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Tiny Wisdom: Stop Over-Apologizing

“We must remember that an apology isn’t an apology unless it’s meaningful.” -Unknown

An old friend of mine used to apologize almost once during every sentence. If she interrupted me, she apologized. If I interrupted her, she apologized. If she asked me for the time, she apologized. If I tripped on her shoe, she apologized.

I found this somewhat annoying, and I realized quickly why: I did this, too, and I didn’t enjoy recognizing that.

I’ve noticed that many of us say we’re sorry when it isn’t actually necessary. In my case, it was mostly a people-pleasing tendency–I wanted to be sure I never mistakenly offended or annoyed someone, so that I wouldn’t lose their approval. But this is only one potential cause for rapid-fire remorse.

Psychologist Linda Tillman suggests we may do this to fill gaps in awkward social situations, for example, by saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you,” instead of asking someone to speak up. According to Livestrong, we may do this often around certain people who aim to provoke guilt as a way to manipulate others.

While we can never know other people’s intentions, we can recognize that our words influence our state of mind–and apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong needlessly creates guilt and undermines our confidence.

It can also create an imbalance in our relationships, since it tells other people we think we are always responsible for any potential conflict or miscommunication; and also sends the message that we’re more interested in being agreeable than being honest.

We don’t need to always agree with each other. We don’t need to always please each other. And we don’t need to always couch it with contrition when we need something from someone else. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apologize when we generally feel we’ve done something wrong. It means it would serve us well to recognize that more often than not, there is no reason for anyone to take blame.

Today if you find yourself apologizing repeatedly, ask yourself, “Did I actually do something wrong?” And if not, “Do I really want to communicate that I think I did?”

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Photo by pulliken

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About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series (which includes one free eBook) and Tiny Buddha's Guide to Loving Yourself. She's also the co-founder of the eCourse Recreate Your Life Story: Change the Script and Be the HeroFollow @tinybuddha for inspiring posts and wisdom quotes.

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  • crab

    Very true words. I did this a lot.

    “It can also create an imbalance in our relationships” – I personally felt this. After I realized this, I managed to turn it into a positive, and used it as a test to see who was my true friend or not. Any one who took advantage of my apologetic nature, I severed ties.

    I never really realized it affects our confidence, makes your words all the more important to remember!

  • Nita

    Thanks again, this is a wonderful post. 

    I had a tendency to apologize too much, as well, and it was undermining to my confidence. It was also, a hard habit to break. I even went so far, as to try and stop saying it when trying to convey sympathy. I would say I hate to hear that, or I can really sympathize with what you are going through, but not I’m sorry. Might be an extreme, but I felt I really needed to go cold turkey. Now when I do say it, it’s because I really messed up, and I think it has more sincerity. 

  • Mama Bear

    My boyfriend does this.  It is one of a few things causing a HUGE problem in our relationship because he is undermining any actual sincerity he may feel.  His go-to is, “I’m sorry.  I TRULY am.”  Every time.  He says it maybe 20 times a day.  I don’t have any idea what he is actually sorry for, or what he is just trying to SEEM sorry for.  Because even though he says it, he turns right around (sometimes only a few minutes later) and does the exact same thing he just apologized for.  I’m at the end of my rope.

  • http://twitter.com/shtmygrlfsays E

    For some reason, over-apologizing has become a social norm. In my case, I attributed it to my Catholic upbringing as I always found that the church instilled an internal, permanent guilt in me that I still have a hard time shaking. I have hearing loss, so I find myself asking people to repeat things more often than not. I stopped apologizing. I didn’t not hear what they said on purpose!

  • http://twitter.com/shtmygrlfsays E

    For some reason, over-apologizing has become a social norm. In my case, I attributed it to my Catholic upbringing as I always found that the church instilled an internal, permanent guilt in me that I still have a hard time shaking. I have hearing loss, so I find myself asking people to repeat things more often than not. I stopped apologizing. I didn’t not hear what they said on purpose!

  • Globalqn

    I’m amazed at the number of things people apologize for, almost as if they are apologizing for existing. 

  • NinaC

    absolutely, I know that is why I did it and I’m trying to change my mindset and stop that behavior.

  • NinaC

    You know Lori, this is very interesting. I’ve been working with a therapist to overcome childhood abuse and was diagnosed with PTSD. Very recently I went in and said “I want to stop apologizing so much” because I  hear myself doing it far more than any of my actions or words indicate I should.

    I know some of that stems from my lack of confidence in myself and my belief that I am not worthwhile because that is what I had ingrained in me since, practically, birth.  So, its not that I don’t it affects my confidence as much I didn’t have the confidence I needed because of the faulty belief system I had about myself.

    So I’m working on improving that and one tiny step in that direction is to only apologize when I really have done something wrong. OR if I really feel sorry for a situation a person is in, I think that is appropriate to say. 

  • Theclosedportal

    this is a really nice post !! insightful !!

  • Globalqn

    It can be done – I know you’ll get there! Cheers!

  • Annemcginn

    Wonderful advice – I need to hear this because I tend to take responsibility and end up making myself wrong in a lot of situations – so thank you.

