The Problem with Apologizing to Empty Chairs
Have you ever seen someone walk into a room, maybe at a conference, bump into one of those metal chairs, and say “Oh, excuse me?” Or heard someone apologize because it’s raining? Or because someone else is sick? Maybe you’ve done it yourself.
The emotionally sensitive are often champion apologizers. They do not want to upset anyone, so they are hyper-alert to any insult that they might unintentionally cause.
They do not want conflict or upset and hope to keep relationships calm. Sometimes the emotionally sensitive will apologize in order to hold onto relationships whether or not they believe they owe an amends to the other person.
So what’s the problem? We could use more politeness in this world, right? Apologizing when you have done something to be sorry for or when you have hurt someone else in some way is admirable. But there are costs that come from over-apologizing. Dr. Marsha Linehan even included not over-apologizing in the skills she developed for Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
First, as Linehan noted, over-apologizing reflects a lack of self respect. Sometimes the emotionally sensitive care more about the feelings and experiences of others than their own, even when doing so means not respecting themselves. Apologizing for not loaning someone money who has not paid past debts would be an example of ignoring self-respect. Or believing that others’ thoughts and feelings are more important and valid than your own.
An overly apologetic style may reflect a lack of identity. When you focus on others’ reactions as a way of determining what is right or wrong, you are basing your value system on someone else’s thoughts. When that happens repeatedly, what you believe, your values, can be unclear. When you stop apologizing as an automatic reaction(unless something you’ve done violates your own sense of what is right or your own values) your values and beliefs become more clear.
When you apologize too frequently, you are likely to be discounted by others. You are more likely to be seen as inadequate or incompetent, someone who is powerless. Apologies can send out a message that you are a victim. If you apologize for the way the wind blows, apologize for practically your own existence, you are teaching other people how to view you.
When someone tells you that you are wonderful or great and does so too frequently, the words lose their meaning.The same is true for apologies. Though you may mean every word, others may get used to you saying you are sorry and not appreciate the sincerity that you feel. When you have done something that you truly wish to express remorse for, you may have difficulty. Other may not be able to distinguish the automatic apology from the one that is filled with remorse.
When you apologize too often, you may lose your sense of what you are feeling. The apology may become about the end result (having someone not be angry) and less about your your own feelings of guilt or remorse. You may ignore what you are feeling to the point you lose touch with your emotions.
Apologies can be a request for reassurance. Sometimes the emotionally sensitive are plagued with doubts and fears about their relationships and at the same time they treasure them deeply. To cope with their doubts and fears they apologize frequently, perhaps even unaware that they are hoping for the other person to reassure them, tell them that there is no reason to apologize. If this happens too frequently, others may resent the apologizer.
Apologizing when it isn’t appropriate interferes with relationships. Others become annoyed by the behavior for several reasons. The relationship may begin to seem too difficult to them. They may become self-conscious of their own behavior or see you as being too fragile for honesty. They don’t share true feelings or behave in authentic ways because they believe you can’t handle it. Thus apologizing too frequently could rob you of authentic relationships.
Over-apologizing can seem to others that you are making situations about you. That can be confusing because your concern is likely about the other person’s feelings.
When you apologize whenever there is an issues in the relationship, you don’t express your authentic feelings. Discussions may be cut short and as well as the mutual understanding that might have come from sharing personal thoughts and feelings. The experience of going through a stressful time while still valuing the relationship is lost. Over-apologizing can block true intimacy.
Sometimes you may apologize, even when you did nothing wrong, to save an important relationship. If this happens repeatedly with the same person, you might want to take a closer look at that relationship. Relationships that depend on you always being “wrong” or giving up your own needs and feelings are not healthy.
If the relationship is a good one and you rarely if ever need to apologize just to save it, then consider the pros and cons of doing so. The costs of losing a good relationship may be higher than the costs of apologizing though you don’t think you were in the wrong. In that case you would apologize with the greater good in mind.
Learning to apologize only when it is appropriate is a change that could improve your self-respect, your self-awareness, and your relationships with others. Awareness is the first step. Be mindful of the number of times you apologize thought there is no reason to do so. Consider counting the number of unjustified apologies you give in a day. Increasing your awareness will help you prepare to make changes. Notice if there are certain situations that you are likely to apologize for or certain people to whom you are likely to apologize. Maybe there are types of people that make over-apologizing more likely.
Sometimes just noticing brings about changes. Next, decide what words (in general) you might use instead of an apology. One option might be commenting on their experience, such as “That must have been sad,” instead of “I’m so sorry.” Try using validation of others, as discussed in previous posts.
Be careful of all or none thinking. Stopping the behavior of over-apologizing doesn’t mean that you don’t apologize when it is appropriate.
Remember that changing a pattern of behavior takes time. Being anxious about the change is normal. You won’t be perfect in keeping your commitment to change. Be gentle with yourself.
Finally, be wise about making changes. If you are in a situation where changing your behavior could be dangerous to you, then do not change your behavior. Any changes you make in those situations should be made with the guidance of a therapist or other expert.
Linehan, M.(1993 ) Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: New Guilford.
Hall, K. (2012). The Problem with Apologizing to Empty Chairs. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/02/the-problem-with-apologizing-to-metal-chairs/