I’d like to consider myself a pretty accommodating person. Perhaps too accommodating (just ask my exes!) The upside of this tendency is I’m a fairly flexible gal. I can pivot quickly, reassess a situation; make everyone in the room comfortable. The downside? I tend to reflexively apologize or take blame for things that aren’t my fault.
Apologizing takes the place of expressing what we’re actually feeling or needing to express.
Just the other day, a guy was leaving a coffee shop at the same time as I was trying to go in. He wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing and he basically plowed right into me. My first reaction? “I’m sorry!” And while some may argue that that phrase is basically benign and is a filler expression everyone uses, I tend to think there’s a little more to it than that. At least for me.
In fact, when I googled “stop saying sorry,” several articles came up about people (mostly women) who had challenged themselves to give up that word for a week to see what would happen. Most notably, perhaps, was a recent Lena Dunham essay on the matter.
Titled, Sorry, Not Sorry: My Apology Addiction, Dunham discusses the ‘modern plague’ of apologizing, especially as it impacts women. She also talks about her own experience with ‘the sorries,’:
“I can distinctly remember apologizing profusely to a girl who didn’t invite me to her birthday party in second grade, after she publicly handed invitations out to the whole class in front of me. Sorry for my tears. Sorry you had to be mean. Sorry I’m not the kind of person you’d want to attend a Sunday afternoon romp at the YMCA. Sorry.”
A big point she makes is that for her (and for me and many women), apologizing takes the place of expressing what she’s actually feeling or needing to express. It’s a people-pleasing placeholder, and it’s toxic. Not only because it’s insincere, but because it continually places you in a submissive place; constantly apologizing for what you feel or want, the power you have; who you are.
What are a few ways we can put an end to this harmful habit? I’ve got some ideas:
1. Spend a day keeping track of your sorries.
This is a Dunham idea and I like it. She calls it an ‘apology log’ and it’s a great way to see how often you’re saying this word and how many times it is a sincere apology versus an awkward, reflex filler.
2. Ask yourself what you really want to express.
To quote the great philosopher, Beyonce, “Sorry, I ain’t sorry.” For me, saying a quick “sorry” keeps me disconnected from my true feelings or needs. Because authenticity takes guts, and it’s sometimes easier to apologize your way out of things or soothe a situation with those empty words. When it comes to people running into me, I now try and say “whoops!” Which, I know sounds silly, but at least I’m not taking odd ownership for their error. And when I am in someone’s way, I now try and say “excuse me.”
For bigger things like work issues or relationship stuff, I’ve been working on omitting that first “sorry to bug you…” or “sorry to be annoying but…” because am I really? Or am I saying that to get them in a better mood? To get them on my side? It can be difficult for me to just ask for what I want, or owning my power in situations and I’ve found that throwing meaningless “sorries” in the mix distances me from growth.
In that moment you’re wanting to apologize, ask yourself what you really want from the situation or person. Ask yourself what you really need to say, and how you can do it authentically and bravely.
3. Know when a real apology is warranted.
Of course sincere apologies are often needed—it’s humbling and powerful to know how to admit when you’re wrong and where you need to improve. But I’d argue that the less we’re throwing fake ones into the mix, the more powerful our true apologies will be.
This could be a powerful movement—women dropping this posture of apology. When we keep taking the blame for things, we’re not requiring other people to take ownership and responsibility for their own actions. I’ll end with Lena’s final thought because I feel the same way: