We Need to Stop Over-Apologising When There is Nothing to Apologise For… This is How

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By Hannah Smith, Legends Report Writer

An apology can be a wonderful thing so long as it is infrequent and from the heart."

– Gary Hopkins, author

I would like to mention a little about my youngest niece. She has recently turned two and enjoys all of the things that your average sassy toddler would enjoy. These are things such as fighting with her older sister; playing with dishwater, remote controls, recently purchased groceries – basically anything that her parents try to keep out of her reach; and eating hummus wraps and pickled red cabbage (she arguably has surprisingly mature taste buds for a two year old). She is also a wonderful talker, she picked up speech before she turned one and can more or less speak in full sentences, and definitely ensures to make herself heard.

I wanted to mention a little bit about her to emphasise that she is more or less as normal as the average two-year-old can be. She was a pandemic baby, born three days before the first UK lockdown, but little ones seem to be able to adapt to anything and she is social as ever now she is allowed to see other children.

But during my visits with her I have noticed something that does worry me about my little niece, and that is her urgency to apologise to anyone and everyone that she interacts with. If she picks a toy to play with she will apologise to the ones that weren’t selected and she will say sorry to the food she doesn’t eat. If her sister is upset about something that doesn’t involve her, she will apologise nonetheless. Sometimes in the middle of a game, she will look straight at me and say she’s sorry. When I ask her why, she never seems to have an answer, she’s just sorry.

I know that in the context of my niece, this is probably fairly normal behaviour. It is expected that when kids are in the toddler stage that they are testing their boundaries and learning appropriate responses to certain situations. For my niece, this constant need to apologise is probably just a normal stage of development, nothing to worry about.

But watching my niece go through these rituals of saying sorry for no reason has made me spend a long time pondering the act of saying sorry, and how many of us need to stop doing it so much.

Now don’t get mistaken, I am not at all suggesting that we should never apologise. It is, of course, important to say sorry when we are in the wrong, when we have hurt somebody, or when we have displayed ignorance or a lack of empathy. There are plenty of occasions where making amends for something we have done is very significant and the right thing to do. I am not talking about those such occasions, I am talking about the habit that many of us have of over-apologising.

One of the hardest things for an over-apologiser is recognising when they are doing it. So, let me give some examples of what I mean…

Perhaps you are working in a restaurant and a customer arrives early for their meal. So early, in fact, that their table is still occupied by the previous patrons. You have to ask these new people to wait until their table is ready. How many of us would apologise in the situation for making our customers wait, despite it being out of our control that they have arrived early?

Maybe you are searching for a particularly elusive item in a supermarket and you need to ask a member of staff for help to find it. How many of us have grabbed their attention with this particular opening line: ‘Sorry to bother you…’. 

Perhaps you have had a very rough day in terms of mental health, where you feel particularly stressed, anxious or low in mood. You hold it back until you finally make it home where you can break down a little. The people you live with, who care about you, want to support you at this moment. But I’m sure some of us have apologised for the inconvenience that our low mood is causing for the ones closest to us, that we feel we must be a burden to them. You feel like you need to apologise for the way you are, even though your loved ones probably just want to help.

I am sure that many of us have been in situations similar to these examples where we have felt the need to apologise, even though we haven’t really done anything wrong. In my opinion, this is what we need to stop doing. There is nothing wrong with saying you're sorry, when it is in order to take responsibility for something that you have done wrong – in other words, when we actually have something that we need to be sorry for. It is when we apologise for who we are and the way we express ourselves, or on behalf of another person whose actions we have no influence over, or for something that is out of our control – that is when we should take more of a mindful approach to our apologising.

I want to talk about my own experience with over-apologising and how I think it has negatively affected my mindframe over the years. This is so that we can understand together when we should NOT apologise for certain situations, and how we can take more mindful and constructive approaches to situations where we would normally lean on an apology.

Why Are We Sorry For Who We Are?

It is easier for me to write about something like over apologising if I can tell a little about my own story. I have always been an over-apologiser, to the point that I have been told off by people for apologising too much (ironically, this would normally provoke another apology from me for apologising too much, I’m sure many others can relate to that).

If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life.’

– Marcus Garvey, political activist

As long as I can remember I thought that by giving away my ‘sorries’ by the dozen, I was showing polite consideration for the feelings of others and I could show them that I was being considerate of their feelings. There were even times when I would use an apology to comfort somebody who was upset or unhappy, I would say that I was sorry that they were hurting even if the reason was nothing to do with me – another thing that I’m sure many people can relate to. I basically thought that the more I said sorry, the more people would view me as a dependable and kind person, somebody that they could rely on.

