Observing Our Apologies

I read a Q&A column with Natalie Portman in this week’s Time Magazine. One reader asked her this question:

“What have you learned about yourself by portraying powerful women?”

To which she replied,

“It has encouraged me to say things authoritatively. Often women preface what they say with ‘I know this might sound stupid’ or ‘I don’t mean to be aggressive, but…’ I tend to do that, so it is great to have the opportunity to play a leader.”

I thought about how true that was and then continued with reading the magazine. Well, in the few days since I read that column, I have become startlingly aware of my own tendency to apologize. Apologize when unnecessary, I hasten to clarify. It has happened enough times for me to self-impose an internal alarm whenever that word comes out of my mouth, or as in most cases, when it came out in the text of an e-mail. I’m training myself to sound that alarm and simply ask myself, “is it truly warranted? Or am I making less of myself because I’m nervous about the response?”

Apologizing is often a way of playing ourselves down and letting the listener, or the reader, know that we put their opinions above ours. In essence, it relays that we are either slightly embarrassed or ashamed to be putting that person on the receiving side of our question or request. Unfortunately, Ms. Portman is correct in stating that this is something many women do. We don’t dare give ourselves the right to just state something, or simply ask.

When I am asking for something and I sense that it may ruffle the other person’s feathers, I have a tendency to apologize. Even if I think it’s their job and my right and there really is nothing wrong with asking.

I heard my internal alarm when I was prone to another apology yesterday, and it occurred to me that the trigger comes from a deeper place. Perhaps it’s a place of connection; a place of compassion. That’s assuming the best, of course. We just don’t like to make others feel uncomfortable or unhappy. Right? Anyone who’s had any bit of self-therapy will admit that’s nonsense, though. Shouldn’t we assume for them the same privilege we grant ourselves? That is, allow them to be accountable for their own response, to deal with things their own way, and to let them handle their own issues without our automatic need to make it all OKAY?

Diplomacy is a delicate art form. Somewhere between directly or aggressively stating something on the one hand, and prefacing the request with an apology (or three or four) on the other…well, therein lies the charm. After all, tact and consideration should never be under-rated.

We each know our internal buttons. When we are acting consciously, I believe that each one of us has an intuitive sense of when we’re apologizing simply to appease a discomfort that we ourselves feel in the process of asking or suggesting something; not necessarily because we are truly SORRY to ask. (Otherwise, why ask?) Generally speaking, we don’t want others to dislike us or to say bad things about us later. We want to be liked at all costs. We mean well, after all. So we apologize as our way of showing that.

Auto-pilot apologizing holds us back in more ways than I think any of us realize. If we continue to introduce our requests with an apology, we’ll continue to back down and give someone else the go ahead, simply because their personalities seem stronger or more forceful, or more notably, because we’re concerned with making sure we’re liked at all costs, even if what we’re asking for is a completely professional or logical request and in no way inappropriate.

I encourage all of you who have this tendency to start observing yourselves more consciously. Ask yourselves if the apology is truly warranted, or whether it’s that auto-pilot trigger. I believe that the more you practice, the taller you’ll stand.


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