Saying sorry is a normal and necessary part of life. We use it to communicate sympathy and regret in situations where we’re in the wrong. However, if you find yourself saying sorry all the time, it could be a sign that you’re overapologising.
Overapologising means saying sorry when you don’t need to. People can overapologise for various reasons, such as a lack of confidence, to people-please, or due to a fear of abandonment. Overtime, this behaviour can have an impact on self-worth and how others perceive us.
With this in mind, we’ll explore exactly what overapologising is, its causes, and offer tips on ways to avoid it.
What does overapologising mean?
According to Cambridge Dictionary, the word sorry means “feeling sadness, sympathy, or disappointment.” But unfortunately, we don’t always use it this way.
Many of us attach the word sorry to all kinds of phrases, whether we’re asking a question, asking for help, taking responsibility for someone else’s actions, or simply explaining why we’re doing something. This behaviour is defined as overapologising – the act of saying sorry when you don’t need to.
While overapologising can sometimes be harmless and simply slip out as a form of politeness – for example, saying something like “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I ordered” to a waiter who brings you the wrong dish – there are a number of other, less positive reasons why someone might overapologise.
We’ll cover some of these below.
What are some common causes of overapologising?
Some of the most common reasons why people overapologise include…
Having people-pleasing tendencies means being overly concerned about what others think of you. Therefore, a common trait of being a people pleaser is having the impulse to apologise even when it’s not your fault, simply because you don’t want to upset or disappoint anyone.
Feeling guilty for something that wasn’t your fault or that was out of your control is defined as false guilt. This differs from true guilt, where you blame yourself for a mistake you made.
Some examples of false guilt include feeling guilty for being treated badly by others or for an event such as a parent’s divorce. False guilt can lead people to over apologise for situations entirely out of their control.
This can play out in everyday situations – for example, you might apologise for your partner interrupting a conversation even though it’s clearly not your fault.
Having low self-esteem can lead people to think they’re not good enough and don’t deserve the same time, space, or attention as others.
This can lead people to overapologise. because they may worry that they’re asking too much, causing problems, or being unreasonable and difficult.
Being a perfectionist
Perfectionism can cause people to set extremely high standards for themselves that are impossible to live up to.
Constantly falling short can leave people feeling inadequate and apologising for everything that they deem to be imperfect.
Fearing conflict or abandonment
For some people, overapologising is a way to avoid conflict. This can be particularly true for anyone who grew up in an unpredictable household where apologising was used to help keep the peace.
It can also stem from a fear of abandonment. Again, this is often a behaviour learned from childhood – for example, a child who was given the cold shoulder by a parent for voicing their needs.
Being a woman
Studies have found time and time again that women are more likely to overapologise than men.
Experts have put this down to a number of cultural, societal, and biological reasons. This includes the fact that women tend to be more in tune with how their actions emotionally affect others, and that men have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour (and therefore what requires an apology).
If you’ve been overapologising for a long time, it can easily become a habit that you do without even realising.
Mental health conditions
It’s not unusual for excessive overapologising to be linked to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For example, researchers have found that people with mental health conditions like anxiety and OCD tend to be very sensitive about offending others. Overapologising offers them a sense of relief that they’re undoing any ‘harm’ they believed they may have caused.
Being in an abusive relationship
Some people in abusive relationships may find themselves excessively overapologising for things they haven’t said or done.
This can happen for a number of reasons. For example, the victim may be desperately trying to please the abuser to avoid conflict or be manipulated into believing things are their fault.
4 ways to avoid overapologising
Resisting the urge to overapologise can feel tricky, but the good news is that there are a few things you can do to help.
1. Know when to apologise
A useful step to take when working to stop overapologising is make a clear distinction between when it is and isn’t necessary to apologise. You might like to think about putting certain scenarios into categories.
For example, it’s right to apologise when we’ve done something wrong – such as when we’ve hurt someone’s feelings, been disrespectful, or said something offensive.
However, on the other hand, there are many situations that don’t warrant an apology. This includes apologising for your appearance, your feelings, asking questions, needing time to yourself, and for things that you either didn’t do or are out of your control.
2. Become aware of your thoughts and feelings when you overapologise
Becoming aware of how you think and feel when you apologise can help to highlight where the behaviour is stemming from.
Consider asking yourself questions like: why am I apologising? Which people do I tend to overapologise to? What am I apologising for? If you find yourself constantly apologising for things like speaking about your feelings or having needs, for example, it could be a sign that you’re struggling with low confidence and self-esteem or have people-pleasing tendencies.
With this knowledge, you’ll be better equipped to tackle the root cause of why your overapologise.
3. Replace sorry with other phrases
A simple trick to help you stop overapologising is to replace the word sorry with an alternative word or phrase where appropriate. For example, you could say…
- “Thank you for your patience” instead of “Sorry I’m running late”
- “I have a question” instead of “Sorry to bother you, can I ask a question?”
- “Excuse me” instead of “sorry” when moving past someone
- “Thank you for inviting me but I can’t make it on that day” instead of “Sorry I can’t come”
- “Thank you for listening to me” instead of “Sorry for taking up your time.”
By helping you move away from the default word of sorry, research has found that phrases like these communicate to others that you’re confident in your own thoughts, opinions, and perspectives.
4. Where necessary, work through any underlying causes of your overapologising
If you’ve recognised that your tendency to overapologise stems from an underlying cause, then one of the most beneficial things you can do is to take steps to work through this. It can be very tricky to change a behaviour when its root cause remains.
However, if you’re struggling with something slightly more complex, such as a mental health condition like social anxiety or PTSD, and would like some additional support, it’s worth reaching out for help. The NHS has information on mental health services – including helplines, local charities, and therapy such as CBT.
Saying sorry when we’re in the wrong is an important part of life. However, overapologising, particularly in situations where we’ve done nothing wrong or are taking the blame for others, can have an impact on how we feel about ourselves and how others view us.
If you’re trying to stop overapologising, remember to be patient with yourself. As is the case with any bad habit, breaking it can be a gradual process, so just focus on taking one step at a time.
For further reading, head over to the healthy mind section of our website. Here you’ll find articles on a number of self-development topics including mindfulness, gratitude, optimism, and rewarding ways to spend your time.