During a semester in college, my roommate and I gave ourselves a challenge—to make note of every time we apologized. At the end of each day, we did a push-up for each “sorry” we said that day. And let me tell you—we did quite a few push-ups.
For me, “sorry” functions as a preemptive move I make in many social situations. A perfectionist by nature, my “sorrys” shield me from the possibility of criticism by others: “Sorry, my car’s a mess,” I tell a friend as she gets in. She can’t comment on it if I’ve already acknowledged it.
Even when I’m not actually uttering the s-word, an apologetic tone creeps into many of the statements I make: “I made some hot chocolate. It may not be that good, but you’re welcome to it.” This verbal hedging allows me to navigate an uncertain world with the certainty that I’ve pointed out all the possible flaws others might notice. It’s been years since that push-up challenge, and still the struggle with “sorry” continues.
The confidence struggle
For some of us, apologies are an important part of our communication style (and should not necessarily always be eliminated). But for me, using sorry as a security blanket has had some serious repercussions, not only for my relationships with others but for my relationship with myself. When I apologize in this way, I undermine myself. As sociologist Maja Javanovic explains in her 2019 TEDx talk: “Apologies have become our habitual way of communicating, and it’s killing our confidence.” Sure, the car might have a couple things on the floor and the hot chocolate may be over-sugared for some palates, but perhaps I’m actually okay with both of these things.
Often, my apologies are not true requests for forgiveness but rather bids for another’s support. I’m not confident enough in my own decisions, likes, and interests, and so seek affirmation from others. I want so much to hear, “Oh, your car is fine!” or, “This hot chocolate tastes wonderful.” In moments of insecurity, I reason that if I’m the one to throw myself under the bus, no one else can. But not only does this lower confidence—it’s also exhausting.
A lopsided dance with criticism
Over time, I’ve found that what I’m actually blocking with my “sorrys” is potential criticism, which is a healthy part of communication, strong relationships, and personal growth. I’m talking about the constructive criticism that’s spoken from a place of love by someone who cares for me.
Why is taking criticism so hard? There’s scientific evidence that we are perhaps more greatly attuned to the negative in our environments. According to one study: “People will assign more blame for negative behavior than praise for positive behavior, even when the behaviors are equated for their basic extremity (i.e., negativity / positivity).” This is referred to as the “amplified blame hypothesis.” This rings true with my own experience: I’ve always taken negative feedback as a reflection of my identity, while praise just seems to roll off my back. Even if criticism is wedged between two compliments, I’m still going to focus more on the negative feedback.
Biologically, this also makes sense, since criticism can be experienced as a personal rejection. As a 2011 article makes clear, acceptance by the group has historically been a means of survival:
Cooperative group living enabled early humans to share and receive resources from each other, thereby making it unnecessary for individuals to carry the entire burden of their well-being on their own shoulders.
Therefore, social rejection is experienced as “bitter” in order to motivate individuals to avoid a negative state in which they do not receive the benefits of inclusion, which ultimately decreases their survival rate.
If my apology-laden interactions are fueled by my desire not to be rejected, perhaps what needs fine tuning is not merely my verbal habits, but my conception of self and relationship with failure. Why do I assume that a criticism of a minor flaw, or even a major one, is a rejection of me?
Recognizing myself as flawed, but remaining secure
As mentioned above, I’ve come to realize that often I’m not really apologizing for my car or my hot chocolate recipe, but for myself. I’m looking for validation of my identity, and in doing so, I shield myself from moments of real failure. When I focus on a car full of crumbs or a super-sweet hot chocolate, it becomes harder to differentiate between a perceived failing and a real one, between actions or inactions that did not hurt someone and those that truly hurt someone and merit an apology.
Using apologies to sidestep moments of real personal failing leads to my missing out on a major benefit of making mistakes, the ability to grow from them. When I evade this process, I miss out on an opportunity to experience myself as flawed without letting these flaws undermine my self-worth.
When I store up all that insecurity (basing my worth on people’s opinions) in myself, it’s not a wonder that it has to be released somewhere—either in unkindness toward self (negative self-talk) or others (moodiness, hyper-sensitivity to perceived criticism). Maybe the first step in correcting over-apologetic behavior is to first recognize myself as flawed. I will make mistakes, but I am not the mistakes I make. People will not always be pleased with what I do, and even that is okay. It also helps me to remember that those I surround myself with have my best interests at heart, and that typically their comments and criticisms will be constructive. I do not need to protect myself with “sorry.” Like any tool, I want to use it when it is called for.
Making sorry matter
As I try to place healthy boundaries on the use of my “sorrys,” it’s apparent there are gaps in the way society deals with apologies that I need to consider. I’m so often immersed in social media landscapes where criticism is typically of the venomous variety and often barbed with sarcasm, disdain, and indifference for the feelings of others. And typically, no one’s apologizing in these spaces. Instead, dissident opinions are met with anger and even blocking or unfriending. This strikes me as a stark contrast with an in-person culture that can sometimes even be overpolite.
Noting this difference between how we interact with strangers in person versus online has made me wonder if over-politeness in person is leading us to a rather passive-aggressive cultural milieu. If we’re saying “sorry” when we don’t have to, are we letting things slide in our personal lives (boundaries, direct communication habits, etc.) that lead us to be harsh with others in virtual spaces?
Not only do problems lie in over-apologizing, but the speed at which we apologize today may be affected by our hyper-paced society and cut against an apology’s true purpose. As a 2016 Atlantic article observes:
The impulse to apologize instantly may stem from a cultural credo that action is always better than indecision—and that waiting implies apathy. “We are primed to react immediately to everything,” said Frank Partnoy, the author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay . . . [but] strategic stalling in apologizing often yields the best results: “We feel we need to apologize right away, in the same way we feel we need to respond right away to texts, emails, and 24-hour news.”
The article goes on to explain that those who have been hurt often feel an apology to be more genuine when the apologizer takes time to listen to the hurt party’s side of the story—how the apologizer’s action hurt him or her. When applied to over-apologizing, there may be immediate relief for the apologizer in saying “sorry,” but the person on the receiving end may feel that it lacks sincerity.
In a word, more is not better when it comes to “sorry.” Thankfully, for curbing the immediate impulse, there’s oodles of advice available about ways to handle over-apologizing. Ideas like being more self-aware, saying “thank you” instead of “sorry,” responding to an apology with “I forgive you” instead of “It’s okay,” and using the app Just Not Sorry to track apologetic language in written communication are just a few of the many ways we can begin to apologize less or more intentionally. For my roomie and me, it was push-ups.
But when it comes to the true nature of my over-apologetic habits, the necessary change is a shifting of focus. By learning to apologize less, I am actually learning to apologize better, because a true apology is an admission of failure made not out of fear of criticism or rejection, but out of true remorse and a desire to heal a wounded relationship. When I’m apologizing not from a place of fear but from a place of understanding myself and others, I am helping cultivate the more honest society I seek in the real and virtual worlds.