What Are We Really Apologizing For?

Photo:

Paley Fairman

“Why are you apologizing?”

I can’t recall any contextual details about our conversation, but the memory of my editor derailing a passing “I’m sorry” will forever be etched in my brain as an unexpectedly formative experience. I was just out of college and writing for Elle.com; as the youngest member of a team of incredibly intelligent and politically engaged women, I learned as much about feminism and self-empowerment from that gig as I did about catering to a digital audience and filing on a deadline. I was used to absorbing these kinds of lessons on a regular basis. But it felt particularly radical to reconsider my constant apologizing, which was a deeply conditioned reflex. It was as if my boss had asked me why I was sneezing.

This encounter threw me but ultimately did little to stymie the impulse, at least in the short-term. To the contrary, as I continued along my career path and transitioned into positions of more authority, I felt even more compelled to apologize for sharing ideas, offering direction, or expressing any kind of opinion. It was as if my very existence was offensive to everyone involved, and I had to resist the idea of taking up any more space in the world than I already did.

It took me years to understand that in reality, apologizing was a defense mechanism I had been fine-tuning since birth, driven by anxieties about my own likability. I sought validation in making myself completely malleable to the wants and needs of others because when I apologized, I assumed responsibility for everyone else's happiness. Treating myself as an afterthought seemed like a worthy sacrifice.

The danger of this was that I couldn’t anchor myself to anything. People are unpredictable, and when my reliance on their approval inevitably failed me, I was left to grapple only with the fragments of my self-worth. I berated myself. I literally made myself smaller. I apologized.

It’s a very confusing, very lonely kind of existence. The cruel irony is that I wasn't actually alone—at least not in my usage of the word “sorry” as a loaded substitute for truths I couldn't allow myself to express. In reality, it’s a reflex that many women share: Research shows that we don't just apologize more than men—we’re also more likely to label our behavior as “offensive.” In other words, those of us who over-apologize might also do so to offset the behavior of other people, on behalf of other people.