Ever been in a situation like this before, before or after your divorce?
You don’t pick up the phone in time and when you call the person back, the first words out of your mouth are “I’m sorry.”
You bring store-bought cupcakes to your friend’s party and you utter “I’m sorry.”
You vent to a good friend about something going on, and you say, “Sorry for rambling.”
Notice the pattern going on?
You’re apologizing. Waaaaaaay too much. And it’s those apologies that are screwing with your self-esteem and slowing your divorce recovery.
Buckle up, friends. This post is a long one. But one you desperately need to read if you want to start putting yourself first.
So, let’s just get this out of the way. There is no need for you to be saying “I’m sorry” so damn much! There is so much crap in our culture that put women into situations where they are forced to feel guilty. But more on that in a second. Let’s discover how we even got here.
Uncomfortable Truth #1: We’re raised to be people-pleasers.
We are are natural caregivers. We want to make sure that everybody is taken care of. From an early age, you were most likely following your mother around, hoping to help her out, or taking care of your younger siblings. Or, your your parents say to you at one time, “I need you to watch your brother/sister and make sure they don’t get into trouble.”
And what did you do? Well, in order to make your mom “proud” of you, you most likely did everything you could to please her. And that mentality probably stuck with you through adolescence and into young adulthood. You probably worked hard to get good grades to get your parents’ and your teachers’ approval. Because you didn’t want to disappoint them.
And that mentality probably carried over into adulthood. You most likely worked your ass off to be good partner and good mother because you didn’t want to disappoint anybody. Society, and most likely the people around you sucked into society’s vortex, put unrealistic expectations on you to be a Stepford Wife. You were given a choice to either give up your career to be a stay-at-home mom, never getting paid or recognized for all the work you were doing, with a career, where you were still expected to do most of the household and child-rearing work.
Regardless of which path you chose, who the hell could pull that off without resentment, guilt, and exhaustion?
And when you couldn’t keep up, which you never could because there are only so many hours in the day, were you ever told, “it’s okay—take a break. We’ll get extra help.”
Nope—you were most likely made to feel guilty and ashamed–like you “failed” and “weren’t good enough.” Society inculcated a sense of guilt and shame in women.
And the only way to avoid disappointing others, and to shield yourself from conflict, was to say “I’m sorry.”
Even when it wasn’t your fault. Or didn’t warrant an apology.
And saying “I’m sorry” became a defense mechanism. A way to avoid confrontation. A way to keep the peace.
Which is why, if you pay attention, you’ll catch yourself saying “I’m sorry” dozens of times a day.
Your massage therapist mentions that your back muscles are really tight. “I’m sorry.”
The nurse asks why you didn’t get the flu shot yet. “I’m sorry.”
The spouse you’re divorcing gets snippy because you’re asking for a larger settlement since you didn’t work outside the home for 15 years. “I’m sorry.”
You probably possess 100 other examples from your own life. It’s like you’re apologizing for even existing.
If this sounds like you, don’t feel bad. Just dig deeper and ask yourself why you, a grown-up,, are saying sorry so much? Why are you trying to please and placate everybody else.
Uncomfortable Truth #2: We were never taught to put ourselves first
Let me ask you a question.
Can you think of anytime when you were growing up that your mom, or dad, or teacher, or some other adult close to you sat you down, and said, “Your dreams and goals matter just as much as anybody else’s. Let your voice be heard.
If somebody actually told you this, then you’re lucky as hell. Most women were not. Instead, you were probably raised to be obedient and to not make a scene…and to be submissive. Which is why, when we get divorced, we feel this crazy unnecessary guilt.
And although loved ones can be supportive during the split, well-meaning words can sometimes shift the blame and burden on you.
Oh, what a shame! You two have been married for so long!
How sad! I thought you guys were going to last forever!
Such a shame to leave your husband, especially when he’s in ill health! Who’s going to take care of him?
I bet your children will be destroyed!
Can’t you find a way to work it out? Your retirement will be so much harder now!
Ever find yourself saying “I’m sorry” as a response? To keep the peace? To make the situation less awkward? To just get people the hell off your back?
Well, what about your feelings? And your happiness?
If you’re not sure where to even begin with being happy and not paralyzed by guilt, there’s one thing you must do.
Put yourself first for a change.
But I get it. You may be thinking, “Martha, isn’t this overly dramatic? Surely “I’m sorry doesn’t hurt me that much, right?”
Here’s what you need to know.
There are dangers to saying “I’m Sorry.”
Danger 1: Frivolous apologizing = a signal that people can take advantage of you.
The reflexive apology you say sends the signal to that other person that you’re:
Willing to accept the blame for something you didn’t do
Sending them an invitation to wrong your or disrespect you again, because they don’t have to be held accountable to their actions.
To hell with that, friends. When you needlessly apologize, you’re sending that person the message that you’re okay with being their punching bag…at the expense of your own happiness.
Danger 2: Constantly apologizing makes it harder to stand up for yourself.
