Compulsive apologies

If you find yourself apologizing often it might be time to look at why you feel compelled to say ‘I’m sorry’ so often.” ~DailyOM

The quote above comes from a wonderful blog post on DailyOM titled The Feeling Underneath: Compulsive Apologies. I’ve had people point out to me for many years that I tend to apologize too much. I tend to try to rein in that tendency a bit each time someone points it out to me, but it’s always a temporary reduction in apologies because I’ve never addressed the reasons why I do it.

I worked with a woman at my last job that finally inspired me to dig a little deeper. This woman was a senior manager in the organization I worked in, with a great deal of authority and experience. However, I quickly noticed as I worked with her on a project team that she apologized more often than anyone I’ve ever known. Despite the fact that she was the senior ranking member of the team, she routinely apologized for every opinion she offered. Sometimes she even apologized for stating factual data.

In fact, she would often even interrupt herself while she was making a point in order to insert an apology: “I’ve been doing this kind of analysis for a long time, and—I’m sorry—the data shows that …” She would throw in an apology like this even when she was very forcibly arguing for something! I noticed that these constant apologies made her arguments considerably less effective with the people she was trying to convince despite her obvious experience and authority.

I found myself constantly wondering what exactly it was that she was apologizing for. For expressing her opinion? For disagreeing with people? For having an opinion? For pointing out something that might disappoint people? I’m not sure.

The more I tried to figure out her apologies, though, the more I started noticing mine and questioning what I was really apologizing for when I caught myself saying I was sorry. I found that there were three situations in which I often used the phrase “I’m sorry.”

The first of these were occasions when I had genuinely made a mistake or wronged someone in some way and was expressing my remorse for what I had done. I am human. I do make mistakes. But I try to have the integrity to apologize for my mistakes when I make them. This seems to me to be a legitimate use of the phrase “I’m sorry,” and this is one area where I hope to show greater integrity. I haven’t always been as good as I could have been at owning up to my mistakes.

The second situation where I often say “I’m sorry” is when I am expressing sympathy at hearing someone else’s bad news: “I’m so sorry to hear your cat died.” I don’t mean this as an apology, even though I am using the word sorry, nor does the other person seem to perceive it as an apology. As I’ve become more sensitive to how often I say “I’m sorry,” I have tried to come up with something else to say in situations like these, but I haven’t yet found anything that fits. “I’m sad that your cat died” just doesn’t quite fit, especially when I didn’t know the cat to have any personal sadness about it. For now, I’m just doing my best to say “I’m sorry to hear that …” instead of just “I’m sorry that …” to make sure it’s clear to everyone that I’m not apologizing; I’m expressing sympathy.

The third situation where I often say “I’m sorry” is the one that is the problem. This “I’m sorry” has every appearance of an apology except for the fact that I did not actually do something wrong. I was apologizing for things that were outside of my control.

Sometimes I found that I was apologizing for having to tell someone something they really didn’t want to hear. Sometimes I found that I was apologizing for disappointing someone in some way—because I couldn’t or wouldn’t do what they wanted me to do. Sometimes I found that I was apologizing for being me, with my unique set of faults (and strengths). Sometimes I’m apologizing for bothering someone by asking for something I need, for taking up space, for even existing.

In all of these cases, I am apologizing out of fear. I am using the words “I’m sorry” to try to prevent someone from being angry or disappointed or upset with me. These are the time when saying “I’m sorry” is not said from a place of integrity; it’s said as a means of giving away my power in the hopes of buying safety and approval.

It’s this last category of apologies that I am working hard to reduce. I’m trying to take the initiative to find out if I have actually done something wrong before I apologize, so that I can act from a place of integrity whether I apologize or not. I’m not where I want to be with this yet, but I’m making great progress. If nothing else, I’m starting to really pay attention to how I use the words and to consciously determine whether they are appropriate. Awareness is always the first step toward change.

2 thoughts on “Compulsive apologies

  1. Pingback: Sorry I’m not sorry « Journey Through the Chrysalis

  2. Pingback: What Are You Sorry About? « Yahooey's Blog

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