Usage 2: Lack of Confidence/Arrogance (Yes, these belong together.)
Well into my twenties, I was prone to apologizing for everything. I apologized for my own mistakes. I apologized for the mistakes of others. I apologized when I didn’t recognize a mistake. I apologized when I misunderstood or when someone else misunderstood me. “I’m sorry,” was a way of accepting blame, and I quite readily accepted the blame for any and everything. I mentally whipped myself for each and every one of these things as well.
I was somewhere in my mid-twenties when a conversation with an aunt made me realize that in doing this, I wasn’t being humble. It’s strange how low self-confidence can get mixed up with arrogance in this way , but consider this… I expected more of myself than the others around me. I expected to be able to understand and make myself understood better than they were able to do. I expected to succeed even when the task was difficult and most would fail. Hidden underneath all those apologies was the notion that I was simply better and ought not to be failing in this way.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about it in that way at the time. I just expected myself not to fail where everyone else did. If I did, I beat myself up for it. It was a long hard battle to realize that in accepting blame for everything I was expecting myself to be better than everyone else around me. I had to repeat to myself often, ‘I am not super-human, but human like everyone else… and like them, I make mistakes and am not perfect. If their mistakes are understandable, so are mine, and not cause for self-flagellation.’
I think this is a trap many of us fall into when we’ve had parents or other authority figures who weren’t willing to let us be the person we were and instead placed extraordinary or unreasonable expectations on us. It’s a usage of ‘I’m sorry’ that can definitely stem from Usage #1, though it isn’t the same. It’s definitely a trap though, and one that can be difficult to get out of.
As a note… there can be times when it’s diplomatic to apologize for something that isn’t your fault… but we aren’t speaking here of a conscious choice to apologize for the sake of diplomacy, but a compunction to apologize while genuinely feeling that I should have known/done better, even when others were ‘failing’ far more than myself. ‘I’ was supposed to do better. I look back now and wonder sometimes at the arrogance of calmly accepting the blame for nearly everything, and simply analyzing and planning out in my mind how I would handle it better the next time or what I could do differently.
Sidenote: If you find yourself experiencing the frequent urge to over-apologize, it can also help to have a friend who is willing to yell at you when you apologize needlessly. Such friends are treasures beyond price.
Point of interest: We haven’t yet seen any use of the phrase, “I’m sorry,” which aligns with the dictionary definition of the word ‘sorry.’ The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary has the following definitions for ‘Sorry’:
- feeling of sorrow, regret, or penitence
- mournful, sad
- inspiring sorrow, pity, scorn, or ridicule
Instead we’ve seen:
- used to defuse an angry person, even though we don’t feel any regret or penitence, since we can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong
- a way of accepting blame, even when we haven’t done anything wrong, and/or enforcing the notion that one is held to higher standards than others
Next up: Usage 3: Empathy/Pity