I met a man who kept apologizing.
He apologized for arriving two minutes late. He apologized for the gift he brought, which he declared — while handing it to me — too cheap.
He apologized for his clothes, for where we went, for the regional crime rate and the weather.
He apologized while ordering in a café, then again when handed his drink. Pouring milk, he apologized.
We’d just met, but I knew already: This man had low self-esteem.
His compulsive apologies said so.
I’ve wrestled with self-hatred all my life. I too have chronically apologized. To my parents, for every grade lower than A and for the bedroom they said I never kept neat enough. To friends, for not being funny enough often enough and for whatever word or glance they mistook for disloyalty.
I’ve said “sorry” to bored bank tellers and to strangers who stepped on my feet. I’ve said it more times than I’ve said “hello.”
This is one of many self-hatred habits I can spot from miles away. Each of them signals deep unhappiness and strong — but wrong — beliefs.
We can work toward uprooting them — in ourselves and in those we love — by pausing as often as we can to confront them, questioning the motivations driving them. These habits happen for a single reason: because we are hypnotized into viewing the world through filters labeled I am unworthy and Punish me.
• Overpraising. We are the ones who dispense compliments like liquid from a sprinkler system, wildly praising the performances of every coworker, driver and server, detailing the stellar glories of their every outfit, haircut, cocktail, speech.
Wild praise is fine when fueled by spontaneous honesty. But when it’s calculated, when it is a desperate attempt to overcompensate for what we think is our obvious awfulness, it becomes false — even when its actual words are true.
The next time we’re about to give a compliment, let’s ponder: Is it genuine? For whose sake, mainly — mine or the recipient’s — would I offer these words? If I was not so desperate to seem likeable, what would I say?
• Oversharing. Spilling our guts, narrating our life stories to near- or actual strangers uninvited, in less-than-appropriate surroundings: We are typically accused of giving “too much information” too often, too easily, too soon.
Sometimes we overshare because we exist in performance mode, because we grew up being treated like jesters or storytellers who could interest others only by turning our every thought and statement into hilarious standup shticks or dazzling narratives.
Sometimes we overshare because our boundaries have been trampled too many times by those who treated every conversation as interrogation: Like prisoners of war, we spurt steady streams of personal details which we falsely imagine everyone demands of us.
Sometimes we overshare because we believe that we must tell everyone our “badness backstories”: I’m running late because I’m always late. I missed my own bar mitzvah. Mom was furious. My ex always bought me alarm clocks.
And sometimes we overshare because we realize deep down that by retelling our stories, we might someday understand — and our hearers might helpfully confirm — that we were tricked, that we aren’t really bad, that stuff was done to us.
When we hear ourselves oversharing, let’s think of our words and stories as private possessions: scars or jewels. Why would we give them to this audience right now? What do we hope to receive in exchange?
• Over-apology. Announcing not just our actual missteps and mistakes but those we think others might think we’ve made, we blurt “sorry” reflexively because we are convinced that whatever we do is somehow wrong.
With each insta-apology, we rush to tell the world: Yes, I know how inferior I am, and not for a split-second must others believe that anything could be anyone’s fault but mine.
Earnest apologies manifest courageous humility, humanity and grace. Compulsive ones manifest only fear. The next time we apologize — it slips out, just like that — let’s assess our latest alleged crime. Did we really hurt anyone? When we beg others for forgiveness, are we really pleading for permission to exist?