rather than react and stop feeding the habit until it is stuffed to the guilty gills.
As Tara Brach says, “A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving towards any goal. The pause can occur in the midst of almost any activity and can last for an instant, for hours, or for seasons of our life.”
Then, assess the situation to determine whether an apology is required. Some helpful guidelines are: Have we morally or ethically caused distress or harm to another person? Has our behavior caused distress or unnecessarily placed responsibility on someone else? Often times, we may find that an alternative response is more fitting, such as “thank you,” a smile, a neutral comment, or simply walking away and carrying on with our day.
One of the most important steps is to observe and notice how we feel after the situation.
Usually, when we do not excessively apologize for offenses we did not commit and rather use an alternate response, we tend to leave that situation, that space, by letting go and moving on with our day.
We end up with less Monday morning quarterbacking and second-guessing and more feeling grounded in our conscious decision to speak with intention and stop perpetuating over-apologizing.
From the adapted words of Ali MacGraw in the movie “Love Story,” “Being a woman means never having to say sorry for something you haven’t done.”