Without assigning gender, Tara Swart, neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach and author of the upcoming book “The Source: Change your mind, change your life” says serial apologists mostly do so out of habit, possibly stemming from a childhood where one was made to feel wrong or fearful of punishment (and thus, perhaps anxious). “It may be that the normal human need to belong has been compromised, creating a shame response that’s meant to induce forgiveness and reacceptance,” she explains. “Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships,” Swart says.
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What’s more, if you’re apologizing for fear of socially rejecting someone, your words might fall on deaf ears anyway. After examining three sets of studies, researchers from Dartmouth College and University of Texas, Austin found “apologies increased hurt feelings and the need to express forgiveness but did not increase feelings of forgiveness.”
In this vein, Swart says both giving and receiving apologies can sometimes elicit what she describes as “survival emotions,” such as fear, anger, disgust, shame or sadness, which pump the stress hormone cortisol into our brains.
Flip the script
From a neuroscientific perspective, Swart says curbing the constant need to apologize requires the same strategy as kicking any other habit, and thus “building a strong new pathway in the brain” through:
- An awareness that you want to change
- Attention to each time you apologize excessively
- Accountability — have a friend or partner alert you each time you do it
- Mindfully swapping out apologies for other phrases
Instead of reverting to apologies, Jovanovic offers these options:
Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” say:
- “excuse me.”
- “pardon me”
- “go ahead”
- “after you”
- “your turn”
Instead of saying “sorry to interrupt you,” say:
- “ I’d like to add…”
- “I have an idea….”
- “I’d like to expand on that…”
Instead of saying “sorry to complain,” switch it to:
- “Thank you for listening…”
Instead of apologizing in an email, consider saying:
- “Thank you for catching that….”
- “I appreciate you bringing this error to my attention….”
- “Thanks for flagging this issue for me…”
If you’re running a little late, instead of saying sorry, consider:
- “Thank you for waiting for me…”
Whatever your reason for developing this habit, like with any habit, you can nip it in the bud with a little effort. There’s even a plug-in for that; Jovanovic recommends a Google Chrome plug-in called “Just Not Sorry” to alert you to words that undermine your message in emails.
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