Having agreed to meet a friend for lunch, I waved while entering the restaurant.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said.
She looked up at the clock.
“You look great,” I said. “Sorry I look like a hobo.”
“You look fine,” she said. “Are those shoes new?”
Scanning the menu, I said: “Sorry it always takes me so long to choose.”
She said, “I haven’t chosen yet, myself.”
Throughout our meal, I kept apologizing: for having ordered French toast, for occupying the prettier chair, for eating too quickly and too slowly.
“Sorry,” I said as we were leaving, “that you had to come this far.”
“I chose this restaurant,” she said.
I apologize chronically. Reflexively. Compulsively. I say sorry almost as punctuation. I say it when anyone else on earth would think everything was fine.
How many times have you apologized today?
Authentic, merited apologies are valiant acts of honesty, humility, responsibility, respect. Knee-jerk habitual apology, by contrast, is not amends-making but a kind of tragedy, each sorry one more cheap small sword with which we slash ourselves.
We who apologize compulsively might not realize how much we apologize, might not even hear ourselves do it, much less ponder what it means.
Compulsive apology is a classic symptom of low self-esteem, a bad habit born of believing that whatever we do, say, and feel is wrong, thus meriting amends. I try to quell it, knowing what it is. But old habits—perhaps even especially self-wounding ones—die hard.
We who apologize too much do so because we live in perpetual—albeit perhaps not fully conscious—fear of punishment. Expecting constantly to fumble, fail, humiliate ourselves and outrage others without even meaning to, we tiptoe terrified through life, willing ourselves invisible. Regretting our past acts, blaming ourselves for future acts pre-emptively, we expect others to share our opinions of ourselves—to condemn us for things we have done willingly and accidentally, for words said and unsaid. To castigate us for our wants and thoughts, for simply being us—although those of us with low self-esteem are often cloudy on the concept of who we actually are.
By saying sorry, we think we can blunt the blow—saving others the trouble of assessing their own hurt and rage. By saying sorry, we think we can beat them to the punch.
But like most habits born of low self-esteem, compulsive apologizing backfires: The tenth sorry in ten minutes sounds not humble but insincere and self-obsessed.
“Apology is only egotism wrong side out,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes. “It is mighty presumptuous on your part to suppose your small failures of so much consequence that you must make a talk about it.”
Are you a compulsive sorryer? Become aware of your urge to apologize. Try resisting it—no easy task for we who constantly fear punishment—and “holding” your apology instead. Feel it from front to back, the way doctors examine glands. What does this sorry really mean? What did you do, say, think, or feel that spurred this urge? Was it, in the scheme of things, such an awful crime?
Forgive yourself, for it is almost surely only you whom you have hurt, if anyone.
Between self-loathing and self-love spans a wide spectrum, and we might not ever love ourselves. But we can bravely inch toward medium. Try it; I think you’ll find that no-longer-loathing can be quite nice.
Anneli Rufus is a frequent contributor to Spirituality & Health. Her books Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On examined our lives as individuals in a crowded world. Rufus’ upcoming work, Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, will be released by Tarcher Penguin in the spring and continues this path, addressing self-esteem. It serves as the catalyst for this blog and asks: Why do we feel the way we do about ourselves?
Calendar artwork by Kristan Lawson.