Even when you’re in a benign situation where you think you’re expressing regret, and you’re not saying “sorry” to keep the peace, there’s still an underlying danger. Which is the following…
Danger 3: Apologizing puts somebody’s else’s pain on you.
A simple “I’m sorry” may make you feel like you’re making a situation better, but what you’re actually doing is taking that person’s pain and shouldering it for them. That’s not helpful for anyone in that situation, and there are other ways to express support than just apologizing.
Okay, so what if you’re still, “yeah, but Martha—I don’t want to be rude! So what the hell am I supposed to do?
Soooooo glad you asked!
The No Apology Commandments
I’m not advocating that you become a rude and inhospitable person. That’s not the point of this post. There are certain situations where apologies are warranted, but a good 9 times out of 10, your situation will not fit in one of these categories. So, take a look at the list below. If you answer “no” to any of these questions, you should not be saying “I’m sorry.”
Did I kill or maim someone?
Did I intentionally hurt someone’s feelings?
Did I steal someone’s money or high-value possessions?
Did I kidnap someone’s child or beloved pet?
It’s as simple as that. If you did not cause egregious harm to someone or something, do not apologize. Do not say “I’m sorry.”
Not apologizing does not mean that you become a heartless Ice Queen. That’s not the point. But there are other methods to convey sympathy or empathy, or to express regret for something something unintentionally done that hurt someone.
Alternatives to “I’m sorry.”
These alternative phrases do double duty in the best way possible. First, they convey the empathy and care for another person without shouldering their pain. And second, they reinforce your strength and needs without giving them up in the name of diffusing conflict or placating someone.
Here are some situations where better alternatives exist!
If your ex, your current partner, or a friend says they’re angry at something.
Instead of: I’m sorry.
Say: Are you upset at something? Let’s discuss it.
When someone is having a hard time (dealing with illness, personal struggles, family issues, etc).
Instead of: I’m sorry.
Say Instead: This sucks that you’re going through this hard time. Please know that I’m here if you need anything.
Traffic was terrible and you’re 15 minutes late meeting your friend for dinner.
Instead of: Sorry I’m so late.
Say Instead: Thanks for your patience. Traffic was awful. So, how are you?
If there is a miscommunication between you and your coworker/adult child/ex-spouse/barista.
Instead of: I’m sorry for bothering you.
Say Instead: There seems to be a communication issue here. What can we do to get this back on track?
If you bump into someone trying to get through a crowd.
Instead of: I’m sorry.
Say Instead: Excuse me. I need to get through.
See how that works? You’re acknowledging empathy, but not carrying someone else’s burden and the expense of your own well-being. Plus, you’re asserting your own needs and internalizing that you matter.
What other alternatives can you think of that would work in your life?
Take a minute to right those down, because we’re going to apply it in 3…2…1!
The No Apology Exercise.
During an instance when you’re about to open your mouth to apologize, take a second and ask yourself the following.
What reasons I’m really apologizing?
Do any of these reasons match The No Apology Commandments?
If they don’t (and they most likely will not), what alternative words can I say instead?
Need some help? Take a look at my examples below!
Situation: My mom says, “I’m just so heartbroken that you and your husband aren’t together anymore.”
How I would normally respond. “I’m sorry Mom, that’s just how the situation is.”
How does apologizing harm me in this situation: It’s me taking the burden of her pain and heartbreak on my shoulders when I’m already dealing with my own shit.
Does the situation fit into any of the Apology Commandments? No.
What can I say instead? It’s very difficult for me as well as I’m the one who divorced him. If you’re struggling, why don’t you talk to a counselor about it, Mom? I can’t be that person for you right now.
Situation: You boss at work, who is terrible at communicating gives you a project to work on. You’re the lead and want to make sure you understands exactly what he wants, even if he acts like a jerk and gets frustrated when people “don’t understand him,” which usually ends in a “never mind, I’ll just do it myself.”
How you would normally respond. “I’m so sorry to bother you. If it’s not too much trouble, will you please give me clear direction on what you need from this project? I’m so sorry.”
How does apologizing harm you in this situation: Before the project even starts, you’re accepting responsibility for the fact that your boss can’t communicate, which is an unfair burden to you.
Does the situation fit into any of the Apology Commandments? No.
What can I say instead? Can you outline the exact requirements for this project? I want to make sure we get this project right the first time and that there’s no miscommunication. I really appreciate it.
So, in summary…
It can be challenging to shake off years of social conditioning. But at the end of the day, remember you are not responsible for pleasing everybody, especially when it comes at the expense of them disrespecting you and taking advantage of you.
As you recover from your divorce, remember that you matter, and that you can express sympathy in authentic ways that continue to build you up, not tear you down.
So, how about you?
Do you apologize too much, especially when you don’t need to?
What can you say instead of “I’m sorry” next time?
I’m super-interested in your responses on this one, so please leave a response in the comment section below.
Until next time, take care of yourself! You deserve it.