The key to happy confidence? Stop apologizing! Women are twice as likely as men to say “Im sorry,” no matter the situation — and that has a sneaky way of increasing stress and lowering self-esteem. Here, experts share easy ways to cure the need-to-please disease.
You call your sister to talk about a recent financial setback, but before you even begin, you find yourself saying, “I’m sorry to bother you.” Sound familiar? Apologizing has become a reflex for so many of us: Sorry to ask. Sorry I can’t do more. Sorry I sneezed. This knee-jerk reaction not only dials up our stress levels, it compromises our self-esteem.
Women are hardwired to apologize, reveals neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., author of Biohack Your Brain (Buy on Amazon, $25), explaining that we show more activity than men in the emotion and bonding center of the brain. “We want to keep everyone happy,” she says. “But this well-intentioned impulse contributes to ‘sorry syndrome,’ which feeds self-doubt.”
While genuine apologies for something we’ve done wrong make us feel better and provide a sense of closure, women who apologize for innocuous things report feeling deflated, says Maja Jovanovic, Ph.D., author of Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing (Buy on Amazon, $25). “Every needless sorry emboldens our inner critic.”
Thankfully, we can break free of “I’m sorry” syndrome. “When we release anxiety caused by constantly apologizing for ourselves, we’re able to take back our power and respond in a way that serves our highest good,” assures Willeumier. Here are some easy ways to turn off the stress-fueled sorry spigot and build true confidence.
If you ‘impulse’ apologize, take a pause.
You arrive at the supermarket checkout lane at the same time as another shopper and instantly hear yourself announce, “Oops, I’m sorry!” Women often impulsively apologize for such innocent, “no fault” offenses, triggering stressful thoughts like, I don’t belong, or I don’t have the right to take up space in the world.
The next time you feel the urge to say sorry, just pause and ask yourself if an apology is necessary, advises Willeumier. You’ll often find that silence is an appropriate response. And if you still feel the need to say something, consider replacing “I’m sorry” with a guilt-free phrase like, “Go ahead” or “You first.” “We have a staggering 70,000 thoughts per day, and it’s our self-talk that can drive anxiety,” she says. “In situations where you feel compelled to apologize, talk to yourself with compassion like, I’m just a human trying to move through the store.” This loving boost gives you permission to sideline “sorry” and take up the space you deserve.
If you apologize for your wins, tap into gratitude.
After receiving kudos from your boss, you deflect the praise, saying, “Well, I’m sorry I didn’t finish the report sooner.” Women often struggle to internalize success, observes Jovanovic. “We tend to believe that our accomplishments somehow make others feel worse about themselves.”
To erase sorry-for-my-success stress, tap gratitude in the moment. Remind yourself that saying “thank you” is enough — no need for qualifiers like, “It was just luck.” To better internalize self-confidence, jot down a “win list” of 10 achievements. “In your mind, link each accomplishment to a personal trait,” encourages Jovanovic. By connecting our successes to characteristics (like tenacity, courage, or conscientiousness), we’re able to see our wins as real and valid and take greater pride in our abilities, knowing each victory we have in no way diminishes others.
If you lead with ‘I’m sorry,’ start with optimism instead.
When replying to emails, you often start with a preemptive apology: Sorry for the delay. Sorry I forgot the attachment. This defense mechanism tends to be triggered by a fear of criticism or a perceived threat, says Susan Heitler, Ph.D., author of Prescriptions Without Pills (Buy on Amazon, $15). In fact, it’s been linked to an overactive amygdala, responsible for the brain’s fight-or-flight response.
Instead of leading with negativity, which only increases anxiety, start with confidence-boosting language. For example, if you’re emailing someone or sending a text, you might open with a feel-good phrase like, “It was so great to get your message” or, “Thank you for thinking of me.” Simply starting with affirmative language helps you affirm yourself, curbing stress and helping broaden the tunnel vision caused by fear. In other words, when you’re not as focused on yourself or your perceived faults, you instantly become less apologetic and are able to communicate more positively, honestly and openly.
If you apologize for needs, just say ‘please.’
After picking up takeout from your favorite restaurant, you ask the hostess, “I’m sorry, can I get some extra napkins?” Perfectionists often preface their requests with apologies to soften the blow. But these can have the opposite effect: Research shows when folks get an apology for something harmless, they often become confused, even anxious. Subconsciously, they think, Wait, I didn’t recognize an error — what did I miss? The resulting tension ends up dialing up stress for both of you.
When asking for a favor, simply swap out “sorry” for “please,” as in, “May I please have a few extra napkins?” This lets you show your kind nature without being needlessly self-negating. A wordless gesture can be just as effective, such as placing your hand over your heart when you present a slightly burned pie at dinner. “It playfully signals ‘I tried,’ allowing you to get past the moment easily,” says Heitler. Choosing not to apologize for minor missteps leads to greater self-esteem and increased feelings of control. It also ensures that sincere apologies hold more meaning. In short, when you stop apologizing for yourself, your life will open up in countless ways.
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A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.