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Why Women Apologize Too Much and What to Do About It

In a world where moral obligation holds everyone accountable and where relationships can only be harmonious when one descends his moral high ground to meet another’s need, an apology is a must. From the moment we were young, the lesson of forgiveness and asking for one is continuously engraved in our minds. Society dictates that the right way to live is to be humble and polite, regardless of whether we’re right or not. That’s why when kids fight, saying sorry to each other no matter the reason of the fight is an expected resolution. Apologizing is an attitude and behavior instilled in us since the time we can remember. Yet, it weighs heavier on women.

Imagine this: you’re playing the game Never Have I Ever or Put a Finger Down right now. The categories include apologizing to objects, apologizing to people who bumped you, apologizing when your partner gets upset or angry, apologizing without knowing the reason for it, and apologizing to seem polite, and maintain a good image. How many of you raised your hand or put a finger down to all five categories? There’s a high chance that most women who did this just now checked off all five on the list. And it doesn’t end there. We find more reasons that need our apology every day.

A study about the frequency of apologizing between men and women conducted by researchers of the University of Waterloo, Canada revealed that women apologize more often than men. The researchers concluded that it’s because women have a lower threshold for offenses compared to men. Although the study found out that there was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompts apologies, men and women view the severity of offenses differently. To put it simply, an act or conduct that could be offensive in women’s perspective might not be too big of a deal for men.

The cultural, societal, and mental conditioning we received over the years is one reason why women differ from men in terms of how we view offenses, and thus, apologies. In his book entitled “The Triple Bind,” clinical psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., discussed that the messages about “good behavior” received by girls as they grow up become more and more conflicting and confusing. Society imposes what he views as “impossible sets of standards” that cause more pressure on adolescent girls than boys.

According to Dr. Hinshaw, one of the key tasks of adolescence is individuation, or the process of becoming unique individuals. Assertiveness, expressiveness, commitment to one’s agenda, and confidence are skills needed to fulfill individuation. He says, “Boys are traditionally seen as having more of the skills that lead to individuation.” Therefore, when boys show confidence and direct behaviors, they are praised and encouraged, while girls are told to have the same skills but with hampering conditions.

Confidence for boys is natural and expected. But when it comes to girls, the expectation is different because they should exude confidence yet still be humble. Girls should be smart, but they can’t be a know-it-all. They should be ambitious, but they cannot be try-hard. They have to be like boys, without being too much like boys. They need to follow standards yet always be aware of the conflicting conditions that accompany such. The confusion brought about by these contrasting conditions makes girls hyper-aware of their actions that affect others. It reflects the expectation that girls should have a more empathetic nature from their growing up years to full womanhood. “Girls are more often rewarded for focusing on others’ feelings while boys are more often rewarded for asserting themselves,” says Dr. Hinshaw.

The hyper-awareness and empathetic nature emanating from unrealistic standards girls have to embody results in over-apologizing. It also pressures women with the continuous need to appease people by appearing weaker and more subtle. That’s why, despite not doing anything wrong, women often downplay their remarks, views, or opinions with “I’m sorry’s,” “excuse me’s,” or any other words that can make their statement more polite. “They will care more about other people’s feelings. So, when conflicts arise, they are usually more ready to apologize, or they feel that by apologizing, there’s a higher chance that they can restore peace,” says Ivy Wong, a Gender Studies assistant professor at Chinese University.

Wong cites sexism and socialization as other factors that explain women’s lower threshold for offenses that lead to over apologizing. She explains that some parts of the brain responsible for processing physical pain and psychological pain overlap. Therefore, if men can tolerate more physical pain, they can also endure more social pain. She also stresses that socialization plays a vital role in shaping our different definitions of apology-worthy offense. Some parents may spoil and overprotect their daughters because they are considered more fragile. So, they may grow up believing they are weaker, reducing their stress tolerance.

On the other hand, the tendency of women to apologize more often may be a force of habit or a mental health issue called compulsive apologizing. Compulsive apologizing is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Excessive apologizing is a kind of compulsion, where the person apologizes repeatedly or frequently to get reassurance from unpleasant, intrusive thoughts or urges. According to Psych Central, compulsive apologizing could be a part of people-pleasing or a result of unresolved childhood trauma. Or it can just be a communication style you pick up as you grow.

In addition, over apologizing may also be a sign of another psychological concern, which is anxiety. Dr. Martin Antony, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab at Ryerson University, says, “Depending on the purpose of the behavior and the context in which it is occurring, it [excessive apologizing] could be conceptualized as a safety behavior, an overprotective behavior, or compensatory strategy. All of these are terms used to describe behaviors that are designed to protect an individual from aversive emotions or potential threat.”

Apologizing might be a way for some to feel safe and to cope in what they fear are threatening environments. An example of this is women who are in abusive relationships. Whether they experience verbal or physical abuses, they learn that saying sorry will keep them safe, at least for the moment, from their tormentors. Clinical Psychologist and author of Prescription without Pills Susan Heitler explains that people who frequently apologize may have learned the pattern as a way to stay safe. She says, “In an abusive relationship, if she’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,’ he feels scot-free and vindicated that what he wanted was right, so he’ll let go of it potentially. So, it’s a safety maneuver.”

Yet, interestingly, in her New York Times op-ed article about why women need to stop apologizing, female writer Sloane Crosley focused on another perspective as to why women behave this way. “It’s a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages to get what we want. All that exhausting maneuvering is the etiquette equivalent of a vestigial tail,” she wrote. She also pointed out that a woman’s “sorry” can also serve as “a poor translation for a string of expletives.”

Still, whatever the reason may be, this habit of women that assumes the more modest and inferior role by saying sorry in situations that do not call for one should stop. It wouldn’t be easy changing a behavior. However, welcoming change for this particular concern can impact the trajectory in women’s careers, relationships, and life in general.

