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Some Thoughts on Over Apologizing

Updated: Mar 8

Trauma Responses: Attach/Cry for Help, Flight, Please and Appease, Freeze, Collapse/Submit, Fight
From National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine

A couple of weeks ago, Loretta and I were presenting on secondary trauma and its effects on the legal system when she clicked to a slide with the graphic above. During this same time, I was in the midst of considering Loretta's What Would Julia Say? post and drafting the post on iterating, and I was struggling to bring together my thoughts about apologizing, or what might actually be called "over apologizing." As I stood there, listening to Loretta talk about the different ways trauma may manifest, I experienced a surge of energy and an insight arose: Apologizing, or "over apologizing," may be a trauma response.

I want to be very clear here: I think there are many reasons why I over apologize or unnecessarily apologize, and today I'm writing about two of them:

  1. apologizing as a trauma response

  2. apologizing as a conditioned response.

What is trauma and why might I over apologize as a response to it?

As I understand it, trauma is the lasting emotional response to an event or events that a person experiences as harmful or life threatening. Trauma is different from everyday pain, stress, misfortune, or sadness. Sometimes trauma is what I call "Big T Trauma," stuff that I see reported in the newspaper or litigated in court. Sometimes trauma is "little t trauma," like working in a toxic environment or living in a culture that treats me as a member of the out group. I imagine that just about everybody has experienced something harmful or life threatening, so most of us have lived experience of the lasting emotional response to those events, i.e. trauma.

In looking at the graphic at the top of the page, I recognize fight, flight, and freeze from lessons about stress responses. I imagine that experiencing stress and responding to it is part of trauma, so it makes sense to me why they're included in the graphic. I'm also curious about how over apologizing might be a behavior manifesting from the other three trauma responses: attach/cry for help, please and appease, and collapse/submit.

I can imagine that in attach/cry for help, I might apologize so someone would help me or not leave me. I can also imagine that in collapse/submit, I'm completely giving in and would apologize in order to be left alone.

The please and appease response is where I really identify some of my previous behavior, especially around apologizing. It seems to me that please and appease is ripe for over apologizing because I could start apologizing for every single thing that might not please--

Sorry I'm taking up too much space.

Sorry you ran into the same traffic on your way in this morning that you do every morning.

Sorry I have my own thoughts and feelings.

Sorry I didn't follow up a third, fourth, or fifth time.

Sorry I didn't anticipate this unprecedented outcome.

Sorry I didn't do your job for you.

Sorry you couldn't find yourself lunch in the cafeteria.

Sorry that thing I warned you would happen (multiple times) has happened.

Sorry I asked to be paid what I'm worth.

Sorry I decided not to care more about your thing than you did.

Any of this feel familiar to you?

Apologizing as a Conditioned Response

Speaking from my lived experience as a White, middle-aged, middle class, Midwestern American woman, I picked up lots of conditioning that might lead to over apologizing:

  • Be a good girl. If in doubt about whether she's been good or bad, a good girl apologizes.

  • Good girls don't upset anyone. Think you've upset someone and want to be a good girl? Apologize immediately.

  • Good girls want to get it right. Got it wrong or maybe got it wrong? Apologize immediately! (Even if it's new or the first time you're doing it.)

  • You were in the vicinity of someone's dis-ease and maybe could've attended to them in some way? Good girls are always helpful! Apologize profusely and immediately.

In earlier iterations of Jill, I was often angry about this conditioning. Now, I see it and understand that some of the intention was to give me the best chance of being safe in spaces that might be unsafe for me. Now, with the supports of mindfulness-based practices, I have better insight in the present moment and can more skillfully determine when I'm on auto-pilot over apologizing from when I take a moment to decide whether I want or need to apologize.

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting with some friends and colleagues. One of them had taken her mom for cataract surgery, so we asked how she was doing. She told us about how amazed her mom was at how much better she could see. In telling us about being in the exam room after her mom's surgery, our friend related to us how her mom kept trying to guess the letters and numbers on the eye chart rather than saying, "I can't see it." She told us how she told her mom that it was ok, the doctor was just trying to figure out where she was on her recovery. She said, "I told her, 'Mom, there's no need to guess and apologize that you can't see everything on the chart.'" Then she said, "Why in the world would was she guessing?"

