Unless you’re perfect (and we certainly aren’t!), apologies are a necessary part of life. And those two little words—“I’m sorry”—are quite powerful. Saying them releases us from the guilt of having wronged someone, restores a sense of trust between the two parties, and helps us save face, appear more agreeable, and fortify our belief in our own moral goodness and likeability.
But like chocolate, too much “my bad” is, well, bad. Excessive apologizing—for example, prefacing your turn to pose a question during a meeting with “I’m so sorry, this is such a stupid thing to ask, but...” or reacting to someone who rams into you in the supermarket with an “I’m sorry, was I in your way? My apologies!”—can make us come off as lacking in confidence and competence, says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Unfortunately this is especially true for women in male-dominated work environments. “Women who apologize a lot may be well liked but passed over for a promotion because they don’t seem strong enough for the job,” she says. “Then if they stop apologizing, they’re deemed too aggressive. It’s a double-bind.”
Whatever the situation, unnecessary self-criticism may be to blame, says Juliana Breines, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at Brandeis University who studies self-compassion. “Over-apologizing can stem from being too hard on ourselves or beating ourselves up for things, rather than recognizing everyone makes mistakes and no one expects you to be perfect.” When people harbor feelings of shame and guilt, they may apologize to elicit reassurance from others, she adds—even if the person they’re saying sorry to hasn’t been harmed in the least by their behavior. The consequence? We risk reinforcing an erroneous belief that we’re inherently worthy of blame.
This isn’t to knock the value of owning our errors and making amends if we’re obviously in the wrong. But oftentimes that’s not the case, yet we still utter, “I’m sorry.” If you can relate, listen up: There are better ways to dispel discomfort, remain likeable to other people, and express empathy in lieu of these two words. Next time you find yourself about to apologize for these seven things, stop (and try one of the alternative phrases if you can’t totally bite your tongue).
1. Your Feelings
“Telling people what you think and feel is a responsibility in any relationship. By letting someone know how you feel, you’re helping that person understand you. Own that,” says Donna Flagg, author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations.
This isn’t to condone gushing your heart out whenever the urge strikes. (As in, Thursday’s strategy meeting isn’t the ideal place to open up about all your unresolved childhood wounds. A therapist’s office would be better.) But the warranted “I’m upset by this” or “I feel uncomfortable with ___” is perfectly legit, Flagg says.
This also applies to begging forgiveness for being “oversensitive,” Breines adds. When we apologize for feeling hurt (or even passionate about something), we minimize ourselves in a misguided attempt to protect others.
2. Your Appearance
When we jump into mea culpas for, say, looking tired, having a bad hair day, or wearing an outfit that causes stares, we’re really expressing a lack of self-compassion, Breines explains.
“You are who you are,” Flagg says. “Why would an apology be necessary for what you look like?”
Unless you roll into the office in sweatpants and a food-stained T-shirt or flagrantly flout the dress code required of a certain situation, attempting to atone for who you are and how you decided to style your hair today is completely uncalled for.
3. Needing “Me Time”
People vary in the amount of personal space they need to get through the day. Anxious people, for instance, may need more than others, so it’s critical to our wellbeing that we request the room necessary to mentally breathe, even if that means turning down a friend for a workout or a date here and there.
If you feel guilty for requesting some “me time,” you’re probably overthinking things, Flagg says. “Simply say, ‘I gotta just chill tonight,’ ‘what I need for me tonight is to just be quiet’ or ‘I need to be by myself,’” she advises. (There’s also no harm in requesting a rain check if you really do want to see the pal you’re cancelling on.) And if the person to whom you’re speaking gets pissed? Provided you’ve respectfully expressed a desire to be alone, that reaction’s coming from their issues, she says, not yours.
4. Asking a Question
We invalidate ourselves when we apologize for posing a question. Some of us may do so to protect our egos, fearing that a peer or colleague will roll their eyes or snicker at our lack of knowledge. “But you shouldn’t apologize if you’re requesting help or clarification,” Flagg says. “All you need to say is ‘Can you please help me understand that?’ Or ‘Could you please explain that a bit further?’” If someone judges you for asking, that could be a projection of his or her own insecurities, Flagg adds.
5. Other People’s Behavior
Unless you’ve introduced someone to a person who treats them rudely (think: setting up a date between two friends you totally thought would get along, only to find out one of them was a total jerk to the other), the way others act is completely out of your control and thus no grounds for issuing an apology, Flagg says.
Same goes for saying sorry to someone who bumps into you in a store or on the sidewalk. “Some people really have this desire to smooth things over, so if the other person doesn’t apologize, they feel the need to apologize themselves and may even assume they must be to blame,” Breines says.
If you’re one of those types and you can’t not say something in these situations, change your reaction to, “Excuse me,” Flagg suggests.
6. Not Responding Immediately to a Text, Call, or Email
We can’t always get back to a friend, loved one, or colleague immediately. Unless there’s an emergency (and usually you can tell), apologizing for taking more than a split second to reply can make an issue out of something that might not have been a big deal to begin with, Flagg says. Plus, it may send the message that our own agendas are less important than those we’re responding to. (Not true and not cool.)
To avoid caving when too many people want to hear back from you this instant, Flagg recommends a brief acknowledgment of the inquiry, coupled with a heads-up about what’s on your plate. Something like “I haven’t forgotten about you, I’m just a bit slammed here at work” or “I’m still working on getting you an answer, so hang tight!” works great. People appreciate the confirmation that you’re aware of their needs, Flagg says. Just don’t forget that you have needs too.
7. Circumstances You Can’t Control
You know the situation: Someone complains to you about a nagging in-law, a difficult boss, or an unhappy relationship, and your knee-jerk reaction is “I’m sorry.” We do this because we feel bad for the other person, Tannen explains. But instead of confusing the situation by verbalizing a responsibility you don’t actually have, she suggests gently saying, “That’s too bad” or “That must be really hard for you.”
Can’t help but say the s-word? Then add a few more words to convey what you mean, Tannen says, such as “I’m sorry that happened.” That way it sounds less like you’re taking the blame for something that totally isn’t your fault.
Apologizing when we’ve clearly hurt someone else, violated a rule, or done something we know to be wrong is a necessary step in repairing the social fabric that keeps us connected to other people. But saying sorry for stuff we aren’t responsible for can not only invalidate us and reinforce feelings of low self-worth, it can trivialize the act of apologizing and give others the impression we’re less capable.
Much of getting over the impulse to beg forgiveness for things we aren’t responsible for involves cultivating a tolerance for the discomfort of awkward situations as well as greater self-compassion, Breines says. It’s not easy to suddenly shift your behavior. But studies do show that, in some cases, withholding apologies can be empowering. So next time you find yourself inclined to say sorry, take a breath, pause, and ask yourself whether you’re really to blame. If not, no sorry necessary.