Kinds of Apologetic Behavior and Languages in Women

1. Over-apologizing.

Another term for this is frequent or excessive apologizing. It’s when women repeatedly apologize and too often even when there is no particular reason for it.

2. Hedging

Hedging refers to words or phrases that do not directly state an apology but shows women putting themselves in a disadvantaged or unconfident position. These terms and phrases are otherwise humbling. Examples are when women use “excuse me,” “I might be wrong, but…” to start discussions and conversations.

3. Sorry as a sentence starter.

To sound polite and humble, especially when asking even small favors such as passing a napkin during a meal, women often start their sentences with the word “sorry.” To not sound rude or arrogant during conversations, we often apologize for speaking our thoughts and personal views.

Usual Situations Where Women Feel the Need to Apologize

  • Talking too much
  • Eating too little or too much during family meals and social gatherings
  • Overthinking or feeling insecure
  • Being emotional or sensitive
  • Needing reassurance
  • Asking favors that feel like imposing on others
  • Being too career-driven and ambitious
  • Trying too hard
  • Being bossy, commanding, or coming on too strong
  • Talking simultaneously with another person
  • Discussing with someone older or more superior in social status
  • Laughing or speaking too loud with someone or over the phone

Why Women Need To Stop the Constant and Excessive Apologizing

  • It shows insincerity or pretense.

When someone apologizes to you time and again for every little thing, the words “sorry” or “my apologies” lose their meaning, and you start doubting whether the speaker means it or not. Instead of realizing that you are a polite person, it makes the listener think you’re pretentious or hypocritical.

  • It derogates your value.

It derogates your value. Apologizing too much puts you in a lower position. It creates an illusion that the person you’re talking to is much better than you. You have to realize that you’re a human being too. You’re entitled to feel your emotions, and your feelings are valid. You’re worth just as much as any person on the planet. You’re not required to apologize for every little thing that makes you different from others.

  • It kills your confidence and self-esteem.

Too much apologizing is one of the fastest and easiest ways to destroy your self-esteem. The more you hear yourself say sorry, the more you become convinced that you’re doing everything wrong. It can trick your mind into thinking that you have problems and that you’re not as good as others because you keep making mistakes or offenses. Worse, it also convinces you that you’re not good and makes you feel bad about yourself. This mental torture can lead to self-loathing, degenerating morale, and loss of self-respect.

  • It betrays your authority.

Using sorry and any other apologetic language in your statement weakens it. It also indirectly shows your inferiority or weakness among the people around you. To you, it may only sound like a habit or a natural part of your system, but people hearing you say it, again and again, may have a different interpretation. If you are a manager or leader and cannot control the habit of excessive apologizing in the corporate setting, your subordinates may lose their trust and respect for you. It can make you sound like a weak leader and member of the organization. Your company may think you cannot be entrusted with future projects because you lack authority. Your team may not follow you, or they might feel lost because they cannot see a commanding figure in you.

  • It puts you at a place where others can look down on you and take advantage of you.

Excessive apologizing puts you in a one-down position. It makes you appear inferior, creating an opportunity for others to look down on you and exploit your weakness. When it comes to abuse, an apology equals submission and fear. The more you do it, the more opportunity you give your abusers to repeat their mistreatment of you. The more you apologize, the more you lose the belief that you can defend yourself, and the more you become fearful. They feed on your fears. You have to decide to stand up for yourself for the vicious cycle to stop.

Ways to Stop Apologizing

Habits can change, and so are behaviors. Here are several realistic and practical ways of coping with the problem of excessive or compulsive apologizing.

  • Be self-aware.

It may sound conflicting from the hyper-awareness of women that leads to apologizing more frequently, but it helps to notice your triggers and cues leading to an apology. It gives you time to evaluate your situation, thoughts, and emotions before reacting. Your hyper-awareness is more inclined to your surroundings and other people’s feelings, whereas your self-awareness is about tuning more on your inner self and emotions.

  • Understand forgiveness and asking for an apology as an essential moral value.

You have to remind yourself of the weight of an apology so you won’t use it carelessly. An apology entails responsibility and accountability. You have to use it wisely. Just like any other value, you should not take it lightly.

  • Re-think and rephrase.

Evaluate the situation, mind your reactions, acknowledge your emotions, and express your words in a calm but confident manner.

  • Practice being direct and with tact at the same time.

The social contract mandates girls and women to be modest, humble, and submissive to be good partners to men. But there is nothing wrong with being direct. In reality, it is an easy and quick way of clearing misunderstandings and conveying your sentiments with clarity. On the other hand, tact is a skill that achieves the same purpose as appeasing people’s feelings.

  • Be real.

Do not waste your breath with senseless apologies. An apology shows strength and character, but only if used in the times that it is needed. Otherwise, it only puts you in a bad light. Every time you feel like apologizing, ask yourself these questions: Why am I apologizing? Did I do something wrong that is worth an apology? Remember that even in apologies, once is enough, twice is too much.

  • Seek help from professionals.

If you find yourself apologizing over and over for no apparent reason, it might be high time to consult a professional. When you talk to someone about your problems, especially one who has expertise in such a field as your concern, you will understand yourself better. You will get background about your triggers and emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms and resolutions.

Final Words:

As the old proverb goes, too much of everything is bad. Yet, too little can also be bad for us. We have to use apologies during crucial moments when it is practically needed. While some of the things we’ve learned from our ancestry are good, there are some habits and routines that we also have to unlearn to live balanced and meaningful lives. We have to unlearn and relearn the importance of apology and when it is needed. Remember that there’s no best way of living life than being unapologetic about your existence.