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Why you need to stop apologizing when you’re not sorry



Anna O'Neil - published on 04/18/18

Sometimes there are better things to say than "I'm sorry."

I am not going to do it, I promised myself. I am not going to apologize.

It was Easter morning Mass, way more crowded than usual, so we’d had to squeeze into the row of a youngish single guy, who squished himself so far over that he was hardly even on the pew. My kids were being kids. The toddler at some point started repeating “Do you got your nipples??” (I’m not sure what was going through his mind, to be honest.) The newborn wanted to nurse. As the sign of peace came up, I opened my mouth, intending to whisper, “Thanks for putting up with the pew invasion!” But what came out was, “I’m so sorry!”

I wasn’t sorry, because we hadn’t done anything wrong. All four of us were doing our absolute best; it’s just that our best happened to be a little squirmy. I say “sorry” quite often. Not just when I’m actually sorry because I know I’ve done something wrong–no, I usually apologize as a defense. It’s a way of disarming another’s anger before it even starts.

This is manipulative, but effective. It’s pretty difficult to tell somebody they need to do better when they beat you to the punch. But at the same time, the habit can really erode your self esteem. Every time you apologize for something that you can’t control, or that’s not really a problem, you convince yourself just a bit more that you do have a reason to be sorry.

It’s called the Illusory Truth Effect. Not only do people tend to believe something’s true the more often they hear it repeated, but they will tend believe the lie even when they know it’s not true. The Illusory Truth Effect is why advertising slogans work so well, and why fake news and gossip spreads so fast, and does so much damage. It’s why the more we say out loud that we’re sorry, even when we know we didn’t do anything wrong, we start to believe we should be sorry. Every one of those unnecessary apologies chips away at our confidence and self-esteem.

There are much better choices than just saying “sorry.” Are you sure you’re not really trying to say “thank you”? Artist Yao Xiao makes a good point. “If you want to say thank you,” she writes, “Don’t say sorry.” Don’t say “Sorry I’m rambling,” say “Thank you for listening.”

I love this advice. I could have said to the man in the pew, “Thanks for making room for us.” Wouldn’t that have been better for us both?

I’m working on cutting out the insecurity-driven apologizes for a few reasons. It’s not helping me, and worse, it’s not really fair to others. When I say to my guests,“Oh, sorry my house is such a mess,” I’m mostly just trying to get the other person to say “Don’t be silly! It looks great!” It’s manipulative, and it makes the other person responsible for your own insecurity. It puts them in a position where if they don’t want to reassure you, it’s uncomfortably obvious.

Often, instead of saying sorry for a non-problem, it’s better to not say anything at all. Not sure if they’re mad at you? Don’t assume. Don’t make the first move. Wait for them to respond, and then react appropriately.

So after Easter Mass, the guy I’d apologized to goes, “Can I have a word with you?” I braced myself, sure he was going to tell me off. “I don’t usually mind when kids are making noise in Mass,” he said. I waited, readying my counterargument for the inevitable “But — .” Except he didn’t continue. That was it. I don’t usually mind … He had been trying to reassure me. I think I stared at him for a bit too long before I figured that out. It was a lesson learned — my apologies are not always necessary.

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