So Sorry, But We Need To Talk About Over-Apologizing

While there are appropriate situations when people deserve apologies, you can probably recall a time you've asked yourself, "Why did I just apologize?" A server brings you the wrong food, but you apologize when bringing it up. You ask a question at work or school, and you preface it with, "Sorry, I know this is a stupid question." Maybe you've even found yourself apologizing to a table you bumped into. If you relate, you might be a serial apologizer. It's okay, no need to say sorry for that. 


Over-apologizing is a habit one develops for a number of reasons. We use "I'm sorry" to fill awkward silences, when we're afraid of creating conflict, or even when we want to express an idea. We apologize when we hurt people, but over-apologizing when we don't need to can actually hurt us more. It's a hard habit to kick. But once we understand why we do it and why it doesn't serve us, we can overcome it.  

Women often apologize more

If you've noticed that you don't hear as many apologies from men than you do from women, there's actually scientific evidence to back this up. It's not that men never apologize; women are just inclined to do it more. In a 2010 study in Psychological Science, participants recorded moments when they apologized or did something that they believed required an apology. Women reported apologizing more than men, but they also reported committing more offenses. 


"This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior," Professor Karina Schumann and her colleagues explained. According to this study, men are less likely to feel the need to apologize compared to women. If you haven't already seen Pantene's 'Sorry, Not Sorry' commercial from 2017, it highlights this issue beautifully. But gender isn't the only factor that plays a role in over-apologizing. 

Self-doubt leads to over-apologizing

At certain points in life, you may have heard people tell you hurtful things about yourself that affected your confidence. Words hold a lot of power over people, and experiencing bullying or abuse can cause someone to have low self-esteem. You might be hard on yourself and lack confidence in your abilities. That can lead to you apologizing for everything — big and small — in order to avoid rejection. 


"When someone has low self-esteem, they may feel they're taking up too much space, asking too much, or being disruptive," says licensed clinical social worker Shahar Lawrence via Psych Central. "In this case, they often apologize profusely as they feel they aren't worthy of time, space, or attention." Your habit of apologizing when you enter a room or feeling like you're bothering someone may be a sign that you need some self-love. There's no need to apologize for being yourself. 

People-pleasers tend to over-apologize

A low self-esteem and lack of confidence ties into people-pleasing tendencies — another common reason why we say sorry too much. The need to ensure that everyone's happy stems from a fear of rejection or of creating conflict. If you're a people-pleaser, you may have trouble expressing a need or want. This could be because you're afraid of inconveniencing others or appearing rude. So your request comes out as "Sorry to bother you, but can I have some water?" But it's not necessary to apologize for something that every human needs. You didn't do anything wrong by asking. 


We may even feel the need to apologize for other people's actions, and may find ourselves carrying guilt that isn't ours to carry. Therapist Jocelyn Hamsher explains, "With people-pleasing, over-apologizing is motivated by trying to manage the other person's emotions and make them feel better ... Even if you weren't the one to cause harm because you're uncomfortable when other people aren't happy" (via Psych Central). We might make excuses for others who hurt us in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict. 

Is over-apologizing a trauma response?

Excessive apologizing is not always as a result of trauma, but mental health experts say it certainly can be. Psychologist Dr. Cynthia King has observed over-apologizing in those who have experienced childhood trauma. "In my clinical practice, I see excessive apologizing more often in trauma survivors whose abuse started young, was prolonged, and the perpetrator was in the family," via Psych Central. When you've heard people degrade you and put you down, you start to internalize those negative words. This habit of over-apologizing can stay with people throughout their lives.


To Dr. King's point, survivors of abuse often over-apologize as a survival mechanism — out of the need to protect themselves. "Survivors may have used this as a protective behavior to avoid negative responses from a partner in the past. It can be an automatic thing, to try and avoid triggering a harmful response [from an abuser]," clinical psychologist Paige Carambio, PsyD explains to Domestic Shelters. Carambio says she's also seen this behavior in women who weren't abused and attributes this to our society's patriarchal culture. 

Over-apologizing in the workplace

It's likely that a majority of unnecessary apologies take place in your professional life. For her article, writer Madeleine Burry attempted to stop over-apologizing for a week and chronicled her experiences. In the process, she counted how many times the word "sorry" appeared in her emails that month — 150 times. To combat this, she installed the Just Not Sorry browser extension, which helps users stop using undermining language. 


We're bound to make mistakes at work or take a while to respond to emails, but apologizing every single time may tell others that you're unsure of yourself and lack confidence in your work. This may cause us to become dependent on the external validation of colleagues and bosses rather than our own abilities. As soon as you say, "Sorry if this sounds stupid" when joining a discussion or "Sorry, I'm really nervous" before a presentation, you're telling people that you aren't firm in the ideas you're about to share. Prefacing in this self-deprecating manner is a way of seeking reassurance from others around you — whether you're aware of it or not. 

Reframing our language

So, how can we combat over-apologizing and still be kind and confident? It just takes a slight change in our language — replacing "sorry" with "thank you." This not only makes you appear more confident — but research has shown that this practice can actually have a positive impact on the person you're thanking (according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Marketing). Don't be afraid to take up the space that you deserve. And do so unapologetically.


Need some examples? We got you. Instead of saying, "Sorry to bother you," you can instead start with, "Do you have a minute? Thank you for your time." Do you apologize for simply talking? Turn your "Sorry I'm talking too much" into "Thanks so much for listening to me." Another common one: "Sorry for being so emotional." Don't apologize for confiding in someone; let them know you appreciate their support by saying "Thanks for being there for me." Maybe you're having trouble with a deadline. Instead of telling your boss "Sorry, I won't have time to finish this," you can instead say, "I'll have this ready tomorrow. Thank you for your patience." This way, you're expressing gratitude to people, rather than regret or worry. 


The right ways to apologize

Of course, there are instances when apologies are appropriate and necessary. When you've caused harm to someone else, they deserve an apology. If you broke your friend's vase, they might appreciate an apology (and maybe a new vase). When you hear bad news, saying sorry can be a way of expressing sympathy for someone's situation. An effective apology lets people know that you take responsibility for your wrongdoings and that you don't want to make the same mistake again. A 2016 study in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research identified six traits of a good apology: expressing regret, explaining what went wrong, acknowledging responsibility, declaring repentance, offering solutions, and requesting forgiveness. 


If you're someone who always apologizes for every little thing, this may lessen the impact of your more meaningful apologies. And then there are the wrong ways to apologize, like the manipulative apology that blames the other person. This often sounds like "I'm sorry you feel that way." Or the "I'm sorry. I'm the worst" apology, a way to avoid responsibility altogether. When we do need to apologize, we want to make sure we're being sincere. But you don't need to apologize for just being you.