Have you ever found yourself saying “I’m sorry” for things that don’t merit an apology?
It's a bad habit that can morph into a reflex reaction. This pattern of behavior can not only be exhausting to you, but to everyone — especially your co-workers, boss and family.
Constantly apologizing can have negative side effects on your career, from giving the appearance of incompetence to annoying your colleagues and superiors with your self-deprecating style. But the most detrimental and lasting side effect of over-apologizing? How it corrodes your self-image.
It can result in:
- Insecurity and self-doubt. Apologizing for popping into your boss' office at a scheduled meeting time ("I'm sorry to interrupt. Are you ready to chat?") is not only unnecessary (because your boss agreed to that time slot, right?), it conveys a lack of confidence.
- Insincerity. Unwarranted apologies not only bloat your speech and detract from the clarity of your message, they also dilute the power of the phrase to a point where it may come off as disingenuous.
- Powerlessness. If you’re the only one always apologizing it can signify a power imbalance, which can erode any relationship and your self-esteem along with it. Here's where women face a double-bind: female executives who apologize too much may be seen as too timid and passed over for promotions due to a perceived lack of leadership skills. Yet, they may simultaneously be criticized for being aggressive if they're direct.
- Dependence on external validation. Apologizing may be subconsciously levered as a way to seek reassurance. When you say "I'm sorry", are you hoping your co-worker will say "Nothing to apologize for" or “Oh no, you did a great job on that presentation"?
- Compromising your professional values. Leadership requires backbone. You have to know what you stand for. But over-apologizers tend to focus on others’ perceptions of what is right and wrong instead of their own.
Any of this hitting close to home? If so, chances are this isn’t how you want to come across in the workplace, nor is it an accurate reflection of your character. It’s time to reclaim your confidence at the office and quit saying sorry as a crutch.
1. Reflect on how your experiences may be contributing to your tendency to over-apologize.
The better you understand how your early programming may be contributing to your behavior, the more power you'll have to take action and change.
Do some digging around questions like:
- What's the first reaction you have when someone tells you "no"?
- Was advocating on your own behalf off-limits in your family? Was it encouraged?
- When you were younger, was it acceptable to speak up and share your opinion?
- What other major experiences shaped your outlook about asserting yourself and respecting authority, particularly at the workplace?
2. Examine the contexts in which your “sorry” impulse comes out.
Start to identify triggers that exacerbate your behavior such as certain people, contexts, moods or times of day. Pay attention to whether your tendency to over-apologize comes out with some co-workers more than others. For instance, that pushy, demanding client who constantly requests impossible deadlines may send your stress (and your "sorry" reflex) into overdrive.
3. Replace unwarranted apologies with accurate statements that communicate your point.
At first, this can be tricky. I often tell clients I work with that there's no shame in asking for verbal do-overs, particularly with family and friends. For example, if you need to cancel happy hour plans and find yourself auto-apologizing out of habit, catch yourself and say, “You know, what I really wanted to say is... thanks for understanding. It's a crazy week with all these upcoming deadlines and I appreciate you being flexible." Done! Now doesn't that feel better than spewing out "sorry, sorry I'm the worst, I know"?
In the long run, apologizing like it’s your job can do more harm to your career than good. By speaking more straightforwardly and clearly, you can showcase your skills and feel more confident in the process.
A version of this article appeared on Forbes. Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. Her clients include CEOs and C-level executives at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google and HP, as well as media personalities, startup founders, and entrepreneurs across industries. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Get free tools to grow your career confidence at melodywilding.com.