Are You an Over-Apologizer? Here’s How to Save Your ‘Sorrys’ for When You Really Mean It

Women may say ‘I’m sorry’ more than men, but it’s not for the reasons you might think.
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Women may say ‘I’m sorry’ more than men, but it’s not for the reasons you might think.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about chronic sorrying, particularly among women. Sloane Crosley, op-ed contributor to the New York Times, found herself apologizing to her waiter when she found sand in her salad and again when she, a vegetarian, received her second dish covered in bacon. Women in the World created a fifty-second supercut composed entirely of on-screen women saying, “I’m sorry.” This compulsion even got a send-up in Amy Schumer’s almost-too-true-to-be-funny comedy sketch, where a panel of female innovators in their field interrupt the Q-and-A discussion with a smattering of apologies for insignificant things (the microphone giving feedback, for example).

Lest you think this is simply pop culture making a big deal out of nothing, research published in Psychological Science also indicates that women actually think they do things that deserve an apology more so than men. According to this study:

“Women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offenses. There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies. This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”

We compulsively apologize for things that we can’t even control. At the end of the Q-and-A discussion in Schumer’s sketch, all the women apologize in agony after the host accidentally spills a cup of hot coffee on one panelist’s lap. Schumer’s sketch hints that perhaps we apologize because we don’t feel that we deserve a dignified space on this planet. That might seem a bit harsh, but perhaps she’s on to something.

Our sorrying is a deeper matter than we think.

Recently I was standing alone in the kitchen cleaning up the lunch I had just enjoyed. As one of my roommates passed through, I found myself swallowing an apology, even though I was just going about my day. Why did I feel this sudden urge to apologize?

Standing in the kitchen, I had become aware of how lonely I was feeling. Our familial mash-up meals included all six kids, our parents, and sometimes friends, bellied up and sharing the day’s to-dos, jokes, and creative projects, all over endless batches of frijoles and crisp corn tortillas. I realized that I didn’t feel the urge to apologize because I had done something wrong but because I missed this communal eating experience and was subconsciously feeling abandoned by my housemates. Instead of acknowledging that, I felt like apologizing as a way to smooth over what was, at least for me, a tense social situation. I wish now that I had been more proactive in seeking that communal experience and fulfilling my need for connection.

It got me thinking, what if that verbal vomit is less a symptom of believing we don’t deserve to exist and more a positive need for connection that we aren’t expressing directly? We live in a highly wired, deeply disconnected age where tweets constitute interaction, and “catch-ups” happen on Facebook, not face-to-face. We human beings desire connection and community. We’re social beings. We need community that promotes a healthy give-and-take of encouragement and self-reflection. But what if we don’t have that? Or what if we haven’t learned how to seek or ask for it directly?

Women, even more than men, tend to be aware of social dynamics and more often are people-pleasers. But perhaps the fact that women apologize more than men is less about a cultural structure that maintains they deserve less space or respect. Perhaps it stems from the natural strength and desire that women have to bond and connect.

As I examined my own patterns of apologizing, I noticed that they typically came under two circumstances: (1) with feelings of loss, loneliness, or uncertainty, as a compulsion to please others and forge connections or (2) as a valid apology for the mistakes or choices I made.

If my desire to connect with others is what drives my compulsion to say sorry, then I need more functional ways of connecting than apologizing. I need to affirm that fear of being alone doesn’t require an apology.

If you can relate to this scenario and feel that you, too, are an over-apologizer, here are five ways to maintain, attain, or retain authentic connection without an impulse to say, “Sorry.”

01. Be aware of what you need and want.

If you’re looking for something, be willing to ask for it. Know who is responsible for that need being met and who is healthily capable of meeting it. Often, the answer is me. At times I feel disconnected because I’m not respecting, in tune with, or aware of my own value. And I want something else out there to fix it.

Take, for instance, the act of calling an old friend. We’ll often say something like, “Sorry if I’m interrupting your day,” or “Sorry I didn’t call sooner,” just to make sure we aren’t being bothersome. But the truth is, by calling that person—by forging a connection—we’re being proactive about our own happiness. And, more often than not, your friend wants to hear from you! That’s nothing to be sorry about. Instead of apologizing, simply ask how your friend is, and get straight to catching up. If it isn’t a good time, they’ll let you know on their own.

02. Communicate based on concrete realities, not on feelings.

Am I feeling like I did something wrong? Am I feeling out of place? Am I feeling worried about how others perceive me? Or did I actually do something to offend someone? Discern what’s going on out there and not just what’s going on in here.

Our feelings often communicate real needs, but they don’t always convey the best avenue for actions. I’ve learned that conflict happens on the outside. What I think about a situation may be fantasy or drama in my mind, not the reality of a situation, like what happened that day in my kitchen. When I communicate first with myself clearly and then with those in my life, I’ve avoided the compulsion to say sorry as a reaction and taken back my power to share a more authentic response.

03. Think positively.

Very little in the sorrying sphere is actually necessary. Sometimes, an apology actually sends a negative message—even when the other person wasn’t feeling any tension. Figure out what’s really going on before you burble out an unnecessary apology.

Had I apologized to my roommate in the kitchen that day, it could have sent her a message of negativity. Hearing an apology might have caused her to think there was some conflict occurring. Really I would have just been apologizing to make conversation and not because I’d done anything wrong. If there isn’t a justifiable wrongdoing, it’s better to avoid an apology until and unless you can reconcile the situation in your own mind.

04. Stop using apologies as fillers.

Let’s repurpose our compulsive energy to blurt “SORRY!” into a positive, active, honest statement of need: I need connection. Instead of apologizing for cleaning up after my solo meal in the kitchen, I could have said to my housemate, “Want to go get coffee tomorrow night?” I can ask for authentic connection directly. I don’t have to apologize around the issue out of fear of rejection by hooking others with a pity-me, sorry-me, or misplaced muddle of guilt. Real needs aren’t shameful. Connection is a necessary building block to human flourishing. And sorry just won’t cut it for getting that need for connection authentically met.

05. Perhaps the one you need to apologize to is yourself.

Finally, look at the root of your behavior. For me, I realized I might need to apologize to myself for self-abandonment, for not relating with myself on a more authentic level. Maybe I’m feeling apoplectically apologetic because I’m not giving myself the time of day, and I’m looking for someone else to fill a need that nobody can meet but me. In that case, I’ve created a chasm that no amount of apologies will fill. Instead of apologizing for feeling sad, for example, I could say, “Mom, I need a hug.”

I just don’t need to apologize like I used to anymore. Now I save my “sorrys” for those rare occasions where I hide the stain under a pillow; spray air freshener in the bathroom I promised to clean; cut you off in the parking lot. You know, the real stuff.

Photo Credit: Sara Kiesling