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Should We Be Sorry, for Saying "I'm Sorry?"

I'd like to apologize. Big surprise, huh?

Yes, I have heard it a hundred times from a hundred people: "stop apologizing." I do it a lot, and I'm sure it annoys some people. Sorry about that.

Perhaps it's low self-esteem, or the coping mechanism of a chronic conflict-avoider, or even the desperate pleas of an eternal outsider just dying to fit in. Then again, maybe it's just an affectation of my conversational style.

In the end, it all boils down to this. Two of the most common words from my mouth are, "I'm sorry." And I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

Apologizing and anxiety go hand in hand. When you worry about what you said or didn't say, or about what you did or didn't do, or about being late or early or rude or insensitive or selfish or inadequate or forgetful, those of us with anxiety, apologize. But those aren't the only reasons we do it, and that is why this topic is a bit more complex than it seems.

I've beaten myself up about this many times. I've even had a few counselors try and help me change. But, it didn't do much good. Sometimes I say it to apologize, sometimes to comfort, and sometimes because I don't know how else to start a sentence.

And maybe, just maybe, that's okay.

The Problem with Apologizing

Apologizing can be a good thing and can be a sign of empathy towards others. But over-apologizing can be harmful.

In a Forbes article by Jay Rai, the author said that "Over-apologizing is a common symptom amongst individuals with low self-esteem, fear of conflict and a fear of what others think. He added that "this goes hand in hand with poor boundaries, perhaps accepting blame for things we didn’t do or couldn’t control."

Leading off sentences with "I'm sorry..." often shows that "you're subconsciously seeking reassurance." He said that you are also "sending a message to those you're speaking to that often undermine the validity of your statements or implies lack of confidence in expressing yourself or asserting your own needs."

Over-apologizing isn’t so different from over-complimenting: You may think you’re displaying yourself as a nice and caring person, but you’re actually sending the message that you lack confidence and are ineffectual. — Beverly Engel, Psychotherapist

In the Forbes article, Rai suggests alternatives to leading off with "I'm sorry," such as:

  • Thank you for your patience...

  • Do you have a moment?

  • I am unable to attend this meeting

  • These are my initial thoughts...

  • I have a different take that I'd love to share.

According to the majority of articles that I found on over-apologizing, this is a common opinion, and working on reducing this is a positive step forward.

But then again, not everyone agrees.

Is Apologizing Really That Bad?

A Washington Post article titled "Can you apologize too much?" contradicts some of the more commonly held beliefs around apologizing.

Scientific evidence suggests that you should never have to say you’re sorry, for saying sorry. — Teddy Amenabar, Washington Post

A study from researchers at Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that leading a conversation with "I'm sorry" may actually help to build trust.

In this study, a man asked dozens of individuals waiting at a rainy train station to borrow their cellphone. Almost all of them — 91 percent — turned him down. But then he tried it again leading off each conversation with "I'm sorry about the rain..." Almost half of the responses were now positive, and they handed over their cell phones.

Alison Wood Brooks, associate professor at Harvard Business School, explained why this might happen. “A superfluous apology isn’t about blame. It’s an acknowledgment of someone else’s suffering, essentially, even if it’s incredibly minor.” She suggested that it is far more common for individuals to not apologize enough, than over-apologize.

Apologizing is a natural part of our language, and the idea of over-apologizing is subjective. — Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University

People who apologize more often are usually less narcissistic and have more empathy to others. They are frequently seen by others as more friendly, even more moral.

Do Women Apologize More Than Men?

The simple answer is here is "yes." But the reasons of this — and results from it — may not be so straightforward.

According to an article in Psychology Today, "research shows that women tend to say sorry more than men." Possible causes may include lack of self-confidence and socialization. Apologizing may be viewed as a a sign of inexperience, insincerity, and can be a hinderance in negotiating. Basically, over-apologizing has been viewed by many as a limitation to success in the workplace. This is why many articles have been written encouraging women to find alternatives to saying "I'm sorry."

There's been a push in recent years, especially among women, to apologize less. — Kristin Wong, The New York Times

But, this topic is also a bit more complex than it first seems.

"Women do apologize slightly more than men on average," said Karina Schumann, associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. "But that’s probably because women are more likely to notice that a given behavior may be offensive and, therefore, more deserving of an apology."

Schumann went on to state that men apologize just as often as women when they perceive they've done something wrong and that the gender gap regarding apologizing is not nearly as large as people think it is. According to Dr. Schumann, men rated offenses as less severe and less deserving of an apology than women. "Men apologize less often because they are less likely to think they've offended anyone."

And as we mentioned above, even though there are detrimental effects of apologizing often, there are also benefits. Women — and men — who apologize are seen as more friendly and less threatening, and thus included more often in business and social settings. They are also considered more trustworthy than their less apologetic colleagues.

In addition, apologies can mean many things. According to a New York Times article by Kristin Wong, "words are defined in how they're used and an apology is used in many different ways." It can be used to help repair a relationship, to show respect, or even just to smooth out a conversation.

Many times an "I'm sorry" doesn't really mean, "I'm sorry."

Finding a Balance

If over-apologizing is a hurdle for you and you wish to reduce how often you say "I'm sorry," then do so. But, don't get carried away. And don't let the stigma of over-apologizing affect how you feel about yourself. As almost everything in life, there are pros and cons to apologizing. Find the balance that is right for you.

As for me, I'm learning to accept myself as I am. I'm 57 and even though I might use "I'm sorry" a bit less now and then, I'm going to stop apologizing for... well...apologizing.

See you next time.




For Informational Purposes Only

All information presented on Easing Anxiety is for informational purposes only, and should never be considered medical or health advice. Withdrawal, tapering, or any change in dosage of benzodiazepines or any other prescription drugs should only be done under the direct supervision of a licensed physician.

This article was written by a living, breathing, human person.

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