Why do women feel the need to apologize so often? Sometimes I swear we invent reasons why we’re culpable for something that went wrong. And most often it wasn’t even our fault to begin with. But we apologize away, “sorry, sorry sorry!” Like we’re always deficient in character, perfection, and competency in all situations, no matter the reality. Because somehow we’ve been conditioned to believe that we’re supposed to bear fault for everything from our appearance to being seen or heard to being human. We’re not the image of the perfect Proverbs 31 woman (regardless of whether we believe in the Bible or not).
My fiancé, on the other hand, doesn’t share the same experience with apologizing unnecessarily. He feels bad when he screws up, and then as soon as he’s got food in his belly or has run it off, he’s a happy human again. Not to say men don’t struggle with this, but our culture doesn’t teach men that they should be sorry for existing. After all, if they make mistakes, they’re taught to dust themselves off and try again.
Women? Not so much. Show the world your incapability to have a zero-cellulite bikini body; keep on top of your work, your family, your kids, your hobbies; be perfectly dressed, and you’re faced with the expectation to apologize. Worse yet, speak up, act like your unique self, talk too loud, take up too much space, be too emotional, make a mistake at work, and you’d better be sorry for being human.
I struggle with this so acutely, and I can pinpoint the event in my life that taught me I had to second guess myself. Even if I thought I was doing the right thing, I really might be in the wrong.
One day in first grade, I went to the restroom shortly after our recess break. The bathrooms at my school faced an outdoor courtyard, and the girls' door was normally propped open. When I went to exit the bathroom, the door was closed. Thinking I should leave the bathroom door the way I'd found it, I propped the door open as I left. At that moment, a first grade teacher walking by with her students saw me and began yelling at me to come speak with her. I was confused why she was so angry with me for opening a bathroom door, but her face was painted with the same expression my parents wore when I had done something very wrong. She demanded who my teacher was, and sentenced me to a demerit and further punishment for my actions. Having never gotten in trouble at school, I ran back to my classroom in tears, still confused why opening a bathroom door was grounds for punishment. Though Mrs. Winnegar assured me she would talk to the other teacher and absolve my discipline, I still felt as though I had screwed up big time.
Don’t ask me why I’ve held onto this experience. But it has become a template for how I interact with blame—namely, that even though I may think I’m doing something right, I may be totally ignorant to my blatant, offensive mistake. So, really, I end up second-guessing myself. And then, when I do mess up, I feel the same sense of overwhelming shame I felt that day, blaming myself for not knowing better, not being able to pull a That’s so Raven and foresee my offenses…or have the ability to read people’s minds. I should know better.
I’ve become increasingly aware of my compulsion to apologize (and consequently beat myself up emotionally) recently for every little thing I may have done imperfectly (which is more often than not), to the point where "Sorry" seems to be the top word in my vocabulary as of late. It’s exhausting. It’s debilitating. It’s shameful. This is not how I want to live my life. And yet I do it at least a dozen times a week. Who can relate? 🙋🏼♀️
In the midst of processing through what's been going on recently, the following realizations came to light:
You are Not Responsible for Others’ Emotions
In the midst of beating myself up for an email I received from a complete stranger the other day, one of my coworkers reminded me that this person’s reactions to my well-intentioned inquiry wasn’t my fault. I didn’t have to send her the paragraph-long apology I’d drafted. After all, I’m not responsible for someone else’s emotions. Though I still felt terrible for potentially offending this woman (although my interpretation of her candid email could very well have been wrong), I hadn’t set out to offend. And, in all reality, I hadn’t screwed up. How was I to know that she would react so strongly to my inquiry?
After returning home and expending a small portion of my anxiety, Nathan told me to tie up my laces and take a walk with him in the springtime rain. We talked about other things, looked at the budding flowers, smelled bushes of rosemary, and commented on the local architecture. It got me out of my self-shaming mindset and helped me see that I didn't need to feel so burdened by a stranger's email. So what if she thought I'm a terrible human being? Odds are we'll never interact again, and I can choose to let it go instead of dwelling on a situation in which I had no fault, taking someone else's reactions personally.
Same goes for you. You're not responsible for anyone's emotions but your own. Especially when your actions toward someone else came from a genuinely kind place.
Stop Saying Sorry
Stop saying sorry for things that aren’t your fault. Stop apologizing for the way you look and act. Unless you’re acting like a jerk or are taking responsibility for something you truly did wrong. It’s okay to let things roll off your shoulder and free up your time and emotional energy for things that make you thrive—instead of tearing you down. You might find you have more self-compassion, more patience, more capacity to be your authentic self, more time for others. Who doesn't want all of that?
Say Goodbye to Shame
If you're going to say anything, bid adieu to the shame that tells you you're a screw-up, that you've failed and you suck more than a thousand leeches. It's always harder than it sounds, but when you identify the negative thoughts that surface, you have the choice to dwell on them or send them on their way, Rusted Root style. More often than not, these negative thought patterns run through our minds like members of the CIA, blending in so well to their surrounding thoughts that they pass by undetected. The more mindful you become, the more aware of the toxic language we use to define ourselves day in and day out. A healthy dose of reality is necessary, but never words of belittlement.
Saying goodbye to shame also includes sorting through the pain stories of your past, the instances that taught you to react a certain way in specific situations. It may be as silly as getting yelled at for opening a bathroom door. Or it might be a wound from abuse. Shame will linger in your present moments and fuel your self-doubt with all the kindling it needs to burn down any sense of self-worth. Don't let it.
If the sense that you're messing up on the reg just won't go away, reach out for clarity. It can be awkward, but it's usually worth it to hear the other person's side if you feel like you're always in the wrong, miscommunicating, failing expectations, or not holding up your side in a relationship. Open conversations open the door not only to improvement, but also to a common understanding of what's going on. Although I wouldn't recommend having a heart-to-heart with a total stranger, this is the best route for people you work with or are around regularly, even if that's your family, your partner, friends, or a coworker. After all, you might have misinterpreted your boss's email.
What's your experience with unnecessary apologies? What are your tried-and-true tips?