…and I’m not going to apologize for it, either.
Earlier this year, I stood up to follow another student’s presentation at college and blurted out: “My presentation won’t be as good as that, I’m sorry. I’ll try to entertain you as much as I can.”
To me, it was common courtesy to say this; I felt like I needed to let everyone know my subject matter was boring, unlike that of the person who had gone before me.
A lot of my conversations are like this. I always preemptively apologize for my actions in case they are potentially controversial or inconvenient. I find myself saying sorry for everything, even things out of my control or in no way related to me at all. I’ve apologized for someone else’s card getting declined at the supermarket where I work, and again when a friend got a ticket for driving through a red light on their way to watch a movie with me. I even said sorry for walking past a friend who was dancing after they stood on my toe and broke it. I’m one or two sorries away from apologizing for my very existence in this world.
This need to tread carefully to avoid upsetting anyone is programmed into me, and I’m starting to realize that it goes beyond just being polite or admitting I was wrong. I’m a serial apologizer, and I need to change.
I can blame part of my condition on being a woman. There have been so many studies into our gender’s frequent repetition of the word. It is a social crutch used by many of us so that we don’t come across as rude or offensive. And, no, I’m not an aggressive man-hater who is claiming men don’t care if they are rude.
A 2010 study published in the Psychological Science journal found “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior”, so women perceive some things as offensive while men wouldn’t. My male friends simply can’t understand why I would apologize for asking to go to the toilet again at my work when I’d already been holding on for half an hour. But I can’t just blame my second X chromosome for my apologetic nature. I have a pretty good indication it also comes from somewhere else.
I’d never thought of myself as someone who had experienced great hardship, but over the past few years I’ve been going to therapy and I’ve realized I had an emotionally abusive and neglected childhood, which guided me into a toxic and sexually abusive relationship. My therapist is like the human form of all those relationship self-help books. All of these things have obviously affected me in different ways, and all contributed to the hundreds of apologies flying out of my mouth on a daily basis.
I know my mother tried her best, but she was an alcoholic and would say really awful things to me and my sister while we were growing up. My father was absent and I have lived my entire life wondering what I did to make him stop loving me. This kind of environment breeds a child who wants to please everyone, craves love and wants to do everything right. Looking at my life in reverse makes it super clear to see that I apologize to diffuse tension and make everyone get along. I avoid confrontation because I had so much of it as a kid.
Let’s skip ahead to a relationship filled with manipulation, lies, threats and sexual abuse. I found myself apologizing all the time because he was really good at making himself the victim in every circumstance. I apologized for finding out he was cheating on me. He told me to be thankful that he never actually hit me, instead he only threatened to. I would apologize for making him angry, wanting to go see my family, and for finding his hidden alcohol bottles. He preyed on my already heightened lack of self-worth and made it worse. He is another reason I always think everything is somehow my fault.
My personal cocktail of apologetic programming aside, women who overapologise seem to do so as a reflex, the same as me. We want to be likable, and to be likable we have to be polite and nice. We’ve grown accustomed to these traits being associated with the word ‘sorry’, and I don’t think anything would change if we stopped saying it. The earth wouldn’t crack open and swallow us whole, the sky wouldn’t turn blood-red, and no one would spontaneously combust. I don’t even think anyone would think we were being particularly rude. No one would notice we weren’t saying it, but we would come across as more assertive and might even be taken more seriously.
After my college presentation, the lecturer – a successful journalist – pulled me aside, having noticed my preemptive apology and automatic put-down, and explained that I didn’t even give myself a chance to succeed but had instead assumed I had already failed. She told me that in all her years as a lecturer, she had seen female students do really similar things, yet never witnessed a man do it. She even said she’d seen better female journalists get looked over in place of their male colleagues because they apologized too much or seemed too quiet and tame. She told me I had potential and that I needed to stop saying sorry right now.
I left the class with a fire inside me, and since then I’ve been trying really hard to catch myself before I self-deprecate or apologize, and I have noticed a bit of a difference. I’m having more luck getting the things I want, people are listening to me more and I feel like a stronger person. I’m not sure if this is a result of saying ‘sorry’ less, but I feel like it has helped.
I used to feel like I let people walk all over me, but I don’t feel that anymore and it is really liberating. It has also really helped me deal with some of the things that have happened to me.
I’ve had some really great female role models in my life who have drummed into my head that being a woman is awesome and nothing to apologize for, so this is me reclaiming my life and my sense of self. I am unapologetically me.
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Comment: What’s the craziest thing you’ve apologized for?