The basketball hadn’t even bounced from the rim but, like a reflex, I yelled out “sorry” to my teammates. I could feel it in the flick of my wrist that my three-point attempt was off as soon as I released the ball.
This, of course, wasn’t a game-winning shot in the WNBA Finals. It was mid-game at the Broomfield, Colorado, recreation center where, every Monday night, I play in a women’s three-on-three league, or “old lady league” as one of my youngest teammates calls it.
But this was the moment I realized I was in a bad habit of over-apologizing. The scene at the rec center underscores what we intuitively know and what research has proven: Women tend to over-apologize. One explanation as to why? We have a lower threshold for what we consider behavior that warrants an apology, according to a 2010 study published in Psychological Science.
With this in mind, I set out on a week-long experiment to consciously stop saying sorry for actions that did not actually warrant an apology. The exercise in reframing my language, I found, boosted my confidence and helped me better establish boundaries.
My Experiment in Rationing Sorrys
Saying sorry for missing a three-pointer was ridiculous. Even Steph Curry, the king of threes, only makes 43% of his shots from beyond the arc, and missed shots are obviously part of the game of basketball.
Once I started paying attention, I noticed a chorus of “my bads” and “sorrys” offered up with errant passes and missed buckets among this group of otherwise confident women. On the next court over, where guys were playing pick-up, the apologies were much more rationed — reserved for, you know, an elbow that smacks the bridge of another’s nose while tearing down a rebound.
A week later, during my next game, I stopped saying sorry for the shots that didn’t go in. When I could see teammates get frustrated when their own shots were off, I yelled out, “Keep shooting, they’ll start falling.” As one ball swirled around the rim, I quipped that it just needed someone to blow on it to sink … it was that close. The tone on the court shifted in a more positive direction.
Next was a trip to the grocery store. I watched as my carton of strawberries got ringed in twice. My instinct was to say: “Sorry, but I think I got charged twice for those strawberries,” hedging what I knew to be true with both a “sorry” and an “I think.” I caught myself and, without any of the unnecessary cushioning, simply stated, “The strawberries were rung in twice. Can you please adjust that?”
When I returned missed phone calls throughout the week, instead of saying “Sorry I missed your call,” I tried variations of “Hey, it’s great to connect with you!”
Why We Should Stop Over-Apologizing
We should really only apologize for things we’re actually sorry for, Sophia Reed, a nationally certified counselor who has a Ph.D. in human behavior, says. Sounds obvious, but it’s a struggle for many of us.
“If you just say ‘Sorry’ every time because you don’t want someone to get offended, when you actually did not do anything wrong, not only does that cheapen your apology, but in a way it also cheapens yourself because you are literally saying, ‘I am always wrong and the other person is always right,’ even when that is not the case,” Reed said.
In the grand scheme of things, the strawberry incident wasn’t a big deal — but it did give me practice for a situation that would come up later in the week.
Him: “Want to come to my place? I’d love to cook you dinner.”
Me: “Sorry, I just don’t feel comfortable … ” DELETE. “Let’s try this again,” I thought. And here’s what I actually sent: “No thank you. But I will take you up on a beer.”
We met at a brewery. My boundaries and expectations were established and it felt great.
Another trick I learned during my experiment? There’s a Google Chrome extension you can apply to your email that will flag words like “sorry” and “just” to make sure you’re not starting sentences by saying, “sorry, but …” or, “I just think …” and undermining yourself before you even make your point.
Apologizing Isn’t Always A Mistake
As I practiced being more thoughtful around how and when I apologize, I noticed a few tip sheets on this very topic circulating online. One of the suggestions was to say, “Thanks for your patience” instead of, “Sorry I’m running late.” I disagree with this one. I think it’s perfectly fair to apologize for keeping someone waiting, and it’s a good thing to value another person’s time.
In fact, I’ve found that being quick to offer an apology is not always a bad thing.
“As women, we are more likely to see apologizing as a sign of warmth and care than vulnerability and weakness,” says Ana Jovanovic, a psychologist and life coach with Parenting Pod. “By apologizing for the inconvenience that we may have caused, we invest in being perceived as warm, kind, helpful, caring, considerate or polite.”
I do want to be all of those things. I want my apologies to be genuine, and I don’t want to hold back from offering them when they are warranted.
But what I don’t want is to be a pushover or to reduce my own self-worth with trivial apologies. (Ahem, apologizing for being in someone’s path on a street or saying sorry before asking that my water be refilled at a restaurant.)
Many of these examples may seem insignificant, but they helped me discern when an apology was warranted versus when I was simply saying sorry in an effort to make others feel more comfortable. When a client of mine, who was going through a divorce, asked me on a date, I simply said, “No, that’s inappropriate” versus, “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, but …”
My biggest takeaway from this whole experiment? I realized I can be both polite and kind, but also have strong, firm boundaries and communicate them effectively.