Chronic apologizer needs an intervention to break the "sorry" habit.

Share story

Q: I’ve become a chronic apologizer. I say “sorry” for things I did that I have no reason to be sorry for, and even for things that happen that I had nothing to do with. What’s up with this, and how can I stop it?

A: Put on the brakes before you speak so you can understand the impulses that drive you.

“Sorry” can mean a variety of things, many of them benign. At its best, it eases friction, even for unintended offenses like a bump of the grocery cart. It’s also invaluable for expressing sincere regret when you’ve done harm to someone. However, these are not the situations you’ve described.

Take a moment to reflect on some recent “sorry” incidents. For example, if you’re in a meeting and say something like, “I’m sorry, but I think there is another alternative … ” consider the reason you include an apology with your opinion. Perhaps you’re trying to keep someone else’s feelings from being hurt; however, softening your comments too much is actually kind of insulting, as people really are able to cope with disagreements over ideas. Or perhaps you’re trying to deflect a negative response. In that case, imagine the worst thing that could happen. Odds are you’re strong enough to handle it.

Explore the feelings you’re experiencing, as my hunch is that your reaction is stemming from your own discomfort. Include emotions, thoughts and even physical sensations so that you can get to root causes and also identify indicators to help change this habit. In some cases, people do not feel entitled to their own opinions or to occupy their own space. Is this the case with you?

If you’re having trouble seeing the big picture, talk with people in your personal and professional realms to get their perspectives. You can also use this as a way to enlist their help in changing your habit.

Awareness will be your best tool as you move forward. Keep a clicker with you or do a count at the end of the day to help catch yourself. (This works with “ums” and other verbal tics, too.) Notice when you are successful in avoiding “sorry” and pay attention to the reasons for your success. Sometimes the spontaneous solutions can be extended to new situations once you’re conscious of them.

Also plan ahead, using the triggers you’ve identified, so you can anticipate your response when you’re in a high-likelihood setting. Plan and practice alternatives so that you don’t fall into your default “sorry” response.

Changing habits is hard, so definitely don’t beat yourself up when you slip. But do recognize that you may have underlying issues to address, such as a lack of confidence or anxiety in certain settings. In this case, your apologies may just be a symptom, and a broader focus may be warranted.

Dropping this habit matters, as it can lead to less than positive perceptions of you among your colleagues and could end up limiting your success. The good news is, you can readily address this and present a stronger and more self-assured image.

Submit questions to Liz Reyer at liz@deliverchange.com.