Women tend to apologize for simply taking up space. Have you ever counted how many times a day you say, “I’m sorry,” for something? We over-apologize, and this habit doesn’t benefit us. It’s a reflection of deeper societal conditioning. In doing so, we can change this habit and remove some of the guilt we may face just for taking up space.
Historical Conditioning and Societal Norms
For generations, women have been conditioned to be agreeable and accommodating, and I will say it: passive. This conditioning is deeply rooted in our language and behavior. Frequent use of “I’m sorry” in unnecessary situations is more than a habit; it manifests a long history of societal expectations. I believe in the power of our words and their impact on our self-perception. That’s why I want to look at how we got to the point where we say, “I’m sorry!” for everything and how we change the habit!
During the Victorian era, societal norms emphasized the idea of women being perceived as delicate, moral guardians responsible for upholding the virtue of the household. This period reinforced the notion that women should be modest, gentle, and apologetic, setting a precedent for future generations. Femininity was based on how dainty and unobtrusive a woman was viewed in society.
After World War II, women who had taken on roles outside the home during the war were encouraged to return to domestic life. They were encouraged to forget the empowerment they’d grown into while supporting the war efforts and return to their places. The ideal of the submissive, supportive housewife was popularized, further ingraining the notion of women as not just secondary to men but often requiring them to be more apologetic and less assertive in their social roles.
Historical literature and educational materials didn’t do us any favors either and often portrayed women as secondary characters. It often focused on their supportive and nurturing roles. This portrayal suggested that women should be less outspoken and more apologetic. Usually, it seemed they should be sorry they weren’t men!
Women who have taken leadership roles throughout history, such as queens and political leaders, often faced criticism for being too harsh or unwomanly. Again, this reflected the societal expectation for women to be apologetic and less assertive in their leadership styles.
Meanwhile, modern societal conditioning is similar. Modern media and pop culture have often continued the trend of portraying women as more apologetic and less assertive than men. Female characters in movies, TV shows, and advertisements are frequently shown apologizing for actions that are described as strong or independent.
In many professional settings, women are often conditioned to believe that being assertive will lead to being labeled aggressive or unlikeable. This has led to a tendency for women to over-apologize in the workplace, particularly in male-dominated fields. Social media also contributes to the problem. The portrayal of the ideal woman on these platforms often perpetuates stereotypes of being lacking if you are not perfect, which leads us to apologize for not living up to perfection. These unrealistic standards (being the ultimate mom/wife/colleague simultaneously) might feel the need to apologize for not meeting these unattainable goals.
Feminist movements have historically faced criticism for challenging the status quo. Women in these movements often had to balance being assertive for their cause while facing societal pressure to conform and be more apologetic in their approach.
The Psychology of Over-Apologizing
The psychology behind the tendency to over-apologize, particularly among women, is multifaceted and deeply rooted in societal conditioning and individual psychological factors. To understand this better, knowing what fuels this habit and the connection between self-esteem, confidence, people-pleasing tendencies, and the fear of being labeled negatively is essential.
Self-Esteem and Confidence
Women who over-apologize often have internalized beliefs about their role and worth. If they have grown up in environments where assertiveness was not encouraged or received negative feedback for being outspoken, they’ve likely developed lower self-esteem.
Women with lower self-esteem may view themselves less deserving of space or attention. They feel guilty simply for existing. Apologizing becomes a way to minimize their presence, as they might feel unworthy of imposing on others.
Low confidence can lead to a heightened fear of making mistakes. Women might over-apologize as a preemptive measure to mitigate potential negative feedback of their actions or words, even when no errors have been made!
Over-apologizing is often linked to a desire to be liked or accepted. Women who are natural people-pleasers may use apologies to smooth over any perceived discord, believing it will make them more agreeable or likable.
Apologizing can also be a strategy to avoid conflict. People-pleasers often prioritize harmony over their own needs, and saying sorry, even when unnecessary, can be a way to prevent confrontations. A lot of times, this stems from childhood trauma or conflict in their lives.
Societal Expectations and Fear of Negative Labeling
Many women are culturally conditioned to be non-confrontational and accommodating. Assertiveness in women is often unfairly equated with aggression, which makes us hesitant to express opinions or needs openly.
We also often fear that assertiveness will be misconstrued as hostility or rudeness. This fear is compounded by stereotypes that label assertive women as ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive,’ though their male counterparts who behave this way are often seen as ‘confident’ or ‘strong.’
In professional settings, women must often navigate a delicate balance between being authoritative and approachable. The concern about being perceived as ‘difficult’ or ‘uncooperative’ can lead to a higher frequency of apologies. It’s like a never-ending cycle, and gosh, it’s exhausting.
Psychological Impact of Over-Apologizing
Habitual apologizing can undermine a woman’s presence and authority. It can send a message, whether intended or not, that her opinions or actions are inherently flawed or less valuable.
