Have you heard about those huge alligators that live in the New York City sewer system? Or how mixing pop rocks candy and soda can make your stomach explode? Then there’s that story about the woman who apologized too much, even when there was nothing to be sorry for, and all of that stress caused her to dwindle down into an extra in the movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids. Okay, that last one isn’t actually an urban legend like the others, but the fact remains that when a woman over-apologizes for no reason, it suddenly becomes the story of our life.
Whether you are trying to defuse a tense situation, deliver bad news, keep the peace or avoid being disliked, it can be easy to lead with an apology. “Apology speak,” which is what I call it, doesn’t even have to include the word “sorry.” Using apologetic, self-deprecating phrases, like “in my humble opinion,” “not that I’m an expert at this,” or “this might sound crazy, but” all count. And the problem is that every time you apologize just to make others feel better or be less threatening, it hurts your self-esteem. It did for me.
The first four decades of my life were spent in a constant state of apology. Growing up, I just wanted to conform and be liked. I apologized for winning speaking trophies as a student, and then apologized to the men in my life who felt insecure when I got a work promotion. One time, I went on a date with a guy I met online about 15 years ago. All he could talk about were the accomplishments listed on my website, so I’d guessed he had Googled me. It was funny at first, when he compared one of my business awards to his high school wrestling trophy. But then he kept on going, listing pretty much all of my career highlights in a weirdly competitive tone. It was uncomfortable for me, but I didn’t know what else to do. Call him out? Walk away? That didn’t feel like an option for the people pleasing person I was at the time. Instead, I remember saying, “Wow, I’m sorry” to diffuse the tension. For some reason, in that moment of insecurity, I felt the need to apologize for being successful.
Back in the early 1990’s, I decided to take charge of my health, and lost 50 pounds. It took a lot of work, and it still does, to keep it off. But when someone would complain to me about wanting to lose weight without putting in the work, most of the time I’d say, “I’m sorry. It’s really hard.” In retrospect, I wonder why I even said sorry. There was nothing to apologize for, and all it did was diminish my hard-won well-being. And when the Great Recession killed my business in 2009, I apologized for laying off great people, racking up $100k in debt, and then for working hard for years to pay it all off.
However, a few major developments took place that changed the way I looked at things between 2013 and 2014. Within those two years, I married my husband, got diagnosed with a bad case of Crohn’s Disease, became a certified executive coach, and decided to go back into corporate America.
As we head into 2020, it’s clear to me that those events largely shaped the rest of my decade. It was a huge paradigm shift, as I began celebrating more, and apologizing less. My confidence soared, and so did my well-being.
What I’ve found upon looking back is that apology speak is a common habit — one that you can slowly change by making small changes. One thing that helped me change my habit was to start paying close attention to whenever it would start. For anyone else struggling to let go of their constant apologies, I recommend taking a week to record each instance on your phone or a notepad. Count everything that comes to mind, like when someone texting bumps into you in the grocery store and you end up saying sorry. Tally up the number after a week or so and see where you land. This exercise can help you identify the triggers for apology speak, and plan to avoid them in advance.
These days, I don’t feel the need to over apologize. I’m really proud of that life shift over the past decade. Going into 2020, I’d love to see that become the norm for everyone.
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