By Jen of The Wishing Well
#Fearless Family Writer
I don’t remember the day I started apologizing for my own existence. I just know that in first grade, I refused to look my teacher in the eye. Days, weeks, months went by before I would meet her eyes. This is just one example of my lifelong struggle with low self confidence.
My knee-jerk reaction to being noticed or making my needs known is to apologize. “I’m sorry.” Along with the “I’m sorry” statements go other statements of low self-respect:
“I’m so bad at…”
“I hate to be a bother, but…”
It also goes along with feelings of guilt and, sometimes, even self-loathing. It’s taken me many years to understand that the “I’m sorry” reflex is a function of people-pleasing. And the people-pleasing cycle needs to stop! It’s one thing to act with kindness and respect for others as well as yourself. It’s another to shape your own feelings and values to match what you think someone else wants to hear. To alter your own reality to match someone else’s.
In a sociology class I learned about “the looking glass self,” where we develop a sense of self based on others’ “judgments” of us. The problem with this is that many judgments are imagined. Sometimes people’s negative reactions to us are crystal clear. But how many times have you curbed your behavior or stopped yourself from saying something because you imagine negative reactions from other people? Or interpreted a strange look on someone’s face and decided, against all reason, that you knew exactly what they were thinking about you and filled in the blanks? And why should our sense of self be based on judgment, rather than love?
The “looking glass self” is related to the idea of positive and negative reinforcement. We’ve all heard a lot about negative reinforcement, such as punishing a child to get them to stop a behavior. But positive reinforcement can be just as destructive. An example I have personal experience with is how women are socialized. As a woman, I have experienced endless positive reinforcement—in the form of smiles, validation, invitations, etc—when I behave in certain ways, such as:
- Smiling a lot, even when I don’t feel like it
- Agreeing with people, even when I don’t agree
- Talked about clothes, hair, men, or shopping, even when I’d rather discuss something more important
- Laughed at sexist jokes, even when I’d rather tell them to cut it out
- And—drum roll please—apologizing for having my own feelings.
Can you see why it would be difficult to speak up for myself? If people smile, laugh, and treat me “nicely” when I behave in these ways, that’s good incentive for me to keep going. I had to become a grown woman to realize that the height of success for a woman is not to be treated this way. It’s to stand up for her own beliefs and feelings—while maintaining respect for the other person—regardless of what their “judgment” might be.
We’ve also been taught that the correct way to show compassion is to apologize. In fact, apologizing just creates more pain! I notice that every time I say “I’m sorry” in response to bad news, people look more uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say in response, because now they feel like they have to comfort you: “That’s okay” or “Thanks, we’ll get through it” instead to talking about how they really feel. That’s because when we apologize in response to bad news—“I’m sorry you’re sick”—the focus has shifted from the person suffering to you. When you say “I’m sorry,” you’re making it about your own feelings rather than theirs!
Instead, I’ve learned to validate people’s feelings: “That’s awful that she has cancer. This must be so hard for you.” And then listen, because when you acknowledge how someone is feeling, they’ll often open up. “Yes, it is awful, it’s been so hard…” Then, listen for their needs and talk about action: “I’m thinking of you during your time of loss,” “Is there anything we can do to help?” Conversations like this with people who are suffering always go better for me.
I’m a big believer in affirmations: statements that validate your self-worth to a point that’s almost uncomfortable. We’re not used to validating ourselves so much! I have two affirmations that I use to get through the “I’m Sorry” blues. In one famous self-help book called You Can Heal Your Life by Louise L. Hay, I came across the first affirmation that changed my life:
I am the power and the authority in my life.
Wow! Doesn’t that make you feel powerful? You are the only one who gets to decide what goes on in your life. Nobody else gets to tell you what your reality looks like. Now, this statement is true of every single human on the planet, so that means we must respect the right of everyone around us to be their own power and authority, just as we claim that power in our own lives.
The second affirmation simply popped into my head one day:
I no longer apologize for reality.
I can’t tell you how many times a day I’m plagued by thoughts of guilt and anxiety. I feel like I’ve upset someone, or am not good enough, or am doing something “wrong.” In other words, I’m apologizing for who I am, and my reality. My affirmations help me face myself head on. If I can be honest about my feelings (bonus if you have a sense of humor!) and say, “Yep, I don’t feel like going out tonight, and that’s not a bad thing,” or “I may not have the perfect resume, but I’m not ashamed,” I feel so much better. And that’s my hope for you: to discover that you don’t have to apologize for who you are.
So hold your head high, and say it with me: “Sorry, Not Sorry!”
Thank you again to Jen for sharing this wonderful story.
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