Carrying a toddler in one arm and steering a pushchair with groceries piled high on it with the other, I could swear the maneuvering task was getting trickier by the minute. When suddenly, a man walked out right in front.Nearly tripping over myself I mouthed the word ‘Sorry’, apologizing immediately and almost on reflex for being in his way.
The words came out spontaneously and on impulse. Although the person in front was clearly at fault. As for him, he walked away without so much as a look. Instances like this are not far and few for me. Multiply them over my life time and the number would creep into the thousands if not more.
Apologizing had become a part of my behavior, personality and thought process. Through my crucial formative years, behaviors like ‘apologizing’ and ‘saying sorry’ found reinforcement and validation from possibly every corner. It is what good girls did and it is what was expected of them.
I am not in anyway trying to advocate that people should step on other people’s toes, interfere and intrude into their personal space or misbehave and not apologize. If you are at fault, then certainly by all means you should be the one to stand up, apologize for your actions and make appropriate amends.
The behavior I am addressing here is the one that I had inculcated and imbibed within myself. It is the habit of ‘over-apologizing’ even when I was not at fault. Personality traits like ‘being nice’ or ‘saying sorry’ should never be understood to be mutually interchangeable with carrying the personal responsibility of ensuring the happiness of the entire human race on earth. I felt I could apologize even for the space I take up on this planet.
Needless, to say a certain amount of self-retrospection was in order. What I found are conclusions drawn from my own behavior and it is in no way an attempt to attribute it to the entire population.
- Over-apologizing and low self-esteem: My act of apologizing repeatedly was rooted in my low self-esteem. I constantly needed to ‘agree’ in order to enhance my self-worth. Apologizing when I was at fault and when I was not at fault meant carrying double the burden of my actions. It wasn’t that the other feelings of resentment, bitterness and anger did not arise in me. It was just that they were all pent up and bottled up inside of me. The image of what being ‘good’ necessitated acted as a stop cork.
- Fear of confrontation: Though I might have strongly argued that I was not afraid of confrontation, the fact of the matter is that I was extremely afraid of them. In fact, I tried to do all within my capacity to ensure I avoided conflict at any cost. Mostly, this came at the cost of my apology. Someone got my order, wrong. That’s alright. You can’t serve me, I’ll wait. You cut in front of me, that’s OK I’ll go next. And the list is endless.
- Being a pushover: I had no idea when the habit of constantly apologizing and people pleasing had metamorphosed and turned me into being a pushover. Remember the doormat in front of your house. You walk over it a million times without giving it much thought. That is what I had become.
And if the incident mentioned at the outset was the catalyst then a change was in order. And I developed my own plan of action to stop saying ‘Sorry’. The following points are just some of the things that jumped out into the forefront whilst I tried to inculcate certain behaviors and adopt certain positive traits.
- Realizing that I can be good and not apologize at the same time: It was the realization that my being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ did not require the act of incessantly ‘apologizing’. I can be a good person. And my goodness, did not require me to bend backwards and forwards to apologize and cater to the whims and fancies of every person.
- Realizing that I do not have to confront, I can just put my point across firmly: I realized that a ‘confrontation’ or a ‘fight’ was the ultimate expression of frustration and resentment. But, if I could address the issues at the very outset in a firm manner then the need for a fight was automatically negated. Sometimes though, you may need to push for your own corner. People love power and control. And at times you need to actively work at reclaiming your own power from the unwilling hands who refuse to give it back. Your self-worth shall thank you for it.
- Realizing that I cannot please everyone: I am now, not ashamed to say that I was a people-pleaser. I personally took on the responsibility of everyone’s mood and behavior. I realized that my self-worth did not require validation through ‘pleasing’ people at the cost of personal inconvenience. Person at the checkout counter grumpy, ‘it must be me’. Hell, I’d maybe even take the blame if someone’s dog looked downcast on the road! I realized that my emotions are in my control. I cannot control the world and all the emotions in it.
- Learning to say ‘No’: This was perhaps, the most difficult for me to adapt to. Added work load, last minute files, extra work…in short saying ‘Yes’ to anything irrespective of the inconvenience it brought along with itself. I had to learn how to say ‘No’. And no, it wasn’t easier. The habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything was so deeply ingrained in me that it took a lot of effort to actually bring myself to say the words ‘No’ out aloud. Though when I did it was exactly the emotional relief I needed. I was finally in the driving seat!
- Learning to be assertive and stop seeking external approval: I realized though very painfully that my behavior of saying ‘sorry’ and ‘yes’ to everything and every situation was actually rooted in the inner desire to gain the approval of people all around me. When I realized that the approval of people around me did not make or break me, it became easier to become more assertive and firmer. The habit of suppressing your own desires and feelings come at a very high emotional cost. My own journey has shown that it is not worth it.
As with any behavior change it is best to start small and build up gradually and soon you realize that you have completely replaced your earlier detrimental thought processes. I jotted the above points down and worked on them bit by bit each day.
I can’t say that the change was dramatic or implemented overnight. Neither were the changes manifest from the word ‘go’. Rather it was very slow, steady and gradual. At times, in the earlier stages it also made me adopt a sense of ‘false bravado’ behind which I could hide.
But gradually as my stronger self, emerged this temporary facade retreated into oblivion. I may have lost some people along the way, but my life today is much better without the emotional toxicity and the excess baggage of anxiety and negativity they brought to it.
The best part of it is that I am no longer in the passenger seat of my life’s journey. I am sat firmly on the driving seat and have no intention of giving that space up!!
Today, I am raising my children to be good ‘human beings’. But definitely not good ‘pushovers’.