That's when I asked, "Do you think it's because she thought she needed to get it right?" which then led to a long discussion about what I was thinking about as I formulated this blog post.

On Monday, I have an appointment with my optometrist, and it's just occurred to me that I often apologize when I can't see the itty bitty tiny row at the bottom of the chart. Why do I do that? I'm setting an intention right now NOT TO APOLOGIZE when I get to the row I can't see. I'm just going to say, "Hey, Colin, that's all I can see."

How the Pressure to Apologize Played Out in Season 3, Episode 8 of Ted Lasso

A photo of a blond woman wearing a pink coat, which is the title card for Season 3, Episode 8 of Ted Lasso.

As you might've guessed, I've had apologizing and over apologizing on my heart and mind, which reminded me of Season 3, Episode 8 of Ted Lasso called We'll Never Have Paris. There was lots going on in this episode, but the storyline I am focusing on here is Keeley, or as the blurb under the title card above says, "An online leak has massive implications for Keeley."

In this ripped-from-the-headlines storyline, a hacker (or several) had stolen and released private photos and videos that famous or semi-famous people had sent to their friends. One of the people who had a private video stolen and released was Keeley. To be clear, this was a video that Keeley had made and sent via email years ago to her then-boyfriend. They were adults, in a consensual relationship. The video had been forgotten about, and it was found by a HACKER who ILLEGALLY accessed the ex-boyfriend's account.

At first, Keeley's current girlfriend, who also happens to be the president of the venture capital fund that funds Keeley's PR firm, is horrified and promises to help Keeley. As the story unfolds, Keeley is asked to issue an apology for making the video and that it's been seen publicly. Keeley refuses to do so, saying "I don't regret making that video." Her refusal to apologize leads to the eventual break up of her current relationship.

I've thought a lot about this because this storyline could've gone many different ways. Keeley could've pleased and appeased by apologizing. She could've followed good girl conditioning and apologized. But she didn't, and she's right-- she didn't have anything to apologize for. The hacker should be the one apologizing for taking stuff that wasn't theirs and then publishing it so the world could see it.

Keeley not apologizing made one of the final scenes of the episode so much more powerful because Jamie, the ex-boyfriend who got hacked, unexpectedly appears at Keeley's front door to apologize to her. After telling him he doesn't need to, he insists that he does. He explains that he'd deleted photos and videos after they'd broken up (some sooner and others later), but he'd forgotten all about that video, which she'd emailed to him. He acknowledges that he didn't leak it, but he apologizes for still having it so that the hacker could steal it and leak it. After all she's been through, the energy is absolutely palpable as Keeley fiercely hugs Jamie post-apology. Imagine what that scene would've been like if Keeley had apologized? I doubt I would've even remembered that Jamie apologized to Keeley, too. Honestly, if Keeley HAD apologized I don't know that I would've even remembered that she did as I was thinking about this blog post. A heartfelt, true apology is so much more meaningful than a perfunctory or automatic one.

Which leads me to one final thought: If I go around apologizing all the time for stuff I don't need to apologize for, what affect does my apology have when I'm TRULY sorry and want to convey that to the person I'm apologizing to?

My over apologizing isn't just an annoying tic or a trauma response or a conditioned response. It affects my ability to transmit a truly deeply-felt apology when called for. I don't want to be somebody whose apology is fair to middlin' or my apologies to receive a "boy who cried 'wolf'" response.

What might happen if we collectively noted and practiced breaking the auto apology or over apology cycle?

Not sure how to start to do that? It's ok because I do! Building your present moment awareness muscle is a great place to start. You can do that by joining our Wednesday morning Sangha Sit. It's freely offered, and we're always glad to welcome new friends. Hope to see you there!

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1 Comment

Mar 13

Oof. That hit right in anatomical cinder block. In a good way that also provokes a moment for pause.

Apologizing is absolutely a trauma response for me. When someone asks me why I apologize so frequently, that facade cracks to reveal an emotional response. This post helped me identify that apologizing is my way of folding/submitting.

Thank you for your thoughtful words.

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