I have a confession to make.
I was…a serial apologizer.
Like many women, I have the disease to please, let me rephrase that. I had, the disease to please. I am now cured of this. Years of therapy and psychoanalysis will do that. So will, getting tired of assuming blame for everything gone wrong, in an effort to keep the peace, avoid conflict, and wanting to play nice! The book, “Disease to Please” was made famous by the Oprah Winfrey show’s frequent guest, Dr. Harriet Braiker, when she accurately described the inherent quality, most women, seem to share.
I take this notion one step further, in my experience, it seems to be more prevalent in women of abuse, women who suffered early childhood trauma, or those individuals who are moderately dysfunctional, who are devoid of self-esteem, assertiveness, and unsure of their self-worth.
While I recognize it is not exclusive to women, men who have experienced abuse and trauma tend to share this trait as well, for the most part, the need to please, thus apologize, profusely, is much more prevalent in women. So this got me thinking about the psychology that drives this apologizing, and here is what I found.
Understanding the “psychology of apology”
For me, I know why I spent decades apologizing. I was insecure, lacked self-esteem, and wanted to be liked. Speaking up for myself was scary, disagreeing meant separating myself from another’s ideas, opinions and beliefs, which I associated with feelings of abandonment, and contempt. It felt selfish to take a stand, to vehemently cling to what I felt was right, even if it caused dissension, but in apologizing, in order to keep the peace and be liked, it left me feeling empty, feeling bitter, and led to feelings of resentment for having apologized, when it wasn’t warranted.
It really wasn’t until my fireman started pointing out to me how much I apologize, and how I should stop doing it, that I realized how automatic of a response it had become for me. He then told me about a teacher he had in middle school, who anytime someone would apologize, this teacher would respond, “Don’t be sorry, be careful,” and so, when I found myself apologizing for insignificant things, my fireman would say to me. “Don’t be sorry, be careful” an inside joke for us, that would serve as a reset for me to stop apologizing, and I swear, it really did start to take hold for me!
In an article in Psychology Today, Harriet Lerner, PhD, describes it this way, What drives over-apologizing? Women in my generation were raised to feel guilty if we were anything less than an emotional service station to others. We may be quick to feel responsible for everything. As comedian and writer Amy Poehler puts it, “It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for.”
As women we are taught to be peacemakers, to please, to be of service, to give selflessly to others, and the message then becomes less about what our needs are, and more about being mindful of how we treat others, and about their feelings. Pretty soon, anytime we believe we have caused another any sort of inconvenience, annoyance, or hurt, perceived or otherwise, we are caught in the vicious cycle of repenting and apologizing.
Why should you stop?
The reason women need to stop apologizing is because in doing so we diminish the essence of who we are. By apologizing when the situation is not of our doing, our fault, or simply a knee jerk reaction, we are sending the message that we don’t matter, that we are less important, and that we devalue our self-worth.
Now I am not suggesting that women stop apologizing all together. Obviously if you have purposely and knowingly hurt someone, than rightfully so, you should say your sorry, seek forgiveness, and try to learn from that experience. What I am talking about here is apologizing when you are doing so out of politeness, out of an uncomfortable feeling, desire that you should, or when you are looking to keep the peace.
That is what I love about men, well not the only thing, but you will never hear a self-assured man apologize for being him, saying I’m sorry when he meant anything else, but! They just understand that they do not have to apologize for anything that doesn’t warrant it, they understand their worth, and see the value in who they are.
Anything, but I’m sorry
So if you are not apologizing, and saying your sorry when you clearly mean something entirely different, what can you say? Well for starters how about saying thank you. For instance, instead of saying I’m sorry for talking incessantly, you can say instead, thank you for listening to me and letting me vent. I’m sorry that I didn’t return your call sooner, thank you for understanding, when I didn’t return your call sooner.
Another phrase to replace I’m sorry, could be for times when you feel inclined to apologize for not liking something, for instance, a friend invites you to try a new spot to dine that she just loves, when you join her, you don’t particularly like the food, when she asks you about it, instead of apologizing that your tastes are different, simply say, I personally didn’t care for the food, but I thoroughly enjoyed the company and I’m glad we got together. Another, thing you can say in place of I’m sorry, especially, when you are unable to, or simply do not want to do something that someone asks of you, is to, simply say, I’d love to, but that’s just not possible now, I’m sure you understand. YES, it’s as simple as that! Try it! It’s actually liberating once you use it a few times!!
Many people, women in particular, feel that they need to explain why they cannot do what is asked of them, and must apologize for not being able to be accommodating, I was guilty of this for a very long time, until in one day in therapy as I explained not wanting to do something in particular that was asked of me, my therapist stopped me, and simply said, “Susan, you are not obligated to ever give anyone an explanation as to why you can or cannot do [them] a favor, or do what is asked of you, it perfectly OK to decline and do nothing further!”
It sounds logical, and almost insane to think otherwise, but I swear to you, until she actually said that to me, I lived my whole fucking life thinking I was obligated to give an explanation to someone, even if it meant being dishonest, and coming up with an excuse, and I can’t begin to tell you how freeing it became to understand that a simple NO,was all that was needed!! Mind blowing I swear!
Why should care you care?
Honestly, I know that not everyone will agree with me, or will even feel the slightest inclination to stop saying they are sorry, when they simply mean something entirely different. Change is scary, testing the waters takes balls, and maybe all of this bullshit isn’t worth your time to make the leap! But what if maybe, it does begin to free you of the guilt you carry for harboring resentment and anger, for having to be sweet, agreeable, apologetic, and always on! You’re not Pollyanna, nor do you need to be. You don’t need to always bite the bullet and smile, it’s perfectly OK to acknowledge, that you are human, that you have needs, and that you matter. If other people don’t agree with this and find it objectionable, that is on them. You do you! You Do You. I’m Good.
As women we instinctively want to be liked, we want to please others, we want to be agreeable, and nurturing, and there is nothing wrong with any of those qualities. It becomes a problem when you find that you are walking around apologizing, interjecting I’m sorry into all that you do and say, in an attempt to justify and quantify why or how you are doing things. You don’t owe the world or anyone an explanation for why you are doing, and being who you were meant to be, EVER! Life is way hard enough, without us constantly fumbling with our egos. Life becomes way more simpler, and infinitely better, the moment we begin to let go and trust in the beauty of who we are, authentically and unapologetic-ally.
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