Constantly apologizing can reinforce a negative self-image, further ingraining feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. Over-apologizing can also impact relationships, both personal and professional. It can create an imbalance where the apologizer’s needs and opinions are not given the weight they deserve.
None of this makes your brain happy, but it also conditions you to keep seeking the dopamine that often comes when you apologize, and someone charitably says, “Oh, that’s okay.”
Real-Life Over-Apologizing We See All The Time
In professional settings, over-apologizing can become a significant barrier to women’s career progression and perception of competence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women often preface their contributions in meetings with apologies, such as, “Sorry, but I think…” or “I’m sorry to interrupt, but…” This kind of language, although intended to be polite or to prevent seeming confrontational, actually undermines the value of what they are about to say. It can imply that their ideas are an intrusion rather than a valuable contribution.
These habits can have a cumulative effect. For example, a woman who frequently apologizes for speaking up may be less likely to be considered for leadership roles because she is subconsciously perceived as less confident or less competent. It creates this paradox where women feel they must apologize for their presence to be accepted, but they’re not necessarily taken seriously when they do so.
Outside of work, the habit of over-apologizing happens in daily interactions. Think about what you do when you accidentally bump into someone at the store. What do you say? Too many of us say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” even though there may have been barely any contact, and the other person may have been just as at fault. Or think about when you’re walking down an aisle, and someone is approaching you. If you believe you may be in their way, do you say, “I’m sorry,” or do you say, “Excuse me,” as you move out of their way? The point is that these instances, while seemingly benign, indicate a broader social norm that expects women to be perpetually accommodating and remorseful for taking up space or seeking assistance, even among other women!
The more profound implications of over-apologizing are significant. Constant apologies can cement the narrative that a woman is perpetually at fault. What do you think that does to your sense of self-worth and authority over time? You guessed it, you likely feel ‘less than’ in almost every situation. In leadership roles, a woman who frequently apologizes may unwittingly signal to her team that she is unsure of her decisions, potentially undermining her authority and the respect she commands from colleagues.
Moreover, and most scary, over-apologizing can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suppose a woman believes she is always a step away from making a mistake. In that case, she may become more hesitant and less decisive, leading to errors or decreased performance, reinforcing the need to apologize. That’s why it’s so important for us to be mindful of the use of apologies and to practice assertiveness.
This doesn’t mean never apologizing; it means apologizing when warranted and standing by one’s statements and actions when appropriate. I’m a forgiveness coach; I’m well aware of the need for apologies when they’re appropriate. Learning to break the habit of over-apologizing and building a more empowered and authoritative presence professionally and personally can only make your brain and heart happier!
The Power of ‘Excuse Me’
Transitioning from “I’m sorry” to “Excuse me” may take some practice, but wow, is it ever empowering! When we say, “Excuse me,” we acknowledge others without diminishing ourselves. This simple change can profoundly alter our interactions. It’s assertive without being aggressive, polite, yet confident. Mostly, it tells someone you are NOT sorry for something you didn’t even do, but instead, it shows you exist and have a place. The bottom line is that you should not feel guilty for simply existing. YOU have a home and a space in this world!
How To Break The Habit Of Apologizing Too Much
The best place to start when you want to avoid apologizing too much is to become aware of when you do it. Self-awareness is the key. Start by noticing when you apologize unnecessarily. Keep a journal or track these instances. Awareness is the first step toward being able to change because you learn to see where you need to make those changes.
Then, practice! Practice role-play scenarios where you replace “I’m sorry” with “Excuse me.” Be conscious of your language and reframe your statements. I suggest you do this in front of a mirror so you can also take note of the body language as you do this. Again, there’s NOTHING wrong with being assertive, and assertive body language is NOT the same as aggressive body language. You do not have to wither as you say, “Excuse me,” and confident body language will help.
Engage with your support networks. Have talks with them about how you are working on this. Surround yourself with people who uplift and encourage you. Seek feedback and support from peers and mentors who know you best. They’re the ones rooting for you and the best cheerleaders for you as you work to stop apologizing for everything.
Most importantly, think about why you may say you’re sorry too much. Reflect on your personal experiences and beliefs that contribute to your behavior. Understanding why you apologize can help you address the underlying issues and help bring about the change positively.
Change on an individual level is powerful, but societal change is transformative. We also need to see more representation in media, education, and popular culture that supports assertive communication for women. Workshops, courses, and open discussions can play a significant role in shifting these deep-seated norms.
Remember that your worth is not measured by how little space you occupy. Embrace “Excuse me” and be unapologetic about owning your space. And think about this…one small change in your language can be the ripple that leads to that shift! It’s not just semantics; it’s a step toward changing societal perceptions for all of us women, and what a privilege to be part of!