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Why Over-Apologizing Is a Bad Thing

Why Over-Apologizing Is a Bad Thing

Vicki Santillano | DivineCaroline

June 10, 2010

I never realized how much I use the phrase “I’m sorry” in conversation until my friend pointed it out to me. “Why are you sorry?” she asked after I apologized for being indecisive about dinner for the hundredth time. Good question. After all, I hadn’t mistreated her in any way, so what was I sorry about? Since then, I’m more mindful about over-apologizing, but it still slips out occasionally.

Old habits die hard, and it doesn’t help that quite a few people I know (mostly women) have the same tendency. Saying sorry unnecessarily and too frequently makes you look weak and submissive to others, but just knowing that isn’t enough to stop the cycle. To do that, you (and me, and any other over-apologists out there) need to pinpoint why the pattern exists in the first place, and what steps we can take to break free.

What makes some of us apologize more than others?

I consulted Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist with over twenty-five years in the industry and the author of The Power of Apology, to figure out the motivation behind over-apologizing. In her book, she identifies a few factors that contribute to the tendency.

Children of parents who teach them to take responsibility for any problems or issues that come up often become over-apologizers, as do children whose parents teach them that apologizing is a form of politeness. Sometimes this happens just by witnessing one parent say “sorry” too much to others. Victims of abuse (emotional, physical, or otherwise) can also over-apologize out of guilt from past traumatic experiences or fear of making others angry.

A fear of conflict is a big reason why many people, especially women, apologize inappropriately. “Women are hard-wired to focus on cooperation and community, versus competition and confrontation, the way men are,” Engel says. That’s why female over-apologizers tend to outnumber male ones. It also has to do with how women are raised compared to men.

According to Engel, girls are raised with an emphasis on kindness and keeping the peace, more so than their male counterparts. “Boys are given much more permission to express their anger and are usually not expected to be as polite and well-mannered,” she explains. Women are also more likely to blame themselves for arguments and bad situations than men.

Why is saying sorry too much a bad thing?

You’d think that offering apologies too often is like offering too many compliments—it just shows you’re a nice, caring person, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It actually shows that you’re not confident, feel inadequate, and are easy to walk all over, whether you do it at work or in your personal life. “While apologizing humbles us and lets the other person know that we are no longer a threat to them, there is such a thing as being ‘too humble,’ especially at work,” Engel advises.

When you say “sorry” for every little thing at work, your coworkers might lose respect for you and take advantage of what they perceive as your weakness. The same thing can happen outside of the office, too. Over-apologizing sends everyone in your life the message that you’re ineffectual and have low self-esteem, which is dangerous knowledge in the wrong hands. “It can give a certain kind of person permission to treat you poorly, or even abuse you,” Engel warns.

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