There are times when saying you’re sorry makes sense. You bumped into someone. You said something hurtful. You yelled. You arrived late to lunch. You missed a friend’s birthday.
But many of us over-apologize. That is, we apologize for things we don’t need to apologize for.
Kelly Hendricks knew she had a problem with over-apologizing when she bumped into a tree and blurted out, “I’m sorry!” Hendricks used to apologize for everything, she said.
Many of us apologize for everything, too. We apologize for needing space and for needing help. We apologize for “bothering” someone. We apologize for crying and for saying no. We apologize for apologizing. And maybe we even apologize for who we are. Maybe we even apologize for existing.
Where does this persistent impulse come from?
According to Manhattan psychotherapist Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, “There are so many different roots that over-apologizing can stem from.”
It might originate from feeling inadequate, unworthy and not good enough, said Hendricks, a couple and family therapist in San Diego. “Those who over-apologize often feel like a burden to others, as if their wants and needs are not important…”
Feeling like a burden also can play out in this way, said Saidipour, who works with young professionals in their 20s and 30s who want to gain a deeper understanding of themselves: You’re having a hard time, and your partner has been incredibly supportive. They listen to you and clear their schedule to be with you. But, instead of feeling grateful when your partner does something kind, you apologize for being so needy and for making them “go through the trouble.”
In short, it’s like you “apologize for having any needs at all,” Saidipour said. This might derive from being raised by a parent who had unmet or overwhelming needs, and thereby “had a low tolerance or even contempt for your needs.”
Over-apologizing also can stem from a self-worth that’s shackled to shame. Saidipour noted that shame says “I am bad” (versus guilt, which says “I did something bad”). Shame “pushes us to hide ourselves, our needs, our core badness.” Sometimes, guilt can conceal shame, she said: “I did something bad because I am bad.”
(You can recognize that shame is at the root if you chronically feel guilty for something even though you’ve sincerely apologized and adjusted your behavior, Saidipour said.)
You might over-apologize because you want to be seen as a “good person,” Hendricks said. Like many people, maybe you were praised and rewarded for putting others first, she said. Maybe you learned that it’s best to sacrifice yourself for others, or to think less of yourself (because being humble is being good!).
Another reason for over-apologizing comes from wanting to “avoid conflict at all costs,” Saidipour said. Because you fear “where that conflict can lead. Fears often have an understandable history behind them, and they make perfect sense if we understand the context.”
She shared this example: You’re quick to apologize to your friends, because you’re worried they’ll get mad at you, and you want to stop the conflict before it ever starts. Maybe you do this because you grew up in a household where conflict sparked screaming matches, harsh punishment and broken objects. Or maybe conflict led to “being iced out and given the cold shoulder, which for a kid can feel tantamount to being abandoned.”
In other words, instead of seeing conflict as an opportunity to understand each other’s perspective, work through the issue, and become closer, you see it as “being hurt, shamed, or emotionally abandoned.”
Sometimes, we over-apologize because we’re afraid to own up to messing up, Saidipour said. “‘Sorry’ actually becomes a demand to be absolved of any wrong-doing.” It says, “I’m sorry, so you can’t be mad at me.” That is, we apologize because we need to feel good about ourselves, and we need to believe we always do the right thing.
So what can you do about your over-apologizing?
Saidipour and Hendricks shared these suggestions.
Delve deeper. Getting to the root of your over-apologizing is first and foremost. Saidipour suggested exploring these questions:
- Do you find yourself feeling guilty instead of grateful when someone is supportive? Is this guilt a familiar reaction to having needs?
- In the past, who’s been unable or unwilling to meet your needs?
- Might “thank you” fit the situation better than “I’m sorry”?
- Are you apologizing out of fear?
- What are you afraid will happen if you have a conflict?
- What have been your experiences with conflict in the past?
- How were these past conflicts resolved?
- Would apologizing mean accepting blame that doesn’t belong to you?
Believe that you matter. Hendricks stressed the importance of believing that you’re just as important as anyone else and your thoughts, words and wants are of value. And it’s OK if you have to “fake it till you make it,” because you don’t believe that you matter. Yet. Try to see every situation, along with your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, through that lens—that, yes, you do indeed matter, she said.
Replace self-defeating thoughts. According to Hendricks, if your mind tells you, “There’s no way you can do this,” you might say: “Yes, I can, and this is how I will,” or “I may not know how I will get there, but I will do my best to find out.”
Psychologist Mary Plouffe, Ph.D, suggested transforming self-defeating thoughts by considering these questions: “Would I say that to anyone else I wanted to support? … Is there anything useful that can come out of my holding onto this thought? If not, how can I transform it into something I can use to help me? Does it reflect the truth or just my worst fears about myself and the world?”
Be intentional about what you consume. If we consistently read or hear messages that say we’re not important or enough, over time, these words will become belief systems that strengthen our insecurity and self-doubt— and lead us to needlessly apologize, Hendricks said.
She noted that there are many conflicting messages about who we’re supposed to be, and how we’re supposed to think and act. “Men are supposed to be sensitive, but also strong enough to take care of a family; they are supposed to anticipate a woman’s needs while also knowing when to speak and when to listen.” Women, she said, are criticized for everything.
“With all the noise out there, it’s vital to pay attention and filter what messages are flying your way.”
Be particular about the people in your life. Surround yourself with people who “support your right to an opinion, even if it’s different than their’s, who make room for your wants and needs, and who treat you as a person with value,” Hendricks said.
Seek therapy. Working with a therapist can be invaluable in helping you gain a deeper understanding into why you over-apologize and do something about it.
Take the example of shame: Shame conceals the parts of ourselves that feel bad and unlovable. These parts have been in a kind of “deep freeze with layers and layers of shame around them to try to keep them from being discovered,” said Saidipour. Therapy involves creating a safe relationship with a therapist so you can first become aware of this shame.
“Over time in therapy we can get curious together about the backstory of the how, when, and why those parts got sent to deep freeze, who sent them there, and why they’re wrapped up with so much shame. This process, of being deeply known to another person and of creating a narrative together about the origins of those shame-laden frozen parts, starts to dissolve the shame and thaw those parts of ourselves so that we can live more fully and freely moving forward.”
Typically, this shame is tied to parts of ourselves that weren’t accepted or understood as we were growing up. Which leads us to think that these parts are clearly awful (and must be hidden). Therapy can help us realize that they’re not so shameful, after all—and maybe even gain a new appreciation for them, Saidipour said.
Your tendency to over-apologize can be an important clue into what you need to work on. And that’s a good thing. Because once you know what’s driving your seemingly automatic apologies, you can start making meaningful changes.