In my essay on Signs of Insecurity, I wrote the following, here paraphrased:
The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.
Equally, answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice betrays uncertainty. The name given to the practice is “upspeak.”
The problem with these behaviors is that they telegraph vulnerability to those who would take advantage of you. Bullies are good at “reading” your actions if you begin waving a white flag. Otherwise they aren’t that smart.
Social interactions can be a kind of test, true enough. Even when not intended, lots of questions about you are being tentatively answered by the ones who care to pay attention, though not everyone does so until we give them reason to.
Among those questions:
- Is he intelligent?
- Does she like me?
- Do we share interests?
- Am I making a proper impression?
- Is this individual naïve or street smart — too trusting for his own good?
- And only sometimes: can I take advantage of him or her?
Note the presence of questions your conversation partner is asking about himself, as well.
The last two of the items listed are the ones offering a narcissist, a bully, or a sociopath the opportunity to bend you to his will. Most of us don’t wish to be thought of as pushovers in any sense. The gaze of someone strong-willed can make the insecure cower — turn the belly to jelly. He is defeated already. Fearing the unproven strength of the other, a fetal position is taken, as if to say, “Please don’t hurt me! I surrender. I won’t resist.” Now he has you. The “kick-me” sign on your bottom is evident, if invisible.
We all set our own price, put a sticker on ourselves that says, “Here is what I am worth.” Everyone is afraid of something, perhaps many things, but advertising the cheapness of your purchase price — in the hope of an unmade promise of safety — is not advisable. Your self-offering as a sacrificial lamb comes without a guarantee except the one you give.
The assumption is that if we apologize in advance — for who we think we are, for less than perfect language, or lack of knowledge — then criticism, being yelled at, or challenged will be avoided. Wrong.
First, you are overestimating the chances of severe reproof. Second, by admitting your flaws unasked, you state, in effect, “Keep on the lookout for my foolishness, ignorance, and weakness.” Without this — trust me — most won’t recognize any such inadequacies, imagined or real.
While we are being evaluated —if we are being evaluated — the judges are looking for big signs, not small ones: the kinds of markers you can’t miss even at a distance, like the huge letters on Trump Tower in Chicago. Regular people don’t use instant replay. They aren’t equipped with a slow-motion, zoom-in button, at least not yet. The person facing you cannot recognize a bit of perspiration or hear a slight tremulousness. When you identify yourself as insecure, however, he doesn’t need an interpreter with a PhD. in clinical psychology. You have told him straight out. You may as well raise your hand or request a spotlight. You gave away your power for pocket-money. To paraphrase Emerson, instead of saying, “I am,” you are saying, “I am not.”
In the title to this essay I suggested an alternative, a way to avoid quick psychological exposure. It is both simple and difficult. One needn’t possess heroic self-confidence to do what I’m about to advise.
You must be quiet.
Don’t kneel and you won’t need to get off the floor.
Practice (in your head) stuffing the viperous, reflexive, unrequested apology when the serpent tries to escape your throat. The creature can be tamed. The more you do it, the better you get. Before too long people will forget all or much of what you previously revealed to them about your insecurity. Break the routine. Especially among those who don’t know you, more respect will be offered.
Did I hear you say, “I can’t”? Ask yourself whether your strategy of anticipatory self-criticism is working. “Maybe I’d be treated worse if I didn’t apologize.” Ah, but if your method is a good one, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? The failure of my simple solution might, however, suggest therapy is needed.
Bottom line: don’t invite others to disrespect you by telling them you disrespect yourself.
The photo at the top is a Schademask or Shame Mask. This one comes from Burg Waldburg, Germany. Wearing such masks was a community-instituted punishment once upon a time. The photographer is Andreas Praefeke and the image is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Powerful, insightful stuff, Gerry!
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Thank you, Judy.
So true, so true. I’m just learning that in the last few months. I had an incident happen when I had friends at my home and one persons behavior made the rest of us uncomfortable. I initially apologised to the others because it happened in my home but that was it. It actually was a trigger that caused me anxiety for about five days, I just kept wanting to apologise but I wouldn’t let myself because it wasn’t my behaviour. When I saw my friends the next time they were fine with me. I certainly was someone who apologies to quickly to avoid “getting in trouble”, coming from an abusive childhood has pre disposed me to that. Apologising has been done to reduce the anxiety without looking to see if Im actually responsible for something wrong and it has allowed others to keep putting the blame on me. Alot of therapy has been needed to get me to this point. 🌤😃. Im watching with baited breath for the results of the American Election on tuesday, should be interesting.
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Good for you, Claire. Keep going and keep growing. Yes, we live in interesting times, but I wish there were a bit less interesting.
As British colonial subjects we were raised to be polite towards each other, especially those in senior positions. The use of the words good morning, thank you, please, excuse me, and sorry became second nature. Therefore, to say “I’m sorry” is not a sign of weakness but a form of courteous human interaction.
Since moving to the USA, I’ve had to “[b]reak the routine. Especially among those who don’t know [me], [for] more respect,” as you’ve recommended.
Language is an essential part of each culture. I’ve had to learn that through trial and error. Thanks for shedding light on this issue.
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Enlightening to me, Rosaliene. I don’t mean at all to suggest we should be rude, and I like your description of the civility you found in at least one of your “worlds.” It sounds, however, that your politeness was motivated by custom and kindness. I wouldn’t discourage that in anyone, but some of us are sufficiently insecure that we try to inoculate ourselves against expected disapproval. No one profits from that, with the possible exception of those who see all of life as a zero-sum game and want to win over others at all costs. Thank you, too, then, for shedding some light from a perspective I haven’t encountered at first hand.
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Great essay — I’m sorry I don’t always keep up with these every week … 😉
Thanks, Steven. Good to hear from you. Hope you are doing well.
how can sorry have the same meaning…sorry can you tell me the time, sorry I ate the last cupcake, sorry to hear about the death of your dad, sorry I squished your daisies, sorry for making you cry, sorry for laughing at your words, sorry I fucked up your childhood, sorry you were born, sorry about the bad grammar in my suicide note, sorry about the blood on the walls and the carpet…
I’m sorry about the false and fake sorries, there are too many of your sorries, but they are not mine
here are some of the sorries I want to hear…sorry I mistook your angry for your fear, your attack for your defend, your fuck you for your hear me, your loudness for your gentle, your flippant for your hugg me, your silence for your hold me, your forwardness for your courage
sorry has become a fake and worthless currency, like the word love it has become a custard gravy to cover up what we cannot or will not disclose of our innermost feelings – in my therapy journey it is a banned word in my safe space of a therapist’s office – rather I am challenged to get out the emotional paint stripper and look beyond what sorry is covering up and express that instead – maybe all of us should bin the sorry excuse of a word “sorry” and be brave enough to be who we are whether other people like that/accept that or not
Dr G your article pissed me off because it reminds me that I cannot use sorry as my “get out of jail free” card, an excuse to make things just go away, to use “sorry” as a safety blanket, that I have to stand Willow tree tall and keep my mouth shut and let the person who is truly to blame carry the shit can or dig down to foundation level and reason out why a “sorry” is needed in the first place – thanks Dr G for the reality check 🙂
You are welcome, Rosie. And thanks for riffing on the word “sorry.” As you say, the word is too often too much, too often too little — both a default tendency for inappropriate and unnecessary apologies on the one side and for inadequate “fake” apologies on the other. I’m pretty sure you will “stand tall.”