LOUISE O'NEILL: When you’re apologising for apologising, then you know you have a serious problem

After a recent break-up where I had my heart broken for the first time, I sat in front of my therapist and sobbed solidly for an hour. 

She looked slightly shell-shocked which was to be expected as I had spent the previous three years insisting in our sessions that I didn’t ‘do’ crying. Or relationships. Or feelings.

“I’m what some might call a sociopath,” I would tell her in an attempt to break her unwaveringly calm countenance. It never worked, in case you’re wondering.

After managing to choke out a few words — Whyyyy won’t he love me? What’s wrong with meeeee? etc.— I wiped my blackened face clean (wearing mascara to therapy is such a rookie mistake) and waited for her response.

“Well,” she said after an uncomfortably long silence, “I think this is all very positive. And I’m delighted that you didn’t apologise. This time.”

You see, usually our sessions go a little something like this.

Me: I’m sorry I’m early/late.

Her: No problem.

Me: I’m just going to take some water here, sorry.

Her: That’s what it’s there for.

Me: (midway through the session) God, I feel like I’m talking about myself a lot, I’m sorry.

Her: What?

Me: I just feel like I’m being really self obsessed right now, I’m sorry.

Her: But.... Louise, who else would you talk about in your therapy session?

Me: You’ve got a good point there, sorry.

Her: You say sorry a lot, are you aware of that?

Me: Do I? Shit, sorry.

When you’re apologising for apologising, then you know you have a serious problem.

She’s not the first person to bring this to my attention.

When I was a child, my father told me once — after I begged forgiveness for the horrific crime of being caught reading my book when he walked in to the kitchen and he laughed at me — that by constantly apologising, I was devaluing the word. 

“Words have meaning,” he told me, “and you have to respect that. Be true to your word. If you say you’ll do something, you have to honour that. And only say sorry if you truly mean it. It’s not something to be thrown away lightly.”

It was good advice, and like much of his good advice, it was entirely wasted on me for years.

I spent my adolescence and my twenties apologising.

I couldn’t bear for anyone to be annoyed or displeased with me so I would immediately fall to the floor with remorse, my own self respect an easy price to pay to ease my anxiety at the thought of an angry confrontation.

‘Sorry’ became almost interchangeable with ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’, until eventually it turned into the most commonly used word in my daily life.

Really what I was saying was - I’m sorry that I’m not thin enough.

I’m sorry that I’m not pretty enough.

I’m sorry I’m not successful enough.

I’m sorry I’m not clever or funny enough.

I’m sorry that I’m annoying you.

I’m sorry that I need something from you.

I’m sorry that I’m not worthy enough. I’m sorry I’m not good enough.

I’m sorry that I’m not enough.

I’m sorry that I exist.

While the motivations might be different, I have noticed that this obsession with apologising isn’t unique to my younger self, and when more closely examined, it does seem to be more prevalent amongst women.

I don’t see men attempting to atone for their mere existence in the way many women do.

I’ve noticed in work emails that women who contact me will always start off by saying something along the lines ‘I’m sorry to bother you with this but...’; whereas the emails from men are much more self assured.

They never apologise for taking up my time, for asking me for a favour, for requesting that I help them out in some way. The emails from men are forthright about what they want from me and often, there is an element of expectation.

They do not imagine that I will refuse them. 

In contrast, an email from a woman will end with something like, “but don’t feel obliged! Only do it if you have time and if it suits you, I’m so sorry to even ask!”

It’s not surprising, I guess, when you consider how differently men and women are reared.

Men are taught to be determined, to fight for what they want, to refuse to take no for an answer.

Women are socially conditioned to be gentle, to be the peacemakers, to sacrifice their own needs for the sake of others.

Attributes that men have been encouraged to develop from an early age such as competitiveness and authoritativeness are considered much more valuable in our culture, particularly in a working environment, and men who display these traits are applauded for doing so. (Women who follow suit are labelled ‘ballbusters’ and ‘aggressive’.)

It’s such a cliché to say that this is a man’s world but it’s difficult to deny that our society has been designed to protect and promote men at the cost of others. 

Well, white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied men, and any of us to fail to fall into those categories are automatically penalised.

We — the women, the gay people, the transpeople, the people of colour, the people with disabilities — have to find a way of living, no existing, within this world that is intrinsically hostile to us.

We are made to feel unwelcome and so we apologise.

We say sorry, over and over again, so that we will be allowed to stay.

By saying sorry we are waving the white flag, we are promising that we are docile, that we are meek, that we pose no threat to the status quo.

I’m sick of saying sorry.

Because I’m not sorry anymore. I’m not sorry of who I am. I’m not sorry for what I believe in. I’m not sorry that I’m upsetting you with my outspokenness and my, gasp, opinions.

This is our world too. And y’all better learn to share.


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