How your language might be undermining your status in the eyes of others.
I recently began a game with a friend of mine. Each time we catch the other apologizing unnecessarily, we contribute a dollar to a coffee can. After 24 hours I was $13 poorer. And for that, I was certainly sorry!
Sorry has become a ubiquitous word to express a range of emotions, spanning a wide berth, from deep concern to a benign automatic retort. And this chorus of contrition may be a harmful song to sing.
Buying into the belief that you are at fault, even when your response is the highly automated reaction many of us have to minor indiscretions (e.g., apologizing for being 30 seconds late as a result of traffic you couldn’t control), changes the story of value you assign to yourself.
And your brain takes notice. Women apologize significantly more than men. This language is the apologetic tone of those who are serving or are otherwise unempowered. A kissing of the ring of sorts. I couldn’t say it better than author, Connie Sobczak.
I believe that now more than ever it is important for us all, and especially young women, to stand in our power, and speak from that place. It’s time to step in and take up space unapologetically. I think of how sorry can undermine a young woman’s ability to protect herself when necessary. If she’s been taught, possibly by cultural osmosis or perhaps from parents who don’t allow her to have a disagreeing voice, to continuously apologize for her words and/or actions in innocuous situations, what happens when someone confronts her with aggression and she needs to respond from a place of strength? It won’t be there. The “good girl,” must-be-nice part of her personality takes over, and she gives her power away with sorry.
The stories we tell ourselves are powerful and our brain creates a life that matches the language we use. Too often that means that women in particular find ourselves in positions where our very existence feels like an imposition. We need to challenge ourselves to expand our vocabulary in ways to empower rather than apologize to our own diminishment.
I myself am a survivor of a sexual assault. An assault that a few years prior, I would have responded by bowing my head in shame, taking the blame, and apologizing for how my existence must have created the situation.
But this time I’m not sorry.
This assault recently came into the public eye in the form of a defamation lawsuit filed against me by my assailant. Without going off on a tangent about silencing victims through fear or intimidation, I want to highlight something about the hundreds of messages that I received in support.
Nearly every one of them contained some version of “I’m sorry.” I too, found myself apologizing for the experiences of others who had vulnerably shared with me their own survival stories. It occurred to me how absurd this behavior was. Here was a community of strong and compassionate people who had all experienced attacks at the hands of others, and we were clucking apologies to one another.
We have to find ways of using our language differently.
It may seem like a minor detail, but language is a vital component of our culture. Instead of “sorry,” perhaps we can offer words like “how can I help?” or “I’m with you,” or “I hear you.” It will take time, but only by addressing these seemingly insignificant matters will the psychology of our own mindsets—and then eventually, our culture—begin to change.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to go a full day without contributing to the coffee can of “sorry.”
Mitchell, Anne B. (2018). Melvin Younts sues woman who accused him of sexual assault. Greenville News. https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/2018/10/09/melvin-younts-sues-woman-who-accused-him-sexual-assault/1578048002/
Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D.