Sorry, Not Sorry?

Ok, the title of this post is a little misleading. You see, it harks to the now ubiquitous expression #SorryNotSorry, which as well all know is used to feistily symbolize someone feeling completely unapologetic for whatever they've just said or done preceding that phrase (or post, since it's an #InstagramFavourite). And while I could probably write a whole separate post on that (and probably will some day, hah - #SorryNotSorry!) because while I absolutely love the global movement towards greater confidence in being ourselves and saying and doing what we really think and feel, I do feel like it's also often used to cover up some actually obnoxious behavior that actually could warrant an apology, or at least a little grace in accepting that whatever it is might be offensive, hurtful, or otherwise repellant to whoever is on the receiving end. Anyway, I digress.

I have a problem with saying I'm sorry - the problem is that I say it way too often. I grew up in a culture where respect was paramount, and we were taught to always be held accountable for our words and actions, and how that might affect others - and while that does make room for you to develop into a considerably thoughtful adult who has a knee-jerk reaction to consider other people's feelings, it can also lead to the curse of over-apologizing. Take, for instance, if I'm walking down a street and a stranger knocks into me because they were on their phone and veered into the wrong direction, colliding into me and whatever I'm carrying at the time. Even though it's their fault, I'll probably apologize without thinking. Like I'm sorry I dared to be in their way when, in fact, it was my right of way and they should have been paying more attention to what was around them. My friends have called me out on it many times. In fact, one of my besties insists that I do a burpee every time she catches me apologizing when I shouldn't (and she'll enforce it too, I have no doubt). my response to that? To say "I'm sorry!" yes, for saying sorry.

I don't know why I am this way. We jokingly call it "Asian guilt" - not meant in an offensive way to Asian culture (am I allowed to apologize for that here, Annie?) but rather, referencing the fact that it is, in fact, very often a part of East Asian culture. Perhaps it's because the culture places such a strong emphasis on living with honor that we are almost raised to believe that love or respect is conditional in many ways, and that if we don't live and act by the societal rules of what is deemed honorable, then it's somewhat shameful, or letting your loved ones down somehow. I may only be half East Asian, but it's ingrained in me. And while I love many parts of my culture and am fiercely proud of it - and I'm sure this is something that exists in a number of other cultures around the world too... I mean, a lot of my British friends have said the same thing about their national tendency to over-apologize, because it's apparently seen as having good manners to do so - this is a problem, and it's one that many of my East Asian friends have been able to relate to.

Why is it such a problem? Well I'm sure psychologists could shed a lot more light on that than I could, but blame is a part of it. It places blame on ourselves, both in terms of blaming ourselves and having that being followed by ensuing feelings of unwarranted guilt (which can lead to other emotional and psychologically damaging behavior if repeated continually over time), as well as somehow implying to the other person in the equation that we are at blame for whatever has happened as well. Case in point: The person-crashing-into-you-on-the-street situation. Over time, this can not only damage our confidence, but it also sets a bad standard - and I'm not yet sure if that's more the case with someone you see regularly or a complete stranger, but either way, it implies that they have more right to be there and doing or saying whatever it is than you do. Which often isn't the case. And there's just something completely illogical about apologizing for something that is out of your control, since you didn't cause it to happen and it isn't your fault.

Outside of the social sphere, this can also be pretty damaging in the workplace - again, it implies that you're lesser than your colleagues, that you're not as qualified, or that your voice isn't as authoritative. It leads to thoughts like, "Maybe he or she is always saying sorry because they have no idea what they're doing, or they always mess everything up, or they're hapless," even when that's not the case - and even if the person thinking that isn't doing so intentionally, they might be subconsciously and unwittingly building that profile of you without intending to or even realizing it. Just think about how that kind of perception could hold you back. There's a reason why guides for success in the workplace always say you shouldn't start a conversation with phrases like, "Sorry, but could you just..." - and then there's also the flip side, wherein if you do it too often, some people might think that your apologies are insincere - so when you do actually need to say it, they might not believe that you mean it even if you do.

So how do we stop? Well, I'm still trying to figure that out. But like most problems in life, it takes a combination of self awareness, a concerted effort to change our behavior using whatever tricks we can (kind of like the way I'd paint my nails with a vile-tasting liquid called "Stop Bite" when I was younger and trying to stop biting my nails), and the time to actually implement that and let it stick enough to change our behaviour. In my case, part of that is a friend who cares enough to help me work on that, by threatening me with burpees. Being more confident with who you are, and becoming more comfortable with going against the grain of what society asks you to be just for the sake of pleasing people, is another factor that has helped me significantly reduce my autopilot "sorry" count over the years as well. It's still a work in progress, but I won't apologize for how long it may or may not take me, and I know I'll get there eventually.

Photograph: Shutterstock.

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