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Are You Saying 'Sorry' as a Social Lubricant?

Over-apologizing can be a tough habit to break

by Liz Brown
June 27, 2019 | Living

Saying sorry is often used as a Band-Aid. It covers up the issue without actually fixing anything.

Of course, it's important to apologize when you've messed up. But there are times when you shouldn't. Especially if it's an impulse.

“I feel like if you apologize, it should be because you did something wrong," said Paul Jenkins, a chemical engineer. "If it helps, apologize and move on ... Apologizing for things outside your control doesn't do anything.”

An impulsive apology, one without sincere reflection and accountability, can be unhelpful, said Shainna Ali, a mental health therapist, educator and author of  "The Self-Love Workbook." In fact, “when it's simply to just discard whatever the conflict is, it actually minimizes that person's point of view and their experiences.”

Illustration of a man saying sorry
Saying sorry can sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect.

“There isn’t actually a learned lesson. There isn't actually a resolution,” she said.

Saying any word repeatedly makes it lose its meaning and its power. When it becomes a knee-jerk reaction, it may actually have more to do with you than the situation.

“Someone may be quick to do this if they already have negative beliefs about themselves," Ali said.

So ask yourself this: Are you saying sorry because you really are? Or do you apologize to make yourself feel good?

Reflect on your intentions

"Sorry" can be used as a security blanket and a space filler. It can feel like a gentle or nonthreatening way to talk to someone or ask for something.

Mike Hessdorf, a social worker and psychotherapist who's been practicing since 1990, believes when people unnecessarily apologize it’s because they want others to feel better and they want to be liked themselves.

“It is to make the other person feel better and they want the other person to like them or at least not be angry with them,” he said. “It is a way to assuage the anger of others.”

Self-reflection can help when you feel guilty for not apologizing, Ali said.

“If a situation is prompted, that would be a good opportunity,” she said. “But you don’t have to wait until a situation has arrived to take ownership. This is something you could do proactively. I would prefer for people to take proactive action.”

You can become more self-aware by journaling or talking it out with someone you trust, like a therapist. The next time you feel the impulse to apologize, you’ll be more prepared.

Why we over-apologize

Over-apologizing could be a learned personality trait, a coping mechanism from having a difficult childhood or relationship.

“Guilt is quite insidious and inhibiting,” Hessdorf said. “It can be helpful in certain situations where it helps to correct negative and injurious behaviors to others, but usually it is much more global and hurtful to the person who is feeling guilty.”

It could also be the result of "unfinished business with yourself," Ali said. You might need to do some self-forgiveness.

“You could be projecting that by apologizing to the person," she said. "Sometimes it’s weighing on us in a level that's unhealthy. We’re all human and all have areas to grow."

[ICYMI: How to Make a Meaningful Apology]

Don’t stop apologizing all together

Pause and think. Take a beat to recognize when you’re about to over-apologize, or even under-apologize.

“You need to be mindful and aware. But I don't think it’s helpful to say, ‘Just don't do it,’" Ali said. "It’s black-and-white thinking and can go too far and you can begin under-apologizing.

“Recognize if you feel compelled to apologize and give yourself a moment to pause, think about the context and decide."

Saying sorry can sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect. Research has suggested that apologizing when you're rejecting someone socially — like if you're breaking up with them, turning them down for a date or telling them they can't sit with you at lunch — can actually make them feel worse.

“Just like it's weird to constantly praise someone who doesn't need to be praised, it's weird to apologize for something that doesn't need an apology," Jenkins said.

Liz Brown
Liz Brown is a San Francisco-based writer and copyeditor whose day job is in marketing and communications. Her passion lies in finding the unique angle to every story. Follow her ramblings on Twitter at @lizb411.
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