Relationship Building Activities: Apology Not Accepted

Posted by Bridget Beirne
July 30, 2013

Replace chronic apologizing with more positive relationship building activities!

Hello, my name is Bridget, and I am a chronic apologizer.

It seems that, no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to stop finding things for which to apologize. Is my laptop dangerously close to crowding your workspace? I'm sorry! Might I have to call the waitress over to the table to ask for more water? I'm sorry! Did you bump into me on the subway stairs? Oh, I'm so sorry! Yeesh. It's too much.

I will spare everyone the psychology behind this drive to apologize, (I'll save that for the, *ahem*, priveledged (!?) few with whom I discuss it...) but I will say I've been a Sorry-Sayer since I was a child. I remember, after driving my poor parents insane with it, the words "I'm sorry" became a joke with one of my aunts- my obsessive apologizing was enough to make my parents want to ship me off, and my aunt joked that she would take me in when that happened. "I'm sorry!" I would happily shout at her, not realizing that the phrase had already become an issue. And so "I'm sorry" became a funny code, a trademark, a very identifiable partRelationship Building Activities
of "Me".

It's cute at 8. It's not when you're older.

Over time, I started to realize what a problem the phrase had become. Colleagues would say things like "Do you apologize all of the time?" "Well, yes" I would admit, coming clean about what I had come to accept as a character trait. Inevitably, their response would be some form of "Well, you shouldn't," with varying degrees of judgment, the most extreme disapproval voiced with an eye roll to the ceiling. It wasn't until a friend said a very crucial phrase years ago that I came to realize the tragic flaw of my apologizing ways. The friend stopped me, undoubtedly after I had apologized for some extreme offense like nearly stepping on their foot, and said, "When you apologize all of the time, it makes your apology seem insincere."

Wait-- what?! WOAH. 

By that point, I was aware that the never-ending stream of "I'm sorry" was partially an effort to seem kind and considerate of the needs of others. ("A worthy trait!", I thought.) People had pointed out that it had the potential to make me seem weak. ("How can looking out for others make you weak?" I protested.) But none of the objections to my persistent apologies hit home like that one- insincere! That is one of the LAST things I would like to be!

I started to think about it, more and more. It made a lot of sense- if the words were said in a constant stream, they most likely would get tuned out. And if everything in the world at large receives a hearty "I'm sorry" from me, how is one to know the difference between a "Whoops! That was close!" and a "I'm so sorry that I caused you pain"? I realized something, as well- in the workplace, it put my colleagues in the position of having to preserve and adjust to my feelings. No one wants to be required to give absolution 24/7.

If we're being honest here, I still struggle with this. However, I keep working at the problem. Here are some things I do in my efforts to stop apologizing. I'm sorry to say it, but I hope they help: (See what I did there?)


1. Call it out: If you're an apologizer, those words might just tumble out of your mouth, sometimes without a lot of thought. (Harsh to admit, I know...) Call yourself out on it. If you find yourself defaulting to those words, try saying something like "There it is! 'I'm sorry!'". Give your mind a minute to recognize what's being said. (If you're anything like me, chances are the colleague/friend that you are with is aware that you're working on the issue, and won't look at you with those "What the heck are you saying?" eyes.) In a situation where you can't say it out loud? Make a note of it, whether mental or physical. Revisit the moment later, and call it out.


2. Ask yourself: This part can be tricky, but it is oh-so important. Ask yourself "Am I really sorry?" Here's a quick example- recently, a new box fan that I had set in the window of my kitchen fell to the floor when the front door was opened. (Thanks a lot, cross ventilation!) A small plastic piece broke off of the fan, and I APOLOGIZED FOR IT! Not only did I have nothing to do with it, I wasn't even in the room when it happened. I stopped myself and said "I'm sorry?? No I'm not! I had nothing to do with this!" 

In short, are you sorry you loaded the wrong size paper into the printer/copier and caused an epic jam the likes of which Xerox has never seen? Sure. Are you sorry that you need to print a 30 page document for an important meeting and have caused a bit of a hold-up at the machine?Probably not, since you've done nothing wrong. Be sure and ask yourself if you're really sorry.



3. Adjust your language: For me, a big help has been to find other words to use. (Incidentally, the more conscious you can be about this aspect of your communication, the more clarity will come over all.) Don't dismiss something with a default apology- especially when it's not your fault! You can say something like "I know you're waiting to use the Xerox- I promise to let you know as soon as I'm done. Not long now!" or "Looks like that fan got blown out of the window- too bad! At least it's still working." Using other language means that you can have a conversation with the person involved, or about the situation at hand, without anyone having to assuage your difficult feelings first. 

The more effort you put in to ending your chronic apologizing, the more impact a true apology will have. Then you can save the words for something really important, like "I'm sorry this post is so long!"

Just kidding, I'm not sorry at all. I just hope you've enjoyed it.


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