Hi, I am Chloe and I am a sucker for apologising.
I am unsure when my tendency to apologise a little too much became an addiction. It is difficult to explain how the word “sorry” moved from a linguistic term to a central component of my identity. Somehow in nineteen years I had come to equate my own existence and the space I occupied as something that needed to be excused or qualified.
As 2018 ended, I decided that it had to mark a turning point in my relationship with apologising. It took until this Michaelmas to realise how it had come to infiltrate my everyday interactions, with most of my time being spent attaching my apologies for causing any “inconveniences” to emails and hedging supervision contributions with the qualification that my participation represented a distraction. I even started to apologise to people who should have been apologising to me; the friend who forgot to pay me back, the boys who made unwarranted sexual comments, to the person who had taken away my right to consent. It snowballed into a compulsive habit; a method of protection against failure, an excuse for existence, an explanation for the incomprehensible.
To clear my head whilst writing this, I pulled out a dictionary from the shelf, which provided me with a simple definition of an apology. It is “a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.” These two last words, offence and failure, both possess a similar characteristic – they are external to the individual to which they refer. I realised that to ‘fail’ or to ‘offend’, I break or fall short of achieving a goal, law, expectation or convention which is utterly separate to me. This includes self-imposed standards too, ones which I internalised from the values and criticisms I can see around me in society- there is nothing more alienating than imposing those upon your own body and abilities.
When I became aware of the interactive element which is tied to the act of apologising, it became a lot easier to realise the consequences that this had for both my relationships with others and myself. Saying “sorry” refers to more than a direct discourse, but represented a deeper communication to myself, those around me and with society itself.
Where does society come into all of this? By apologising for my failure to match up to ideals and expectations set by my wider social environment, I give them greater legitimacy. It can be in the small unconscious apologies for my appearance; showing up to group engagements in sports gear, for forgetting to shave my legs, for the simple fact that my hair was too frizzy in a picture. Each of these scenarios gives weight to an external standard of behaviour to which I conformed each time I apologised for failing to fall in line. Attempting to excuse my appearance is just one way in which I had become an active participant in legitimising expectations that a woman should dress and behave in a certain way. Ironically, I had always considered myself to be in active rebellion against the ideal of the “nice girl” in embracing an individual dress sense and voicing my political opinions. Ironically, by apologising for these acts of rebellion I was endorsing the status quo, making a girl willing to voice her opinions as something that needed to be explained and a divergence from formal expectations.
One of the common consequences of an addiction is its impact on personal relationships. We never really stop to consider the subconscious assumptions underpinning the word “sorry”. Every time that we apologise directly to another individual, we unknowingly and often unfairly attach a series of attitudes and opinions to them. It was hard to discover that over the past year I had been doing this exact thing to some of the people closest to me. During a series of panic attacks this term I felt it necessary to constantly apologise to a close friend both during and after the event merely for seeking her help. What I failed to understand was that, through my incessant repetitions of “sorry” and “are you sure it’s okay”, I was projecting a series of unfair assumptions. Returning to the definition of an apology, it runs deeper than a mere acknowledgement of an objective offence but assumes that the one we apologise to feels “offended”. Every time I asked for her forgiveness, I was subconsciously assuming that a good friend would feel inconvenienced or be unwilling to be there for someone they care about. My addiction had blinded me to the genuine affection and agency involved in providing love and support to a friend in time of need.
The most inaudible message communicated in an apology is ironically the loudest of all. Greater than a mere acknowledgement of offence or failure, this mode of communication tells someone that they are an offence, that they are a failure. Whether it be for speaking during a supervision, my appearance or even reaching out for help, I was consistently devaluing myself. The form of self-criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you don’t believe in your opinions and abilities than how are they supposed to succeed? Like many women around me, I find the obstacle of self-doubt an everyday struggle in fully acting on the potential opportunities and experiences that life has to offer.
We are now in the very early days of 2019 and I wish to propose a collection of resolutions, which diverge from the typical variety one sees on their various social media feeds. Rather than striving towards an instantaneous transformation, this list represents a messy experience of learning and reflection as I struggle against my addiction to apologising. In response to the three levels at which this addiction manifests itself (society, relationships and the self), I propose three goals which will start now:
- Resist all expectations, without explaining myself.
- Substitute “sorry” for “thank you” in order to acknowledge love and support.
- To myself: be kind, not critical.
(Featured image source: Tumblr)