Break the habit of saying 'I'm sorry'

Illustration  (PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
Illustration (PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Sorry. It’s such a simple little word. And it slips out of your mouth so easily.

“Sorry I didn’t reply to your message sooner.” “Sorry but I need to change the time of my dental appointment.” “Sorry, can you pass me the salt?”

Is saying sorry just harmless good manners? Or is it a modern plague, as American actress Lena Dunham, star and creator of the TV show Girls, wrote in a blog? There are times when it makes sense to apologise – when you’ve made an actual mistake. But saying sorry whether you’ve done anything wrong or not is a problem – and women, Lena says, do this a lot.

“I’d be willing to bet (though I have zero scientific research to back this up) that many women utter ‘I’m sorry’ more on a given day than ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’ combined,” she writes.

“So many of the women I know apologise like it’s a job they were given . . . We rush to say it when we’re interrupted. We scream it across a crowded restaurant when someone else arrives late so we’ve lost our table. We mutter it when a man walks too close to us on the street.”

It might seem harmless but constantly apologising creates a negative state of mind that says, “I’m responsible for everything that goes wrong.” And you’re not just communicating that to the people around you. It’s also what you’re telling yourself.

Eleen Engelbrecht from Potchefstroom, North West, knows what it’s like to habitually apologise. For years she apologised constantly for all sorts of things to appease her ex-husband: “Sorry there’s no more cheese”; “Sorry supper isn’t ready yet”; “Sorry I bought too much tomato sauce.”

It was just easier to apologise and keep the peace, Eleen (52) says. “Later I realised I was apologising for so many things that I either had no control over or shouldn’t take responsibility for.”

She still finds it difficult not to apologise for everything. “I’m trying to stand up for myself more but it’s not easy.”


Apologising is linked to politeness and saying sorry can convey thoughtfulness and compassion and help avoid conflict. But there’s a lot more to this little word.

The need to constantly apologise for everything usually stems from being raised with feelings of guilt, says psychologist and self-help author Shani Grové, who’s based in Bethlehem in the Free State. If you’re brought up to believe everything is your fault, whether directly or indirectly, this can turn you into the kind of person who’s always saying sorry.

Grové adds that people who apologise constantly usually have a peoplepleasing personality and want to avoid rocking the boat or making things awkward or uncomfortable. There might be situations where this is absolutely fine but the more you say sorry the more likely you are to say it in situations where it actually does matter.

In some social situations this might be okay – it can smooth things over or avoid conflict. If you’re late for a meeting, for instance, it’s polite to say sorry even if you were late because of something out of your control, such as heavy traffic.

But while discussing something in a meeting, do you find yourself saying things such as, “Sorry but I don’t agree”? Why are you sorry for not sharing someone else’s opinion? It’s problematic because saying sorry when you don’t need to sends the message you’d rather be agreeable than honest.

Pretoria-based psychologist Susan Roets says good manners means speaking to people respectfully, not apologising for wanting to speak to them. “People who apologise for everything often betray their own insecurity or discomfort.”

Saying sorry slips out of women’s mouths so easily and automatically because they’re taught to be compliant, Grové says.

“The male need to have and exercise power and control is stronger than that of women,” she says. “That’s why men don’t say sorry as easily – because they see it as giving away their power.”

In her blog Lena calls it a “hardwired instinct to apologise”. Roets agrees and says that in general women are more considerate and try harder to keep the peace.

It also happens with children who are raised without self-confidence, she says, causing them to feel inferior and as a result they constantly apologise. “This behaviour is often continued in adult life.”


Firstly, become aware of how often you automatically say sorry. Secondly, promise yourself you’ll say those words only if you’ve done something to warrant it.

Acknowledge your feelings. Think about what’s driving you to say sorry. Is it a way for you to avoid expressing your true feelings? Why is that? Do you feel intimidated? Are you trying to avoid being assertive? If so, why? Is it because you believe your feelings don’t matter?

Low self-esteem is often at the root of habitual apologising. It can be hard to confront this in yourself but being honest about the things that drive your behaviour is the first step to changing it.

Do the apology test. If you’ve been saying sorry out of habit for years, you need to change something fundamental about the way you think. Try the following exercise to help you reprogramme your brain so you can start separating unnecessary apologies from real ones. It takes only a few seconds and eventually you won’t even need to do it consciously because it will become a new habit.

If you catch yourself wanting to apologise, stop and ask yourself this question, “Did I actually do something wrong?” And if your answer is no, ask yourself why you’d want to give people the idea that you think you did something wrong.

Watch it explode. Grové suggests using a form of therapy that focuses on changing brain patterns. “You can change a brain pattern by using a form of play. See the word ‘sorry’ in front of you and in your thoughts put the word into a cloud, which you then imagine shooting and see how it explodes. Your primitive brain doesn’t understand words or reason because it doesn’t understand language or logic.”

Know when “I’m sorry” can be “thank you”. Sometimes what’s called for is gratitude – for example when someone does something you would usually have done, such as your partner doing the dishes or picking up supper on the way home. When something like this happens, don’t apologise for not doing it yourself. Be grateful instead.

Use other words. A simple change in vocabulary could make a big difference. When you reach a door at the same time as someone else or accidentally bump into someone getting into a lift, instead of saying sorry try saying “pardon me” or “excuse me” instead. This way you can be nice without making it sound as if you’re blaming yourself for something.

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