#SorryNotSorry: People Pleasers Unite!

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

Recently I was on social media and saw this gorgeous picture of a couple at the beach with the hashtag, "sorrynotsorry." I felt bile rising in my throat due to the sheer nauseating factor of their gloating. It was the dead of winter people! I’m happy they're vacationing, but #sorrynotsorry is gag worthy and warranted them being crossed off my Christmas card list.  

The idiotic hashtag reminded me of a recent phone call with my brother. We were trying, as best we could, to figure out how the hell to get everyone together for Christmas. He was offering a very limited window of time that worked well for his family, yet it happened to conflict with a special tradition my husband and I have with our kids. My perception was, either implicitly or explicitly, my extended family was asking us to dismiss our holiday tradition to accommodate their schedule. Inside I was fuming, but outside I calmly heard myself say: “I’m so sorry this isn’t working out…(repeat)…I’m really sorry.”

About mid-way through my fourth apology during the five-minute phone call, I blurted out, “I don’t even know what I’m apologizing for exactly.” Hello, sorry, not sorry!!! I got off the phone and put my head in hands and wept. My tears had little to do with the brief conversation with my brother, and EVERYTHING to do with a lifetime of unnecessary apologies.

As a therapist, I inconveniently analyze the “why” behind much of my behavior (this is 100% as tiresome as it sounds). When an answer didn’t readily pop to the surface, I knew I was wading into murky waters where deep, dark, old feelings float. Often this debris doesn't have words, just a form. There's this heavy interior knowing it hurts, deep in the pit of my stomach, but uncertainty as to why. None of us like to swim back into these waters of our childhood wounds, in fact, many decide it’s easier to stay in the shallow end.  Sometimes I’m jealous of the shallow-end dwellers, but ultimately, I recognize that there's a price to pay by staying so close to the safe edges of our emotional experience.

So I swam with my journal and an open heart. I found the little girl that started apologizing for her feelings, for her boundaries, and for her desires. The little girl that apologized for wanting to stay still and not be divided—for wanting a life other than the chaotic one she bounced between, and for the little girl that was always sorry for wanting to be in two places at one time. As an adult, I see she had NOTHING to be sorry for—that her longing to be held and contained under one roof with the people she loved the most while pushing the intruders out, was her desire to eradicate the pain and mend all the suffering. She was not bad or wrong or mean. I gathered her up in my mind's eye and let her know that her feelings were valid and that from now on, I wouldn’t apologize unless I was truly sorry.

In my psychotherapy practice, I see clients who apologize for the space they take up by endlessly striving to be smaller despite the damaging effects. My heart hurts for them when they apologize for their tears, “I’m so sorry, I should be over this by now. I don’t even know why I’m crying.”

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I get curious with them, "Who gave you the message your feelings were too much and needed to be suppressed and shoved down into a deep cavity??” Often our early training is to smile, be pleasant and cooperative, to stay in the good graces of the people we love. A client once told me that if she’s “good” she decreases the chance of people leaving her, much like her dad did when she was a child.

What if we were willing to catch ourselves the next time we apologize and ask, “Am I really sorry? And if so, what am I sorry for exactly?” If the apology is warranted, fantastic, but if it’s for being you, for having feelings, for taking up space, for protecting yourself, and having boundaries, then retract the apology.

For those of us who’ve struggled with an eating disorder, our desire to please and seek approval is off the charts. We exhaust ourselves in a futile attempt to keep everyone happy, never willing to disappoint anyone out of fear. Well guess what, that’s an impossible task and comes with a high price. I’m urging you to be in the work of being nonapologetic, and viewing this stance as being a badass in the world, not a failure.

The hard part when we stop apologizing, when we set limits, when we say no, is that it requires us to sit in the discomfort that we’ve avoided for so long. This is risky business, no doubt! “But what if they won’t like me anymore? What if they’ll be mad at me? What if I lose the relationship?”

I once heard one of my favorite author’s, Elizabeth Gilbert, say that the very thing we fear about saying no may come true. People might in fact, not like you anymore, and guess what, that’s compelling information; that means we were only liked by them if we were doing what they wanted. Screw that! But your people, the people that love and respect you, will say, “That sucks, but I totally get it. Good for you for knowing your limits.” And if they’re really honest, they’ll tell you that they admire you for being bold enough to say no.

So, my people pleasing clan, let’s unite in the mission to ban apologies unless we believe they're warranted. Let’s own our feelings, limits, and truths. Each day as I creep up on my fortieth birthday (how the hell did that happen?) I’m establishing deeper roots in this practice. I'm clearer now that I can't please my children, husband, extended family, friends, neighbors, and every person who wants a piece of me from the outside world all the time, unless of course, I want to lose my mind and end up in a psych ward with a major episode of PPD (People Pleasing Depletion). I’m ok with not mastering this skill and have even cozied up to the idea that I have a lifetime to work on it.

Let me know what’s up for you! Are you a chronic apologizer? Are you willing to lay it down? Share your comments below…I’m cheering you on!

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