When I lived in England, I was surprised how many times I heard people say, “Sorry”. Not “I’m sorry”, just “Sorry”. It seemed like the whole country was apologizing for the slightest little thing, over-and-over again. Was there really that much to apologize for? What does it say about a country that was constantly apologizing? Are they overly polite, a bit too defensive, highly considerate…

Or a little bit of each?

Meanwhile, here in America, for some of us, apologizing has almost become a reflex. Apologizing is part of our desire to be liked by others. Saying “I’m sorry” when you’ve accidentally (or purposely) hurt someone is a mature, empathic thing to do.

There’s nothing wrong with apologizing, but being over-apologetic isn’t a good thing. Passive people seem to be sorry for everything, even their existence. I’ve had clients who didn’t feel like they had the right to take up space, to stand their ground…to be themselves. Many of them were trained to be constantly “sorry”.

It’s a hard habit to break. Believe me, I know.

As a young, skinny gay boy with terrible posture, big ears and coke bottle glasses, I was always apologizing: for being too loud, wearing too bright clothes, dying my hair, wearing makeup, loving David Bowie…you name it, I was apologizing for it. My self-esteem was in the gutter.

If you’re an over-apologizer, like I used to be: consider these ideas to put “sorry” in its proper place:

  1. Know when not to apologize

Cut down on unnecessary apologies by acknowledging what you can’t control. If something’s not your responsibility, why apologize for it? Way-too-often, I used to say, “I’m sorry to bother you.” At work, we may need someone to do something (it’s usually part of their job). Our request is not an imposition. Of course, if we are asking for something unreasonable, e.g., “Could you stay until midnight to finish that project?”, then an apology may be appropriate.

  1. Be open and honest

If your puppy is barking on a Zoom call, rather than say “I’m sorry,” you could explain that her dogwalker is running late. Instead of apologizing for background noise, you can let the others know you’re doing some home remodeling. And if you need something urgently, let the other person know why.

  1. Learn from it

If something doesn’t go as planned – even if it’s your fault – instead of “I’m sorry,” acknowledge what went wrong and what you can learn from it: “That didn’t go as I’d hoped. Here’s what I’ll do differently next time”.

  1. “Not Sorry”

Let’s talk about those people who never apologize. These folks are either afraid to appear weak (they’re insecure) or they’re so self-absorbed that they don’t ever think that they need to apologize (they’re narcissists). A little dose of humility might do them a whole lot of good.

  1. Use empathy, not sympathy

Sympathy is saying, “I’m sorry that happened.” Empathy is saying, “It sounds like that was hard for you.” There’s nothing wrong with sympathy, but empathy can actually deepen a relationship. You could, if someone’s baby is screaming bloody murder in line behind you at the supermarket, turn to the mother and say, “You know, I feel just like she does today”. You might make a new friend; you’ll certainly make someone in a tough situation feel better.

  1. Try gratitude

Over-apologizing drains our self-esteem, gratitude is a mood boost. So instead of saying, “I’m sorry for being late” to your friends waiting for you at Richs/Gossip/InsideOut, instead, you could thank everybody for their patience. Shift the paradigm.

  1. Don’t be sorry for self-care

Sometimes this means saying “no” and setting a boundary. When you stand up for yourself, it normalizes the idea that you’re never too busy to take care of yourself. This is healthy assertiveness, not aggression. Try this and you’ll stop doing things you don’t want to do.

Since COVID is considered “over” now, we’re (once again) in transition. As we all find our footing in these “Sorry/Not Sorry” times, situations will arise where we want to apologize, but let’s not overuse it (too passive) or never use it (too aggressive). Look for the middle ground between the two extremes: some people call this “healthy assertiveness”. Check it out: it’s a nice place to live.