People may constantly apologize for many reasons, such as people pleasing or feelings of guilt. But excessive apologizing may also be associated with a mental health condition.
Have you ever apologized when someone else bumped into you or apologized for not responding to an email in the middle of the night while you were sleeping?
While there are many times when saying “sorry” is the right thing to do, there are times when saying “sorry” isn’t helping you. If you find yourself constantly apologizing, it might be useful to take a moment to consider if you’re really at fault or over-apologizing.
Gendered terms like “women” and “men” are used throughout this article. But we understand gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body. So, when we use this language, we’re referring to all people who identify as a woman or a man.
Over-apologizing can happen for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common reasons, according to Jocelyn Hamsher, a therapist in Arizona, include:
- false guilt (feeling responsible for something you are not responsible for)
- carried guilt (feeling guilt for someone else’s behavior because they don’t feel guilt)
- people-pleasing (wanting others’ approval)
“With people pleasing, over-apologizing is motivated by trying to manage the other person’s emotions and make them feel better,” explains Hamsher. “Even if you weren’t the one to cause harm because you’re uncomfortable when other people aren’t happy.”
Another reason someone might over-apologize is because of low self-esteem.
“When someone has low self-esteem, they may feel they’re taking up too much space, asking too much, or being disruptive,” says Shahar Lawrence, LCSW, in Utah and Nevada. “In this case, they often apologize profusely as they feel they aren’t worthy of time, space, or attention.”
Excessive apologizing could be tied to mental health conditions like:
- social anxiety
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Alternatively, Yara Heary, a psychologist in Perth, Australia, offers a different view that over-apologizing could relate to the society you live in or the community you belong to. “When we look across genders, we see that women tend to engage in this behavior more often than men, especially in patriarchal societies,” says Heary.
“Women [who live in or belong to] patriarchal cultures are more likely to doubt their abilities, their value, their behavior, and their validity to take up space in their environments,” Heary explains, “and one of the ways this manifests behaviourally is through over-apologizing.”
Is excessive apologizing a trauma response?
Not always, but it can be, says Dr. Cynthia King, a clinical psychologist and the co-founder of FemFwd.
“In my clinical practice, I see excessive apologizing more often in trauma survivors whose abuse started young, was prolonged, and the perpetrator was in the family,” explains King. “As a survival mechanism, they learned to make themselves small and cause as few problems as possible. Keeping themselves as safe as possible can manifest as being overly submissive and apologetic to keep the peace and thus avoid further traumatization.”
King also notes that over-apologizing may be present in adults experiencing prolonged trauma in partnerships. For example, with intimate partner violence, “you may feel the need to make a habit out of trying to keep the peace to experience less violence,” King explains.
If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, you can:
You have several options that don’t include automatically saying you’re sorry.
Say thank you instead
“A great way to change the perspective on ‘I’m sorry’ is saying ‘thank you’ instead,” suggests Lawrence — who provided this helpful chart of examples.
|I’m Sorry||Thank you|
|“I’m sorry I’m late.”||“Thank you for your patience with me getting here.”|
|“I’m sorry. Can I ask a favor?”||“Thank you for being willing to help.”|
|“Sorry I can’t come.”||” Thank you for inviting me; I can’t make it.”|
|“I’m sorry. Am I bugging you?”||“Thank you for your patience with XYZ thing.” (This is if the “thing” is something out of their control.)|
|“I’m sorry I forgot.”||“Thank you for reminding me.”|
|“I’m sorry to bother you.”||“Thank you for your time.”|
|“I’m sorry I’m so bad at this.”||“Thank you for helping me.”|
Consider if you need to say anything
“There is power in pausing before reacting,” says King.
She suggests asking yourself, “did I even do anything wrong?” If the answer is “yes,” perhaps you ask yourself how big the mistake actually was.
“It’s important that the magnitude of what happens accurately matches how we apologize or repair with the other person,” explains King. “If the answer is “no,” then it’s important to resist the urge to say sorry and use it as an opportunity to retrain your brain and learn a new habit based on the facts of the situation.”
Tell yourself it’s OK to take up space
“If you suspect that over-apologizing is a trauma response, but you are now in a safe environment, remind yourself the context in which you needed to over-apologize to remain safe is no longer your reality,” suggests Heary. “Remind yourself that it’s safe for you to take up space and that you’re not responsible for managing the emotions of others.”
The right people will still love you, respect you, and want to know you without you apologizing for everything.
Know that it’s completely OK to say sorry when you need to, and it’s OK to skip taking the blame when you don’t. Not everything is your fault — including why you sometimes might feel like it is.
It may take time to stop apologizing. Try to be patient with yourself, as it can take time to stop over-apologizing, and that’s OK.
If you believe you over-apologize and would like support, consider visiting Psych Central’s directory to find a therapist to help you cope with excessive apologizing.