I used to be a chronic apologizer.
Ask anyone who knew me back in the day. The words “I’m sorry” were a reflex. I said them more than just about any other phrase.
Because I was sorry. I forever saw how I made little mistakes. Got in people’s way.
And I felt sorry about that.
It didn’t help that I grew up in a strict household, a child of two well-regarded perfectionists. It’s been interesting the last few years. Where previously my mother would not admit that anything was amiss in our household, old age (and ostensibly some counseling, though she will neither confirm nor deny this) has mellowed my mother.
As has watching other young families grow up around her.
“The things these kids do to their parents! I had no idea how lucky we were with you and your siblings. I thought you were a bad kid. I treated you like you were bad. You weren’t. You were a good kid, better than normal. Just the naughtiest kid that we had. Because you were the brave one, the kid who would actually tell us when you thought we were being unfair instead of cowering. We were too strict with you.”
It’s the first time she’s ever said anything remotely like this in the decades since the worst of it happened. And it doesn’t make what happened between us go away.
But it’s far less maddening than her previous lack of insight and denials had been. Her insistence that her behavior had been unimpeachable.
And frankly I’ll take it. This is enough for me.
A Double Standard: Constantly Apologizing for Nothing But Wanting to Forgive Others
Mind you, she doesn’t formally apologize for it, any of what she did. She says the first part, the part you would expect to lead up to a formal apology, and yet never says she’s sorry. Or that she wishes she could take it back. But it’s okay. She’s expressing regret via demonstrating new insight into what happened, and I’m choosing to believe that she really can see what happened and feels guilty about it.
Which to me implies regret.
I can hear it in her voice, even if she doesn’t say the words.
And it feels better to think that she means what she’s saying as well as what she’s implying, that she knows she should have done things differently.
That I can forgive. I can forgive a person who knows they weren’t the best parent. Where it was impossible before to forgive someone who told me that I was the source of all of our collective problems. Who insisted that they had never done anything wrong and implied that a child should be the sole mature party in a parent-child relationship. That I had deserved any cruel treatment I had received as a child.
I have wanted to forgive her for years. And was waiting for a reason to. Now it’s here.
Forgiveness is lighter to carry around than resentment. And as an adult, I am independent and have enough space (hundreds of miles) that I’m not in the same danger of being gravely harmed as when I was a child and was dependent on her.
I Grew Up With No Self-Compassion
Anyway, the lack of freedom and ever-present feeling that I did everything wrong followed me outside of my childhood home when I was growing up. And went with me everywhere I went.
I had no space within my own mind to accept that I could be human. Certainly no self-compassion.
So I apologized constantly. And meant every one of those apologies.
Predictably, some people found this irritating.
“I’m sorry,” I would say.
“Stop apologizing.” Or, “You apologize too much. It’s annoying.” They’d respond something like that.
And I would reflexively say “I’m sorry.” Pause, realize what I’d done. And then swear.
Saying “Thank You” Instead of “I’m Sorry”
There’s a common technique that works really well by the way if you want to stop apologizing, one that’s recommended by a wide variety of people. Essentially, you substitute “I’m sorry” with “thank you.” So instead of apologizing for whatever, you thank the other person for accommodating you and/or your imperfection but with no negative mention of it.
Here are some examples:
“Sorry I’m going on and on” could become “Thank you for listening to me.”
“Sorry about the mix-up” could become “Thanks for working with me to understand the issue.”
“I’m sorry I’m late” could become “Thank you for waiting for me.”
The idea is that you thank people for their kindness, forgiveness, and patience instead of apologizing for existing or being imperfect.
I’ve known a lot of people who have used this method to great effect.
It is possible to go a little far with it — sometimes you do have to issue a genuine apology. In the final example — of lateness — depending on how late you are, the circumstances, why, whether this is a habit or not, etc., it could be entirely appropriate to say that you’re sorry. It might be part of showing responsibility and accountability for your own actions, to clearly express regret.
But most of the time, subbing in “thank you” for “I’m sorry” is a good technique for those prone to over-apologizing. It helps shift your mind from guilt to gratitude.
And it’s frankly a strategy I wish I knew about when I set off to stop apologizing so damn much.
Suppressing the Urge to Apologize Is Like Stifling Violent Hiccups
But I didn’t know about that approach, so it wasn’t available to me.
Instead, I was left with simply trying to not say it aloud. To suppress the urge to speak. Perhaps change the subject when I felt the urge to apologize. Sometimes this worked well; other times I failed — and an apology nonetheless escaped my lips like a rogue hiccup.
But somewhere along the way, I gradually did retrain my speech, and I began to apologize less and less. Until these days I seem to be apologizing a semi-appropriate amount.
It’s been several years since someone told me that no apology was necessary and even longer still someone observed, as they so often did, that I apologize too much in general and that the tendency is annoying.
So whether it’s “thank you” or silence that fills the void, it’s possible to kick the habit with time, persistence, and patience.