  • http://www.therawness.com T. AKA Ricky Raw

    Not only overapologizing, but overthanking is another epidemic. Like if the waiter comes to your table 15 times, you thank him 15 times. I feel both actions make the words of apology and thanks meaningless after a while. I wrote a piece on it a few years back:

  • Rosenrot08

    I agree with you here. I work at a clothing store and I find people saying the words, “Im sorry” a lot for no appareny reason and now, I have somehow ended up acquiring the habit as well. Thanks for this. Ill mind my tongue next time – thats for sure.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad this post was helpful to you! I definitely found it undermined my confidence when I continually apologized. It reinforced mentally that I was doing something wrong–even if I had not. Now I try to catch myself, and I find it makes a difference!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I can understand that frustration. It makes it sound the apology doesn’t really mean anything; it’s just what he thinks you want to hear. (At least that’s my interpretation). Have you talked to him about this?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Yes, I have met a lot of people who have commented that Catholic-inspired guilt created this need to apologize. That’s good that you stopped apologizing for not hearing–definitely not something you need to be sorry for!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s interesting…I hadn’t really thought of that, but you’re right. I think sometimes a smile can be just as effective as a “thank you” (in the case of the waiter, for example). Thanks for sharing your post. Definitely got me thinking!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome. I still have to watch this tendency in myself, because I instinctively take responsibility for a lot. It’s a horrible feeling to have, but self-awareness helps a lot.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s a great suggestion (to find alternative ways to communicate sympathy). Thanks for sharing that!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I can relate, Nina. I know a lot of my people-pleasing tendencies come from some of the difficult parts of my childhood. I apologized so much because of all the shame I carried around. (And sometimes, I still have to work on that.) One tiny step at a time is a great way to take it. That’s been my approach, too.

  • Brancusi2

    Thanks for this post.  I recently started a job as a manager.  I’ve never been in charge of people before and after my first week, I found that I was apologizing when I had to ask someone to do their job, or when I had to correct them.  After reading your post, I realize that it is undermining myself and my intentions.  I guess I need to trust that I am in this position for a reason.

  • http://twitter.com/CHANDRAKANTHA Jeevan/Mr.Gupt/Jolly

    Thank You Lori, “Over-Apologizing,” is something I can relate to & I know exactly what u mean when u said,
            “I found this somewhat annoying , and I realized quickly why: I did this, too, and I didn’t enjoy recognizing that..” 
    A friend of mine says THANK YOU & SORRY quite a lot & it drives me crazy…This blogs makes a lot of sense & puts a good perspective on the whole issue bcz I do this quite a lot as well…

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome. My boyfriend actually says “thank you” somewhat excessively. I’m glad he’s polite–it’s better than the alternative–but I’ve noticed he says it quite a bit!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I can see how that would undermine your authority. A friend of mine used to be a manager, and a lot of her employees were younger than her. She found it difficult to tell them what to do without being wishy-washy, but ultimately it was the only way her team would respect her. Congrats on your new job, by the way. =)

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  • http://ahimsamama.com Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

    Yesterday my three-year-old son came to me to kiss his boo-boo, and I said, “I’m sorry” meaning that I felt badly that he was hurt.  He said, “You didn’t do anything!”  At his age, even he recognized over-apologizing!  I had a good laugh and realized that I need to find different words to express that sentiment.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    LOL from the mouths of babes! =)

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  • http://twitter.com/jazz2midnight C. Cameron

    Another point of view:  in Canadian culture, saying, “I’m (so) sorry” is on the level of saying, “How are you?” when you see someone, just as a polite thing to do in a variety of situations: bumping into someone, being bumped into, interrupting clerks’ conversation, etc. We Canadians are known internationally for being very polite as a result. Americans tend to use the phrase in its more traditional meaning, where it’s great for passive-aggresive posturing or showing the aforesaid lack of confidence. Being both Canadian and American, I do it both ways, so thank you for this.

  • http://twitter.com/jazz2midnight C. Cameron

    Another point of view:  in Canadian culture, saying, “I’m (so) sorry” is on the level of saying, “How are you?” when you see someone, just as a polite thing to do in a variety of situations: bumping into someone, being bumped into, interrupting clerks’ conversation, etc. We Canadians are known internationally for being very polite as a result. Americans tend to use the phrase in its more traditional meaning, where it’s great for passive-aggresive posturing or showing the aforesaid lack of confidence. Being both Canadian and American, I do it both ways, so thank you for this.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome. I didn’t know that about Canadian culture. It’s interesting how certain phrases become second nature, particularly when they have meaning beyond their traditional use.

  • http://twitter.com/isis4matraya music Lover

    I don’t appologise to make them Think better of me. infact I’d rather not be noticed at all. but I hate the thought of others being hurt and am very sensitive to others feelings.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s certainly a commendable quality! I was referring to apologizing excessively, even when other people are unlikely to have their feelings hurt (when you ask for the time, for example…)

  • Latoya

    Hi Lori, thanks for your article it was an eye opener. I over apologise to a point it irritates people and what i apologise over can range from not being able to hear people (as you mentioned above) however i still apologise for not hearing. =( I also say sorry to make others feel better and it makes me angry with myself for apologising for nothing i did wrong =(. So after reading your article i will take those questions into consideration every time i am going to say sorry. Thank you so much.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome, Latoya. I know this is a tough habit to break, but awareness is everything!

  • Harleigh Quinn

    reading this and realizing that it has, in the past two years, gone to the other extreme, of no one apologizing at all, thinking apology is below them.

    This is of pearticular occurence within the westernized buddhism and yoga communities.

    Not very satya, much less zanghe…..

    I feel it may be best to NOT admonish those for apologizing, as maybe, just MAYBE, they are doing it because NO ONE ELSE DOES.