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I Stopped Saying 'Sorry' at Work — and Here's What Happened

I Stopped Saying 'Sorry' at Work — and Here's What Happened

As a kid, I always thought that if I apologized for an action, even one that wasn’t my fault, it would somehow diffuse the situation and make everyone happier. It became such a force of habit that I hardly noticed when I said it.

Someone bumped in to me on the street spilling my ice cream? “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking.” A classmate got in trouble for losing a book? “I’m so sorry that happened.” Why I was taking on the responsibility of making everyone happier did not really dawn on me until much later.

This apology addiction continued well into adulthood as I spent the early part of my career apologizing. As a lawyer in private practice, I was beholden to more senior attorneys, who were beholden to clients. Apologies galore! Then, when I went the non-profit route in consumer protection, there were apologies mixed in to daily conversations, with my supervisors, our constituents, and pretty much everyone under the sun. Somehow, I believed that a situation could not possibly be rectified until I apologized for it. What an unbearable burden!

Years later, when I started my own business, this need to be liked even by people who were directly paying for my services became a serious issue. In my first year of practice, an old college friend hired me to help her find a new job. When I was discussing my fees, I told her my rates but apologized immediately and said she could pay what she wanted considering our friendship. “What?! Why would I do that, Elana? I should and will pay you your rate.” Record scratch. I realized how I was devaluing my work and myself by apologizing for asking to be compensated properly. How could I possibly help other women feel confident in their own abilities if I didn’t feel confident in mine?

This perspective shift helped immensely as I began to counsel professional women through career transitions. Most acutely, I see it when clients struggle to negotiate offers or request promotions. The fear of being perceived as aggressive or too threatening runs deep and, unfortunately, counter to professional growth. The desire for approval, mixed with a dose of imposter syndrome, prevents many women from going after what they want and demanding their rightful due.

When people ask about my services now, I no longer pause before stating my rates. If someone can’t afford them and I feel I have something to offer, then accommodations can be made. But, I don’t and won’t apologize for wanting to be paid.

Take a random day and count how many times the phrase “I’m sorry” exits your lips, particularly in the workplace. I bet you will be shocked. Then, consider whether an apology was warranted in each of those circumstances or whether it was simply a reactive way of mitigating conflict or unnecessarily absorbing the blame. Yes, it might feel awkward at first and yes, you might need to change your approach and your vocabulary to more appropriately address the situation. You may also start noticing that your world is filled with chronic apologizers. Be unapologetic about telling others to stop the unnecessary apologizing.


Elana Konstant via Fairygodboss

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Lianna Gomori Ruben

Elana, thank you for this article. I like how you examine reactive apologizing as a method to "diffuse the situation and make everyone happier". I think that this burden has been disproportionately placed on women - to smooth bumps, to provide comfort, reassurance, and relief for discomfort we often have nothing to do with, and certainly owe no responsibility to take on. After reading your article, I'm paying extra close attention to when I feel the urge to say something to diffuse an uncomfortable situation or reassure someone when it really isn't my repsonsibility to do so. And in fact, its a disservice to others if we take on their discomfort - they gain the most from figuring out how to soothe it themselves.

December 3, 2017

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Barbara Kaplan

Like so many of the conversations we women carry around in our heads, this one is especially noteworthy. This is a great post for helping us turn off our "I'm sorry" instinctive reaction. We sound different, come across differently and feel different when we fire that inner critic. Thank you, Elana Konstant!

November 13, 2017

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