Being generous with heartfelt apologies can be a good thing — a way of showing respect and empathy to your loved ones. It can clear the air and strengthen relationships.

But if you find yourself apologizing for every little thing, you might be unintentionally creating a rift between yourself and others — and internalizing increased guilt and stress.

Most of us are very familiar with overapologizing. If we don’t do it, we know someone who does. Social and health psychologist Juliana Breines, PhD, has described it as apologizing “too easily and too frequently, as when we apologize for things that are clearly not our fault, not in our control, or otherwise unworthy of apology.”

Overapologizing might sound like this: “I’m so sorry — I’m new at this.” “Sorry, I don’t mean to make you feel bad.” “Sorry to ask so many questions.” “Sorry, could you repeat that?” “Sorry, sorry — I’m so, so sorry!” Some people even apologize for apologizing so much.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are numerous and complex, explains Harriet Lerner, PhD, in her book Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. “It may be a reflection of low self-esteem, a diminished sense of entitlement, an unconscious wish to avoid any possibility of criticism or disapproval before it even occurs, an excessive wish to placate and please, some underlying river of shame, or a desire to show off what a well-mannered Brownie Scout one is,” Lerner writes.

For some, saying “sorry” becomes so habitual it turns into a full-blown verbal tic.

It could also be a gendered problem. One study found that women are more likely than men to apologize, possibly because men “have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”

“More often than not, women who overapologize have a person in their life who has told them to stop apologizing. It’s usually either a boss or a mentor, or it’s a family member or friend who has already alerted them to this issue,” says sociologist Maja Jovanovi, PhD, author of Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing . . . and Other Career Mistakes Women Make.

Still, it can be challenging to recognize when you’re saying “sorry” too often. That’s because it feels different for the person doing it than for people observing it.

“When I ask, ‘How do you perceive other people who overapologize?,’ the top answers are ‘weak, insecure, incompetent, lacking confidence, easily manipulated, and not leadership material,’” says Jovanovi, who is currently discussing apologies with women around the world for a study about women’s confidence and communication styles.

“Then when I ask, ‘How do you think other people perceive you when you overapologize?’ The answer is they hope they’re perceived as ‘nice, polite, kind, thinking of others’ — but they acknowledge they’re probably perceived as lacking confidence and not being leadership material.”

“We are being perceived in the exact opposite ways to how we hoped we were,” she adds, noting that the behavior may affect work and career goals. “How likely is it that you want to take direction from somebody who overapologizes? Do you want that to be your team leader? Do you want that to be your boss? Is that going to be your new hire? No.”

But overapologizing isn’t just a self-defeating behavior pattern on the job — it also has the potential to exhaust those around you. It plants seeds of doubt and can undermine their confidence in you. It makes others feel uncomfortable.

Close friends or partners may read your frequent apologies as less meaningful because they’re so routine. Some studies show that an unnecessary apology attached to a social rejection — “I’m sorry, I don’t want to go out with you again” — actually hurts the recipient more than a simple rejection.

Overapologizing can also take a psychological toll. For example, it can be tempting to apologize as a way to ease tension during a conflict. “You want to do something because it’s uncomfortable for you,” says psychologist and anxiety expert Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety. “What’s unhealthy for the apologizer is that they are taking responsibility for the other person’s feelings.”

And that, she explains, can lead to anxiety, diminished sense of self, and confusion about — or distortion of — how you deserve to be treated.

To keep yourself and your relationships as healthy as possible, you might consider limiting the number of “sorrys” you say in a day — and save your apologies for when you really want them to matter most.

Karen Olson

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Karen Olson

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