WHY Are We Apologizing??
Pointless Guilt & Feelings of Inferiority
Undermine Healthy Living
I do it. The majority of women, of ALL ages, do it, too. We apologize, feel ashamed, and express guilt about things that absolutely do not warrant such reactions. I’ve seen it in my lifetime collection of journals. I’ve heard it from nearly a decades’ worth of clients. Most heart wrenching, I’ve witnessed these feelings in my daughter and her female peers who are now just entering their 20s. (This group probably falls hardest to self-judgment, and no wonder, thanks to society's harsh expectations.)
You can probably already guess most of the list I’m about to make. I believe we women instinctively KNOW when we’re hurtling into the traps listed below—and likely even resent them. But cultural conditioning can be a whirlpool that pins us into a cycle of negative self-talk. The current is strong and the causes are incredibly complex. So, I won’t try to play social scientist here. But I WILL mention some themes, common pitfalls, that we women often face. Consider the following.
Do you find yourself apologizing...
For body size?
Okay, I’m a health coach/trainer, so perhaps I hear these apologies more than most people do. Often, female clients approach our first meeting with trepidation, immediately expressing shame over their bodies and expecting to be criticized and “set straight.” (I acknowledge these feelings with empathy, and we move on to constructive plans. Most people seem relieved to remember that such thoughts are pretty universal in this American culture and are not criminal.) Because I’ve never been a “skinny” personal trainer, believe me, I’m highly aware and often resentful of the same internal & external pressures. Listen closely to other women and daughters, and you may realize you hear the same harsh self-judgment from them that I do, just less overtly and more veiled. This is a great opportunity to talk openly with women you care about and to support them when these demoralizing thoughts rear up.
Ageism in our society is alive—and I’d say “well”—but "disheartening" seems more accurate. Like most people, I saw this “ism” but didn’t understand it firsthand til I reached my late 40s. (I’m currently 53.) Of course, younger women experience ageism, too, in different ways, when sometimes for example they're unfairly painted as frivolous and less professionally capable. In terms of appearance, middle aged women seem to bear the brunt, and women 65 and older face a ridiculous barrage of assumptions. (Some day, I’ll share my experience of allowing my naturally gray-streaked hair to emerge.) We hear outright apologies when some women say their age aloud, and we witness camouflaged shame when others REFUSE to say theirs. WHY are we so embarrassed? Personally, I try to regularly remind myself that we should all proudly proclaim the number of years we’ve fought misfortune, discovered joy, learned, grown, and been blessed to grace the planet. Don't we want our daughters to feel differently some day? I know I don’t want mine to face these pointless feelings of shame when she’s older.
For food you ate?
It’s truly ironic that we live in a country where we’re expected to be "perfect eaters,” and yet the processed and fast food industries, worth billions, dominate the landscape. Not surprisingly, commercial diet plans also rake in billions. Ever notice that most burger commercials mainly feature men, and most diet commercials women? And, oh, all seem to cast fitness models. How often do you feel awful for what you just ate? How often do you give up on eating “healthily” because you “screwed up?” Again, this pointless pattern only undermines us by demanding unreachable perfection rather than sensible balance.
For mental health?
This a biggie, and a paragraph will never do, but let’s just admit that the Everest-high wall of stigma around mental health, in a country that’s quite obviously buckling under such conditions, pretty much demands that individuals feel shame and offer requisite apologies for not being “whole” enough. Whew, a mouthful! But my point is: If you’re struggling, 1) you’re absolutely not alone, and 2) you’re coping with a HEALTH condition not a shameful indulgence. Would you apologize for ANY other illness? Born in the late 60s and a lifelong sufferer of depression, I’ve grappled with stigma, too. Having a daughter with a mental health condition who works tirelessly to raise awareness woke me up for REAL. We should NOT be apologizing. We should expect legitimate support and high quality treatment.
So, how can we halt the apology train?
Why should we stop it? Well, of course, it’s painful. It also seriously undermines healthy living, locking us into negative patterns and holding us back from nurturing the quality of life each of us deserves. I don’t claim to have muscled my own train to a full stop, but a few things truly help me apply the brakes. Here they are. Maybe they’ll serve you well, too.
Mindfulness—Yep, it’s still trendy-sounding, but it seems to be sticking around after a decade or so of popularity. Why? It works. Meditation, paying attention to the present moment, and cultivating gratitude are all proven to lower stress. And constantly apologizing and/or feeling somehow inferior is stressful. For me, this has been a life changer.
Journaling—This habit has been my balm since third grade! Taking time to record events, feelings, struggles, and miracles gives a sense of perspective that few other things do. In terms of self-judgment, it sheds light on repeated patterns. Seeing opens the door to change.
Like-minded support—One thing our society is sadly fostering turns out to be loneliness (only further deepened by the ongoing COVID pandemic). A great way to lessen self-criticism is to talk with supportive friends or professionals who really "get it."
CBT techniques—Research “thought distortions” online, if you want some concrete tools to help dispel negative thoughts. Is what you just thought an exaggeration, a black-and-white assertion, a blanket declaration, or a “should” statement? Categorizing thoughts makes them way less personal by letting us see we ALL tend to fall into these mud pits.
Empathetic self-talk—Here’s a question for you, which years ago quelled a ton of my own negative self-chatter: Would you say THAT to your kid?? Or to a best friend?? Then why are you saying it to you? That’ll hush the kettle pretty quickly. (I just made that expression up, unless Dr. Phil said it first.)
Permission to make u-turns—Who are we apologizing to in regard to these things, anyway? There are times when we need to express regret to others but not when it comes to our body size, mental health, and the like. Give yourself permission to make u-turns in terms of healthy habits, etc, with NO explanation needed to anyone else but those you choose. You boldly do you, girlfriend.
Power of No—Finally, as women, we’ve heard about the important self-preservation that comes from saying no to responsibilities rather than a guilty yes to everything. But have you ever thought of this in terms of thoughts and self-talk? You have a right to say NO to... needlessly apologizing (though it takes time to eventually stop the urge); to detrimental thoughts; and to others’ comments & assumptions. Most important, we have the right to say no to giving up and giving in. Our lives are too valuable, too impactful, and too beautiful for us to fall for that.