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Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote, “When Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” in 1976. It’s a relatable sentiment. We all get in situations where we take a strong position and conflict results. We have acted badly and guilt follows.We take time to see things from the other person’s perspective. The we may swallow some pride and apologize for our actions. Maybe even we can see the other was right all along.

These days we need not look far to find examples where “sorry” is foreign word. Encountering people who stumble because “it is hard to be humble,” creates the perfect environment for the great German word Schadenfreude, the enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others.

However today I am writing about people for whom the opposite is the case. We all know someone, or perhaps exhibit ourselves, the tendency to lead with apology for even the slightest perceived sleight. Many times there is NOTHING that warrants an apology. The force of habit plus the make up of the personality causes the person to reflexively apologies for everything.

Let’s take a look at what can motivate such behavior. Growing up with constant criticism can persuade a child that he or she is inherently flawed.

People who anticipate that they “are always in the wrong” quickly apologize to take the sting of what they know is coming because their self esteem is in tatters.

Apologizing early and often may be a strategy of “codependency.” The attitude is something like, “I will give everything I have emotionally, physically or financially to the significant other in exchange for not being abandoned or rejected.”  This “bargain” often results in stored anger for the codependent who is the “giver” in the exchange. They attach themselves to a “taker” and feel resentful when the significant other, the taker, does not follow through and meet the giver’s needs.

So what can  the chronic apologizer do to change? At root is a feeling of constant unworthiness. The need for the spouse’s, parent’s, sibling’s, or friend’s approval is a driving force. The person for whom saying “sorry” is the easiest course of action, needs to recognize their own needs are valid and worthy of being reciprocated. The unspoken deal the givers have struck means they cannot effectively negotiate their own needs. That was not the deal. Their selflessness was their an attempt to buy security.

So how to respond to the compulsive feeling to start a sentence with “I’m sorry…”

“Thank You” are the magic words…

When the urge is to say “I’m sorry,” say instead, “Thank you”

  • Instead of, “I’m really sorry for inconveniencing you by arriving late” Say, “Thank you for your understanding, I am running a little behind today.”
  • Instead of, “Forgive me, I am not making any sense today.” Say, “Thanks for taking the time to listen to me.” BTW clients in therapy are sometimes quick to apologize when they feel they are  “jumping around” or feel they are being disorganized. They worry they are making it hard for the therapist to follow them. However therapists are trained to see thematic patterns in how clients  express themselves. What might feel like incoherence on the client’s end, is an opportunity for people like me to highlight meaning.
  • Instead of,  “I hate to ask this but would you (fill in the blank). Say, “I have a favor to ask, tell me if you mind…” If you are really asking for a favor, then an answer of “no,” while not what you were hoping for, is still an acceptable response. If resentment or anger wells up, then there was expectation behind what was labeled a “favor.”

Saying “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry” often sets up an empowering relationship between in relationships, while certain types of automatic apologies are a way starting in a 1 down position and putting the other in a position of validating the the apologizer. Sometimes this is done for the apologizer to extract validation from the other party.

When one starts with a  “thank you,” one is validating the good intentions of the other rather seeking the validation. The stage is set for a much healthier interaction.

Next time the urge is to apologize, start with an acknowledgment of the virtue you wish to find in the other.