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Are You an Over-Apologizer? 5 Steps to Curb the Habit

Are You an Over-Apologizer? 5 Steps to Curb the Habit
Are You an Over-Apologizer? 5 Steps to Curb the Habit

Everyone makes mistakes, and thoughtful apologies can go a long way toward mending relationships. But just as refusing to apologize can have negative consequences, over-apologizing (which includes pre-apologizing) can do more harm than good.

Have you ever pre-apologized? Nothing’s happened, and no one’s expressed disappointment, yet you’re already apologizing. Like, I’m sorry if you don’t like the gift I give you or the meal I make next week.

Perhaps you’ve apologized for something that was out of your control. Someone bumped into you, and your instinct was to say, “I’m sorry.” Or you apologized for not being able to attend an event.

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Or someone didn’t get something to you on time, and you apologized when asking them for it?

Maybe you’ve apologized for something that “wasn’t that deep”? You took an hour to respond to an email instead of five minutes, or you didn’t like someone’s IG post,

There are so many other scenarios where this can and does happen. One morning, I took stock of the number of times I over-apologized, all before noon. The results were shocking.

I pre-apologized that dinner may suck.

I apologized six times during pickleball for missing shots (after issuing a pre-apology for being a beginner).

I apologized for not having correct change.

I apologized for not being able to fit someone into my schedule.

I apologized to my trainer for being boring.

Why Do We Over-Apologize?

First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about. Of course, it’s important to take responsibility for something that happened when it’s your responsibility. When I refer to over-apologizing, I’m talking about pre-apologizing or taking responsibility for things that are outside your control, not your responsibility, or don’t require an apology (because you didn’t technically do anything wrong and/or your performance simply wasn’t up to your perhaps unrealistic standards).

Many factors can drive this behavior. There may be cultural or other historical factors that contribute to over-apologizing. Other common reasons include: wanting to be liked, showing empathy, and/or having an inflated sense of responsibility or guilt.

Since I specialize in treating anxiety disorders, I tend to see situations through that lens. Apologizing can be a way to mitigate anxious feelings, seek reassurance, and ease distress. If someone is worried they did something wrong, they may apologize to get certainty about their behavior. When someone is distress intolerant, they may struggle with their own or someone else’s distress, which may lead to over-apologizing as a result of overestimating when they’ve done something wrong. When done repetitively, it becomes a habitual way of managing anxiety and distress. Soon, you’re apologizing for a wide array of out-of-your-control experiences in multiple areas of your life.

How Often is This Happening?

Not surprisingly, there’s not a lot of research on gender differences as they relate to apologizing and over-apologizing. A 2010 NIH study showed that women apologize at higher rates than men because they have a lower threshold for offensive behavior. Anecdotally, my ratio of apologizing while playing pickleball is about 6:1 when I play with women versus men.

What’s the Big Deal?

  • Over-apologizing may put another person in the position of having to reassure you. This may be awkward for them, especially if it’s in a professional setting. Since apologizing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s important to consider the impact on the other person. For that, you need to consider the function of the behavior. If I’m apologizing to express empathy for something someone experienced, that may communicate understanding and, therefore, not require reassurance. For example, The stomach flu is miserable; I am so sorry you went through that. If, however, I am apologizing to mitigate my anxiety, it puts the other person in the position of needing to provide reassurance to regulate my emotions. For example: I am so sorry I’m such a terrible pickleball partner and you have to play with me. Further, in a professional setting, over-apologizing may cause you to be perceived as less confident.
  • Over-apologizing strengthens your anxiety about the situation. When we do something to try to get rid of our anxiety, we’re unintentionally making our anxiety stronger and more persistent. Instead of trying to make it go away, I encourage you to do the opposite: let it be there. As I’ve noted in other articles, doing that requires learning how to accept and allow those feelings instead of doing something to get rid of them. The more attention and energy we give a situation or our feelings, the more the brain marks it as important. The more important something is, the more worrisome thoughts you’re going to have. That’s how our solution becomes our problem. When we’re feeling more, it’s intuitive to want to do more, which is why recovery is paradoxical.
  • Remember the Chinese Finger Traps you’d get at birthday parties where the harder you’d pull your fingers apart, the tighter the trap got? The way to release your fingers was to relax them toward each other. It’s the same with anxiety recovery. The way to feel less anxious is to relax your body and do less. In this case, that means not apologizing, and letting the feelings pass as you continue with whatever you’re doing. Toward that end, here are 5 steps to get better at being anxious so you can master this behavior.

5 Steps to Help You Get Better at Being Anxious

  1. Label how you’re feeling (“I notice I’m feeling activated” or “I’m aware I’m experiencing anxiety”).
  2. If you’re not in danger, remind yourself not to act like you are. You are simply feeling uncomfortable, which isn’t dangerous. You don’t want to make the feelings stronger by treating them like true danger.
  3. Show your brain that you’re safe (rag doll your muscles, lengthen your breath, loosen your jaw/shoulders, etc.).
  4. Remind yourself that feelings are not dangerous. They are temporary experiences that will pass on their own. You don’t need to do anything with them.
  5. Redirect your attention to something you’re doing in the here and now.
  6. When your brain tries to suck you back into your worry, go back to step 1 or 2.

Just because you feel anxious doesn’t mean you did something wrong that requires an apology. Once you get some distance from the situation, if you still think you need to apologize (and you’re confident you’re not doing it to mitigate the distress), go for it. The key is to respond to the situation versus your feelings. When we respond to our feelings, it’s more likely to be a fear-based action instead of a values-based action. The less that anxiety controls your life, the more aligned your behaviors will be with your values instead of your fears. And that isn’t ever something to apologize for.

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