When you board a plane and need someone to stand up so that you can get to your seat, what do you do? If you are like me, you apologize to your seat mate. But, why apologize? That I have the window seat? Because the airline has packed us in like sardines? That I could not jump over the person in the aisle? No, I am apologizing because I feel bad that he/she needs to move for me. But why should I feel bad? I purchased the seat, just like the recipient of my apology. And I am assuming he/she knew that, in a crazy scheme to make a profit, the airline would probably sell the window seat. And it’s not like I woke him/her up in the middle of the night to move for me—which would definitely merit a sincere apology. But to apologize just because I need to get into my seat is me following a cultural script for women.
Many women, especially those of us in the Anxiety Sisterhood, find ourselves constantly apologizing during our daily lives. We start perfectly legitimate questions with “I’m sorry….” We apologize before we state our opinions (particularly if they are different from those of the person with whom we are conversing). We are sorry for interrupting, for our messy houses, for being unable to take on yet another obligation, for being too big, for disliking a present, for sending back under or overcooked food. In other words, we are sorry for everything.
Why are we so sorry? Many of us were taught (both directly and indirectly) that women should be smart, poised, competent and alert caregivers, but that we should possess these qualities quietly—without drawing attention to ourselves by being too pushy or loud. As a result, we shrink ourselves to accommodate and pacify others. We speak up, make mistakes, have ideas, and have bodies…and we are sorry for all these things. It’s a cultural mechanism for keeping our heads down, and we buy into it, hook, line and sinker.
There is no problem with saying “I’m sorry” when we have wronged someone or have made a true error. But “I’m sorry” should not be code for “I shouldn’t contradict you” or “I shouldn’t be so loud” or “I shouldn’t need my own time” or “I am sorry you have to do your job” or “I am sorry for having ideas” or, perhaps most insidious of all, “I am sorry for taking up space.” Need I point out how this can cause anxiety in our interactions?
If we want to acknowledge that we have inconvenienced our seat mate or called our doctor late at night (even when she/he was on call) or that we were late for a meeting, let’s say what we mean. We have a chance to connect with another person, and even show our appreciation, without diminishing ourselves. Let’s say “thank you for being so responsive to my questions” or “thank you for waiting for me” or “these are close quarters and I appreciate your moving.” We can recognize the other person in the situation and comment on his/her behavior without “shrinking” ourselves or taking unnecessary blame. We can own up to the fact that our needs—our very beings—are important, even when they inconvenience the people around us.
Many of us Anxiety Sisters (in fact, many women) feel anxious about asserting ourselves. As a communication professional, Abs always reminds me that language is powerful—particularly the language we hear ourselves using. When we diminish ourselves by over-apologizing, we are buying into an inferior status. However, when we speak up for ourselves without lowering our eyes, when we politely expect others to make room for us, when we ask for what we need, we are, in fact, giving ourselves power…and putting an end to culturally-induced anxiety.