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Unless you’re perfect (and no one is), apologies are a necessary part of life. And those two little words — “I’m sorry” — are quite powerful.
Research shows that apologies releases us from the guilt of having wronged someone and it restores a sense of trust between the two parties.
It can also help us save face,
But like chocolate, too much “my bad” is, well, bad. Excessive apologizing 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.
Here are some common examples: 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 “I’m sorry, was I in your way? My apologies!”
Unfortunately, some older research has shown that this is especially true for women.
Whatever the situation, unnecessary self-criticism may be to blame, says Juliana Breines, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Rhode Island. “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 absolutely 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. Then, try one of the alternative phrases if you can’t totally bite your tongue.
“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. Thursday’s meeting isn’t the place to open up about all your unresolved childhood wounds. A therapist’s office or other mental health resource 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.
What to say instead of sorry: “I feel upset when…”
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 positively uncalled for.
What to say instead of sorry: Nothing. Own your appearance.
People vary in the amount of personal space they need to get through the day. People experiencing anxiety, for instance, may need more than others. So, it’s critical to our well-being 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. 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 definitely coming from their issues, she says, not yours.
What to say instead of sorry: “I gotta just chill tonight,” or “what I need for me tonight is to just be quiet” or “I need to be by myself.”
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. If someone judges you for asking, that could be a projection of his or her own insecurities.
What to say instead of sorry: “Can you please help me understand that?” or “Could you please explain that a bit further?”
Unless you’ve introduced someone to a person who treats them rudely (think: setting up a date between two friends you thought would get along, only to find out one of them was a total jerk), the way others act is completely out of your control. Thus, it’s 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 something more self-loving.
What to say instead of sorry: “Excuse me.”
We can’t always get back to a 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.
People appreciate the confirmation that you’re aware of their needs, Flagg says. Just don’t ever forget that you have needs too.
What to say instead of sorry: “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!”
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.”
Absolutely 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.
What to say instead of sorry: “I’m sorry that happened.”
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 not only invalidates us and reinforces 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.