“I’m so sorry. I’m throwing off your entire day.” I said as I entered her hotel room, right on schedule.
“No, you’re okay, I’m just not ready yet… so I’m sorry!”
We volleyed back and forth like this for a while, alternating between apologizing and reassuring each other that we were okay. She tossed off her coat, frantically cleaning her room to find a spot for us to record my podcast, Let It Out, before heading into the bathroom to freshen up after a long day.
As I waited, I wondered if our apology chorus was necessary. After all, neither of us did anything wrong.
It was a rare occasion that I was actually on time, with today being an exception. Yet, that phrase still poured out of my mouth before I even said hello. I wasn’t actually sorry. So why was I so eager to apologize? There are plenty of times where I should apologize — like when I’m late, selfish, or worse — but, this was not one of those moments.
I admired my interview subject immensely and was so nervous to meet her that I truly questioned every word that came out of my mouth. I observed myself seeking validation, and realized that saying “sorry” had become a means to reassuring myself that I was okay, that I was correct, and that I deserved to be there. Hearing her repeat the same sentiment put us on an equal level — clearly, she was also someone who questioned her “okayness,” made mistakes, and acknowledged them quickly.
While I sat there, my mind wandered to the fight I had earlier with my boyfriend. I replayed it like a movie in my mind. We’d been arguing a lot and I usually tend to assume it’s my fault.
“What are you even sorry for?” he would frustratingly ask.
And I would have no clue. I’d just say the words to end the discussion. To assume that the phrase would allow us to pivot back into laughter, joking, and being in love — rather than discussing something uncomfortable. (Unfortunately, those words don’t exactly serve as discussion-ending-magic.)
He never wanted to just pivot. He wanted us to understand each other more deeply, while I wanted to move on and suppress our problems. This made our fights worse. What I would resist would persist and spiral — and my failed attempt at apologizing wouldn’t stop that.
To him, “I’m sorry” meant regret, sorrow, and self-degradation. But to me it meant, “Tell me I’m okay so we can move on and pretend this never happened! Please validate me because I’m insecure.”
And the thing is, my “sorrys” weren’t isolated incidents. I apologized constantly, for everything.
“I’m sorry you have to drive so far to pick me up from the airport.”
“I’m sorry I ate all the popcorn.”
“I’m sorry I called while you were working.”
“I’m sorry I forgot my toothbrush.”
My excessive apologizing made him feel distant. He would remind me after each sorry that I’m not a burden. He validated me by confirming that he, indeed, wanted to pick me up from the airport, share the popcorn, and talk to me while he works.
And then, during the times when I would actually have something to apologize for, the phase would lose its meaning. He became immune and I became the girl who cried sorry, whether she meant it or not. It had become my nervous tick.
So how had saying sorry become so deeply ingrained within me?
I craved this extra validation from everyone I interacted with, but in reality, it was confidence that I needed to feed myself. I wasn’t addicted to the phrase as a vocal crutch as I am with ‘um’ or ‘like.’ I was addicted to the dopamine I got from the reaction. By acknowledging my inconvenience, I could minimize my guilt. On the other end of an “I’m sorry” comes a “That’s okay.” And that is what I needed most of all.
I questioned why this part of myself needed so much reassurance, and where I picked up the nasty habit of apologizing like a broken record.
The moment I walked through the door to my parents’ house for the holidays, I was greeted by my mother saying, “Sorry for the mess honey!” “Sorry I don’t have more snacks in the house!” “Sorry it’s cold in here…”
As soon I as was in her presence, I instantly molded into the role my boyfriend had taken on with me. For each “sorry” she gave me, I’d give her an “It’s okay.”
The litany of apologies continued throughout my visit, and by the end I was as exhausted with her as my boyfriend was with me. I understood why he had grown so fatigued.
This realization identified the source of my neurosis, but I still didn’t have a solution. I knew the habit would take time to reprogram, and I had no idea where to start. I turned to my therapist, who explained we were dealing with an issue of confidence and insecurity and that I’d be better off cultivating that confidence from within, rather than constantly seeking it from others. She advised me to fully own my choices, which would, over time, erase my need for constant approval.
I would have to interrupt the pattern I’d fallen into and replace my “sorrys” with something else. Clearly, my over-apologizing tick ran deep, not just within my own lineage, but within women far beyond my mother and me.
A 2010 study in Psychological Science found that, “Men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior” — therefore, women are more apt to feel the need to apologize in every day situations.
My mother, my podcast guest, and I all had low thresholds for offensive behavior and had fallen into the female-focused pattern linguistics that Professor Deborah Tannen calls a “conversation ritual” — a place where women sympathize by saying sorry even when a situation doesn’t require it. Tannen researched workplace conversations in her book, Talking 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work where she found that these conversational apologies convey friendly caring, rather than an admission of fault.
Sloan Crosby’s 2015 New York Times Op-ed on the topic determined that it is, indeed, quite problematic. She added that we use it as tactic in situations that are clearly not our fault, hoping our apology prompts the person who should be apologizing, yet this often comes across as passive aggressive and rarely results in our desired outcome. She concluded that we’d be much more effective by simply articulating literally what we mean.
She writes, “It’s not what we’re saying that’s the problem, it’s what we’re not saying. The sorrys are taking up airtime that should be used for making logical, declarative statements, expressing opinions, and relaying accurate impressions of what we want.”
With sorry as my vocal crutch, I put strain on my relationship by not expressing what I actually felt. Where my boyfriend values language, confronts issues without avoidance, and logically articulates his opinions, I simply slap an “I’m sorry” over anything mildly confrontational.
“I’m not a very confrontational person, so I use ‘I’m sorry’ as this blanket response,” said Alex Hagney, co-founder of She’s Not Sorry, a story sharing project for how excessive apologizing holds women back in everything from their relationships to their careers. “The phrase can stop the conversation from moving forward, but you’re never actually dealing with the issue. You’re just using words to put a wall up in a dam, and eventually the water or the issue will all come through.”
I’d been trying to say it less in all contexts for months, yet in my interviewee’s hotel room that day, it had just fallen out of my mouth before a simple “hello.” Frustrated at myself, at her, and at the words themselves, I thought back to another tidbit of wisdom from therapy: change isn’t linear, it’s constant… and it’s often messy.
I expected my anti-sorry growth to be easier, as though I could stop cold turkey. Yet by resisting the messiness of growth, I stunted it, much like when avoiding the uncomfortable conversations. What I resisted always persisted. I needed to give in to the rollercoaster of emotions that is the healing process.
When my guest and I settled in we ended up recording a nearly three hour podcast. As we ended, I said what I always say right after an interview: “I’m sorry I kept you so long!” She replied instantly, “No, I’m sorry I’m so long winded.”
We were speaking in our female societal code. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be more unapologetic, but until then, I’ll be more patient, and give myself room for a little “sorry” slip once in a while.
Katie Dalebout is a writer, host, and founder of Let [a podcast] Out, a workshop that helps people DIY podcast. Since 2013, she has interviewed over 250 people on her long-form podcast, Let It Out. Her first book, Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling is a collection of personal essays and journaling prompts that was published in 2016. She now writes about her feelings monthly in her Let It Out Letter. Katie, her feelings, and all of her plants live together in Manhattan.