Do you overapologise? Find out what to do when saying sorry is the problem, not the solution.
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Saying sorry is what we say when we have intentionally or even unintentionally caused harm or when we have done something hurtful or unjust to someone else. We do this to express remorse, increase forgiveness and ultimately repair our relationships with others. It is a beneficial act and an important social skill. But overapologising, or saying sorry when we haven’t done anything wrong, can actually be detrimental to our relationships; and ladies, listen up: studies show that women apologise more than men.
The Gender Gap
Research has consistently shown that women apologise more than men. For example, one study found that women were more likely than men to apologise for an accidental transgression (spilling a drink on someone’s bag) (Gonzales, Pederson, Manning, & Wetter, 1990) and another study showed that females tend to apologise more often than men in their daily lives (Schumann & Ross, 2010).
Common ideas about gender differences in apologising are related to cultural norms and societal pressures. The theory is women are socialised to behave and communicate in a more conciliatory and polite manner; whereas men are socialised to consider apologising as a display of weakness.
However, the Schumann and Ross study (2010) found that the reason women apologised more often was because they believed they had committed more offenses. In other words, men were just as willing to apologise for their offenses, but they didn’t perceive as many of their behaviours as wrongdoings compared to women. They were also less likely to perceive others’ behaviours as offenses compared to women. So are men just less aware of theirs and others’ social transgressions, or do women have a tendency to misconstrue their and others’ behaviours as wrongdoings? Chances are it is a combination of both.
These studies were researching the likelihood of apologising when a wrongdoing or a perceived wrongdoing occurred. But there are many instances when people know they haven’t done anything wrong and still apologise. If this becomes a habit, overapologising is the result.
What does overapologising say about you?
Whether you are a man or woman, overapologising can indicate that you feel insecure and anxious about your relationship with others. Saying sorry is used as a shield against the possibility of negative judgement or losing relationships and can also be a way of avoiding conflict with others.
In my practice as a clinical psychologist, I have found that overapologisers are very concerned about the appropriateness of their behaviour; and therefore, apologise as a pre-emptive measure “just in case” they may have done something wrong or to get reassurance from others that they are okay and still liked.
However, overapologising can have the opposite of the intended effect. Saying sorry all the time can make apologies seem ingenuine and it can be exhausting having to constantly reassure someone. Relationships can suffer as a result.
What to do when saying sorry is the problem, not the solution.
Know your rights—You are entitled to your opinion, you have the right to ask for things, you are allowed to set limits, and it is okay to say, “No”. Asserting yourself and communicating your wants, needs and personal boundaries do not warrant an apology.
Identify your triggers and motives—Spend a few days writing down the trigger for every apology you made. Then identify your intentions: Were your apologies in response to an unjust, harmful or hurtful actions, or was saying sorry a way to avoid conflict, relieve anxiety, or seek reassurance or did you say sorry just out of habit?
Be Mindful in the Moment—Notice the urge to apologise without acting on it. Take a breath and ask yourself if an apology is warranted. Is your intention to right a wrong? Then go ahead and say you’re sorry. But if your intention is to avoid feeling uncomfortable or to constantly get reassurance from others, then acknowledge this within yourself and stay silent and move on with the interaction or conversation.
Experiment—If you are worried about offending people or losing relationships if you do not apologise all the time, try testing this theory. Spend one week only apologising when there is a clear and justified reason to say sorry—i.e. when you have done something intentionally or unintentionally hurtful, harmful, or unjust. (Or if you want to be really brave, spend a week not apologising at all.) You may find that reducing the frequency of your apologies will actually improve your relationships. Like so many things, it’s about quality not quantity. A heartful apology for an actual transgression will have much more meaning and be regarded as far more genuine than constant apologies about anything and everything.
Break the habit—If overapologising is just your go-to response out of habit, just to be polite, you can break the habit by changing what you say. Replace, “I’m sorry”, with an expression of gratitude. For instance, if you usually say sorry for expressing an opposing opinion, state how much you appreciate the other person for listening with an open mind. Or if you are asking for a favour, instead of saying “I’m really sorry to inconvenience you…”, state, “I really appreciate you doing this for me.”
Talk to your friends and family—Ask trusted friends, your partner, or family members if they think you apologise too much. Ask for their support in reducing this behaviour by helping you notice times when an apology was unnecessary and telling them to stop giving you reassurance that you are ‘okay’.
Seek help—If you are finding it too challenging to reduce your apologetic stance, it may be useful to seek professional help. A psychologist can assist you to improve your self-concept, learn effective ways to communicate with others, and manage and reduce social anxiety that may be driving this behaviour.
For more on overapologising, listen to Dr. Lillian Nejad on That Radio Show
Schumann K, & Ross M (2010). Why women apologize more than men: gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior. Psychological science, 21 (11), 1649-55 PMID: 20855900