Many of us use the word ‘sorry’ frequently throughout the day. Even when we’re innocent, when someone has bumped into us or has made a mistake we may find that we’re the ones who are quick to apologize and say ‘sorry’. It can become an automatic response, said without thinking.
But, the word ‘sorry’ can become a habit, which can ultimately reflect badly on us and start to convey the impression of someone who’s accident-prone, careless, timid, or over-cautious in their approach; someone who’s anxious to avoid confrontation at any cost. Tune in to those times when you typically apologize, and notice what’s going on! Are you showing yourself in a good light?
There may sometimes be circumstances where we find ourselves quickly apologizing if someone is rude, angry, or badly behaved toward us. Did we cause it, are we in some way to blame, what might happen if we don’t defuse the situation?
Likewise, it can be all too easy to slip into an apology cycle, where one person behaves in a brash, rude, unthinking, quick-tempered way whenever they feel triggered. Afterward, they may well feel bad as they reflect on the hurt or offense they’ve caused. An apology may follow, which will, no doubt, be sincere, remorseful, and even accompanied by promises to change or seek help, as they deliver a gift or offer to do the chores for a week. If accepted, the matter’s deemed closed, until the next time.
Might it be helpful to start paying a little more attention at these times and reflect on our automatic default, especially if we gradually realize that we’re regularly apologetic, even when we’ve nothing to be sorry for. What drives an apology, what prompts us to become regretful about a perceived offense or omission? Or behave increasingly atrociously, knowing that an apology will wipe the slate clean.
When a relationship devolves into an unhelpful cycle of apologising both sides need to take ownership. They’re both complicit in allowing the situation to continue.
When one person struggles to express themselves, it may be because they’ve been on the receiving end of bad treatment, perhaps dating back to childhood. They may have never seen others resolve their issues, or been encouraged to work through problems and discuss their thoughts and feelings. Anger or frustration may have manifested as they let off steam or coped with the build-up of stress; often followed by guilt, shame, and remorse.
If they’re someone who goes mute in tense situations, that can cause the environment to become destructive and frustrating. Fear of confrontation is a big issue for many people. Being with someone who behaves badly, and treats them in a hurtful way can trigger apprehension about the consequences of answering back or disagreeing. Will it be followed by anger, signal the end of the relationship or will they be blamed? If bad behavior is followed by either person apologizing and demonstrating remorse and contrition both may feel relief that the crisis is over.
In some households, days or weeks of ‘silent treatment’ follow any disagreement, unless a groveling apology is issued. There can be a ‘here we go again’ acceptance once the cycle is established, but knowing that tensions end once an apology is issued and that things return to normal can be good enough, even though nothing has been learned or resolved. Any underlying issues have yet again been brushed away, no doubt to resurface at some point in the future.
If anything’s ever going to change into a more adult, equal relationship both sides have to acknowledge their part in this cycle. Knowing that they’ll ‘get away’ with bad, rude behavior by issuing a few appeaseatory words can mean that there are no consequences. However harsh, anything may be said or done. When there follows a ‘sorry’, maybe with some flowers and an offer to do the dishes all becomes forgiven.
For things to change, the person on the receiving end has to find their voice and stand up for themselves, have opinions, and be firm. Tolerating bad treatment gives tacit permission for the situation to continue.
Some personal work may be needed to resolve the cycle, to reflect on what past relationship role models were like, what was deemed normal and acceptable, and how disagreements and opposing points of view were discussed or tolerated and reconciled. Counseling or therapy can improve self-awareness in these situations.
How to break the emotional link or trigger to apologize;
– If those early years were fraught, where home or school involved arguing, bullying, or constant tension, remaining silent, keeping the peace, deferring to others, and being quick to apologize may have been deemed the safest option. Any hint of criticism or aggression was felt to be best remedied by a heartfelt apology, the promise to improve, or an offer to do ‘penance’.
– It may be that others were regarded as more intelligent, senior, sporty, attractive, rich, worldly-wise, or of a higher social standing, which can be daunting and mean that an apology is readily delivered whenever there’s the slightest hint of others being irritated or inconvenienced. Working to recognize one’s own skills, talents, and successes, perhaps through therapy or mixing with supportive, like-minded people can help to heal self-doubt and improve confidence and self-belief.
– But equally, whilst apologizing may be regarded by others as a sign of weakness, an admission that we’re flawed or imperfect, saying sorry if we’re in the wrong is often viewed as a positive step and seen as a sign of strength. Many people respect a person who has the self-confidence and integrity to hold their hand up, admit that they’re wrong, and apologize.
Moving into a more mutually respectful relationship allows the pattern to break, which includes finding more positive ways to apologize, the when, how and why.
Susan Leigh, South Manchester counselor, hypnotherapist, relationship counselor, writer & media contributor offers help with relationship issues, stress management, assertiveness, and confidence. She works with individual clients, couples and provides corporate workshops and support.