TOTD: I’m (not) Sorry: Are you a serial apologizer suffering from the sorry syndrome?

March 1, 2021 - Karlee Moxley

“Sorry, can I sit here?” 

“Sorry, I have a question”

“Sorry it took me so long to text you back” 

Apologizing for things you didn’t do? In an effort to avoid conflict? For making a reasonable request because you don’t want to be an inconvenience? Apologizing for apologizing? 

Does this sound familiar? It sure does for me. “Sorry” is so ingrained in my vocabulary there are times I don’t even realize I said it until it is pointed out to me (the other day I apologized for sneezing… an actual uncontrollable bodily function!). 

So, why does this happen? The nature of over apologizing has been said to be cultural or even geographical, the good ol’ mid-western “ope, sorry” may come to mind. It has been associated with lived trauma or even an anxiety response. Over apologizing also has an intersectional effect, carrying various layers of historical context and influence. In addition, the excessive use of “sorry” is often tied to gender identity. Like I mentioned, as a white, cisgender female, I have experienced this phenomenon first hand. leading me to my question: why are women and those not identifying as men often finding themselves bearing the weight of the “sorry syndrome” trait?

Lana Wilson, director of Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary says, “It’s because we’re trained to say sorry” (emphasis added). 

Societal norms rooted in whiteness and power thinking of behaviors in a binary, often deem “masculine” traits as associated with strength and assertiveness and many “feminine” traits as valuing empathy and a perceived gentleness. Through this white, misogynistic mindset, along with the generational inheritance and social construct of “appropriate” behavior, it is logical reasoning for women to be directly and indirectly taught to soften their actions and words with an apology. The alternatives can include being ‘aggressive’, ‘bossy’, or considered a ‘b*tch’, (to name a few) when leading or communicating with the strength and assertiveness socially reserved for men. 

Results from two separate studies by Schumann and Ross suggest men do apologize less frequently than women “because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior” and what would need an apology. It was shown women are more likely to apologize for things they don’t need to be sorry for, such as sharing their opinion, asking something of someone, or events completely out of their control (cue my sneeze). This habit can cause unnecessary guilt and even increase anxiety and create toxic self-blame cycles. This compulsive use of “I’m sorry” can affect one’s confidence, as women are essentially consciously or unconsciously, nonverbally or verbally apologizing for existing and taking up our own space.

The ability to apologize is necessary and in many ways demonstrates a true strength. But, only when the apology is genuine and warranted such as apologizing for something truly within our control, a choice or decision we made, when we are in the wrong, harm we caused, or when showing or offering empathy. These are times when the words ”I'm sorry” can mean so much. There’s no need to apologize for ourselves when we haven’t done anything to be sorry for or when feeding into a “socialized passive mindset”, as sociology professor Maja Jovanovic noted, as this can even be perceived as a weakness.

A few things we often apologize for when we don’t need to: 

  • Things you didn’t do
  • Things you can’t control 
  •  Asking a question or needing something 
  •  Your feelings 
  •  Not having all the answers 
  •  Taking a break and moment for ourselves
  •  Your priorities 
  •  Your imperfections 
  •  Saying ‘no’ 
  •  Seeking help 

So, how do we break this ‘sorry syndrome’ habit? By building “strong new pathway[s] in the brain” like we would with any other habit we try to break we can unlearn the excessive apology habit. First, follow Beyoncé and Demi Lovato’s lead and acknowledge the times we aren’t sorry. Notice what we are feeling or thinking and what we subsequently say in response. There is no need to resort to “I’m sorry” as our automatic response to every situation. Ask ourselves if an apology is an appropriate response or necessary in the moment. Reflect on why you want to naturally resort to an apology in this situation. If an apology is actually not needed, rephrase and flip your script:

Instead of “I’m sorry,” you could say: 

  •  “excuse me”
  •  “pardon me”
  •  “go ahead”
  •  “after you”
  •  “your turn” 
  •  “thank you”
  •  “unfortunately...”

Check out these examples by @workparty of flipping your script: 

Another tool is a popular (over 30,000 users) Google Chrome plugin called “Just Not Sorry”. It will warn you when you write emails using ‘qualifying words and phrases” determined to undermine your overall message so you can change your language and verbage before you hit send! 

It is critical to acknowledge everyone’s experiences differ. These differences may be rooted  in our identity, privilege, and even personal lived experiences. Someone’s specific day to day situations may also differ based on various environments we find ourselves in. With that in mind, I hope these examples serve as simple ways we can build ourselves up (and each other), take up the space we are meant to, and continually work to fight socialization in all its forms.


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