Confessions of a Recovering Sorry-aholic
I readily admit that I have been in recovery from apologizing for everything under the sun, starting in my teenaged years. I first realized that it was a problem during my first round of therapy at the age of 19 and even more so when people in my life started pointing it out to me.
The tendency to over-apologize still comes up from time to time; now, however, I put my hands together in gratitude that I’m no longer imprisoned by it in the ways I once was. And still I must be vigilant, because like any addiction, it can knock us down again when we think we’ve got it licked!
And yes, I used the word addiction. I’ll get to that later and I recognize that some of you may object to this categorization–I accept that!
Apologizing has a genuine place in our human interactions. At it’s best, it’s a sincere act to take responsibility for harm we have done to another, whether deliberate or not, and is a step towards making amends with the person or persons involved. It can go a long way towards healing a situation. So, to be be upfront, I will never stop apologizing.
However, I’m talking about something different here.
Over-apologizing may be easier for others to spot than for over-apologizers, as it can become so automatic that we can lose awareness that we’re doing it.
Since spotting our own over-apologizing can be tricky, I’ve devised a checklist to help. The presence of one or two symptoms of over-apologizing is not necessarily enough to indicate a problem with over-apologizing, although in some situations it could be. Getting an opinion from someone you trust or a counsellor, psychologist or other professional can help to further clarify things.
- I find myself apologizing multiple times a day
- I apologize automatically for a range of situations
- I apologize for situations which I have nothing to do with or that I’m not responsible for
- I get called out by others for apologizing too much
- People become angry or annoyed when they hear me apologizing, yet again
- I apologize over and over for the same thing
- Sometimes I don’t know why I’m apologizing
- Sometimes I apologize and I’m not aware I’m doing it until someone points it out
- People say they can’t relax around me because I apologize too much
- Others say things in response to my apologies like,
“I can’t prop you up emotionally!”
“Only you can make yourself feel better!”
“Don’t you have any self respect?”
“I wasn’t mad at you until you started apologizing.”
“Your apologizes don’t mean anything anymore.”
(the eye roll)
If over-apologizing causes so much bother, why do we do it?
Possible reasons are varied and include:
Conflict Diffusion – We may have learned this as a skill growing up in order to avoid conflict in the family and it is something that continues to this day in our primary relationships.
Taking the Blame – A variation of the above. When we self-scapegoat in dysfunctional family situations, it can divert attention from more serious behaviours in the family that are often unspoken (for example, trauma, addictions, etc.). Of course, such a ‘strategy’ is typically not conscious or deliberate.
People Pleasing – Even though over-apologizing may not seem pleasing to others, we may harbour a belief that others will like us better if we apologize or that others will be happier if we take the fall for a particular situation.
Low Self-Esteem – We may genuinely believe that we are to blame for anything that goes wrong. Such beliefs are generally caused by unhappy family situations where children are inappropriately blamed for the family’s dysfunction. If your self-esteem is low, please consider professional counselling.
Trauma (Past or Present) – Over-apologizing may have been developed as a key survival strategy growing up or it may still be used to negotiate current relationship dynamics, particularly in relationships where emotional abuse is present. Again, I would recommend counselling, providing that it is able to be accessed confidentially, particularly where domestic violence is present.
Avoiding Responsibility – Some of the apologies we give are not apologies at all but a variation of avoidance—a reluctance to own up to something we’ve done. Examples would be “I’m sorry you’re angry”; instead: I’m sorry I didn’t take the garbage out and now it got missed for the week.”
It’s Addictive – Again, I know that this is a controversial statement as apologizing doesn’t lead to physiological dependence, however there is a psychological dependence that is created with over-apologizing. Some “benefits” of over apologizing that reinforce this behaviour include:
- Attention from others (and even negative attention can feel better than no attention)
- Others kicking into rescue mode to try to “save” us from our anxiety
- Reassurance – particularly for those of us who rely on it to boost self esteem
- Makes us feel loved, valued or noticed, particularly if our over-apologizing garners a response from others
There is a road out of over apologizing! These tips work best if you are in the company of people whom you consider emotionally and physically safe.
Be Mindful – The first step is to notice whenever you are apologizing. The key here is to suspend judgement and just notice. Some days you may not notice at all, other days you may notice dozens of apologies. With practice, you will become increasingly aware of the apology habit.
Let Go – As passive as this sounds, letting go is actually an active practice of dropping our thoughts or behaviours as soon as we notice them.
Close Mouth/Gently Bite Tongue – to physically stop the act of apologizing. The urge may be so strong that we start fighting with ourselves and producing a mumbling sound, which typically isn’t discernible!
Distract – While this may be the opposite of mindfulness, it can sometimes be helpful to engage with something else as it can get us out of the apology mental track and decrease its urgency.
Delay – A variation of distract where we commit to something else before allowing ourselves to proceed with the over-apologizing (or other unwanted behaviour) in order to decrease the urge or impulse around it.
Apologize meaningfully and genuinely for sincere regrets – Because you’ve reduced frequency, they will carry greater weight and importance.
Take responsibility for what you’ve done and avoid half-apologies – These often have the reverse effect of making others even angrier or reducing your believability.
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