I have realised recently that this wasn’t the case. I was over-apologising with the best intentions, but it was only ever because I was worried about what people thought of me, and I would gain their favour by saying that five-letter word. I was apologising because I didn’t want to be an inconvenience to others and take up their time or efforts. I wanted to push myself down in order to make them feel important and validated. I was apologising as a way to cope with my own insecurity and low self esteem, and my struggles with social anxiety especially.

An example of this is a few years before I went to high school, when I was around eight, my best and closest friends moved away from my town. I had some other friends, but none that I was as close to as the one who moved away. This made me very afraid that I would have no friends at school like them, so I became desperate to get close to anybody else. I was scared of being alone or picked on.

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This led to a very toxic high school experience where I became quite a meek person. I had managed to obtain a small group of friends, but found myself in a cycle of hiding who I was and pretending I was just like them. I found myself apologising if I displayed the smallest amount of my personality that may have been seen as ‘weird’ or ‘nerdy’ or something to that effect. It was just highschoolers being highschoolers, and I’m sure to some extent the people I was trying so hard to act normal around were also worried about similar issues. But for me, this developed into a real issue that I still struggle with today, which is the act of apologising for being me.

Since I have begun to realise this about myself, I have begun to notice the ‘over-apologisers’ around me much more. It makes me sad to think that people feel some sort of guilt about who they are and like they need to make amends for harmlessly showing off their personalities. When I saw this trait in my little niece, no matter how innocent it may be, I realised that this is actually something that can do long-term significant damage to a person’s self-esteem.

"The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel." – Steven Furtick, pastor

What Can We Do?

I can only refer to my personal experiences as an over-apologiser to explain how we may be able to begin to overcome the compulsion to say sorry. It will be different for every individual and every isolated case, but there are ways that we can begin to rethink our relationship with the word ‘sorry’ and use it in the times where it is actually needed.

In her ‘Mind’ article, Rae Jacobson explains how there could be an essence of social conditioning that causes young people to over-apologise, especially young girls, who are often brought up to consider the feelings of others over their own. Although it is important for young people to learn empathy, pushing these ideas too far can cause them to resort to over-apologising. Jacobson explains that a key way we can support young people in this is by applauding directness:

"Instead of overprizing politeness, help your daughter focus on being direct first, and polite second. Using clear language demonstrates confidence and makes it more likely her point will be heard."

– Rae Jacobson, content writer at Child Mind Institute."

Although Jacobson’s advice is directed towards developing children, I think that this ethos is something that we can all use to help tackle our over apologising, no matter what age we are. A great deal of over-apologising comes from our development, if our brains have wired themselves to neurotically cope by saying sorry during times of distress, it is hard to overwrite this.

"The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity." – Erich Fromm, social psychologist

The best starting point to rewrite any destructive habit is to begin sequences of mindfulness. This means that when we are in a situation where we feel the need to say sorry, we try and rationalise our feelings and decide whether this is an appropriate situation or not. Currently, when I feel the compulsion to apologise, I try to take a second to have a few deep breaths, calm down my inner thoughts, and think about why I want to say sorry… What is the physical reason that I am saying sorry?

Obviously, in practice this can be quite difficult, as when we are in face to face situations with other people there is not as much time to think through our response. But even in social situations there is nothing wrong with taking a second to think up a logical way to deal with the situation, rather than relying on an apology to keep the social peace.

Something that I have begun to do as an act of directness is to focus on my use of vocabulary when I am in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, a time where it is likely that I would begin over apologising. An example of this is at my work, say if somebody might miss their appointment because of lateness, which would be a time where I would rely on saying sorry to them despite this situation not being my fault. Although I still feel awkward, I now try to use a different word rather than ‘sorry’, so I do not diminish myself in the exchange. I use words like ‘unfortunately’ or ‘regrettably’ – I still feel uncomfortable and these words may come out a little stiff and over-rehearsed, but I come out of the social interaction feeling positive because I did not belittle myself by apologising for a mistake that I didn't make.

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I realise that this is a very black and white example, and in many cases it is not as simple as how I have just described it. The point is that I have expressed empathy and understanding towards the frustrations of another person, but I have not directed negativity towards myself. I am happy to say that this has helped a lot in tackling my tendency to over-apologise.

On the flip side of this, I have found that by reducing the amount of apologies I give out into the world, this has actually made the times I need to make amends for wrongdoing much more sincere and empowering. It is easy to say sorry for something that isn’t our fault, because we can use it to feed our low self esteem. But it is hard to apologise for something that is a genuine mistake or act of ignorance, because we actually have to face something negative about ourselves that has hurt somebody and make the effort to improve ourselves. We as ‘apologisers’ need to figure out which one is which and use it to make the bonds between us stronger and more cherished, rather than depleting the relationship we have with ourselves.

"Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it. You have been criticising yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens."

– Louise L. Hay, author

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