I am an apology addict. I know that it’s a trope-turned-cliche that women apologize too much, but I’m sorry to say that my propensity for unprompted and effusive contrition puts even your average upspeaking millennial office worker to shame.
Am I calling you on the phone? I’m SORRY to bother you. Am I approaching the customer-service desk where you work specifically to answer questions like the one I need to ask? I’m still SO SORRY to be SUCH A PAIN. Did I — horror of horrors — take longer than fifteen seconds to load my groceries into my stroller? OH MY GOODNESS, I AM SO, SO, SO, SO SORRY. Did my child make any noise whatsoever in public? PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE LET ME TELL YOU HOW SORRY I AM. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
It comes from being terrified of conflict, and in possession of a much larger-than-average shame-o-meter that makes me run crying and hide when subjected to mild criticism or rebuke. It’s been this way my whole life. I’m sure that at some point, someone yelled at 2-year-old me for doing something, and I buried that sense of I-broke-the-rules shame and it turned into a lifetime of anxiety at even the slightest infraction, perceived or real, against rules, mores, laws or customs, formal and unwritten. Oh, did I accidentally tread a toe onto your lawn, sir? PLEASE ALLOW ME TO WEAR THIS HAIR SHIRT FOR TEN YEARS and in the meantime, now you get to withstand a 24-hour nonstop onslaught of penitence. I’M SORRY. I’M SORRY. I’M SO SO SORRY. FORGIVE ME. LIKE ME. PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T BE MAD AT ME. I AM PERFECT.
My ex-boyfriend once said that at the first sign of conflict, I morph into The 24-Hour Apology Machine. “And nobody likes the 24-Hour Apology Machine.” But it’s actually worse than this. Sometimes, I feel so violently badly for doing something so insignificantly wrong that I erupt into what a therapist once diagnosed as a “narcissistic rage,” which is very funny, but actually refers to a type of hyper-perfectionism where I expect myself to be held to a standard of human behavior somewhere beyond perfection. When I fail, which I always will, I believe I deserve violent punishment — and sometimes I mete that punishment out in the form of self-harm. My personal favorite method of self-harm is banging my own head against the wall. It’s something I started when I was a kid, to demonstrate to the people who (I perceived) were yelling at me (i.e. rebuking me mildly) for some sundry child-infraction that I could, and would, hate and punish myself more severely than they could ever dream of. So even though this manifested in violent self-loathing behavior, it actually came from a narcissistic place, because the only reason I would deserve, effectively, to be beaten up, is that I must be perfect. If I think I must be perfect, said the shrink, that means I think I’m somehow capable of being perfect, and thus better than everyone else. Hence: Narcissistic rage.
As you can imagine, this has not been the greatest way to live. My incessant ejaculations of narcissistic rage-filled remorse not only annoy the bejeezus out of my loved ones (oh, shit, guys, they do? I’m so sorry), but they’ve also caused me not a small amount of professional strife. When, for example, a person once accused me of plagiarizing her, I immediately apologized, even though I hadn’t actually done anything wrong; I hadn’t even read the piece I was accused of lifting (methodically, I guess, with more time, effort, care and skill than I ever could muster). Any similarity between her piece and mine (and honestly, they weren’t that similar to begin with) was an unfortunate coincidence — yeah, lady, I stole your “tone,” in a long con I’ve been playing since my first published column at 17. But I apologized anyway, and profusely, because I just felt so bad that I had somehow hurt someone, even by accident. Oh, please don’t be mad at me. I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. I apologized to her in public, and then I sent an even more contrite and effusive message in private, explaining the unfortunate coincidence of our two pieces and begging her forgiveness, while also begging her to keep this communication confidential. Bitch forwarded it to my editor and then demanded I retract my “plagiarized” article. My neurotic, compulsive contrition hadn’t smoothed things over; it had emboldened her to go for blood.
That writer took my apology as a sign of weakness and pounced, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s how the world works in general. I like to think I’m just extremely conscientious and considerate, but after 40 years of simpering terror every time it takes me half a second too long to start after I come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign and someone honks, I’m starting to realize that my default state is to apologize for my existence.
I’m sick of living like this.
So this year, I only made one resolution: To stop apologizing. Unless I’ve actually wronged someone, I will not utter the words “I’m sorry” when I have no business doing so. When I wish things had turned out differently for someone, that’s what I’ll say. When I regret doing something minor, that’s what I’ll say. When some deranged psychopath sics a Twitter mob on me, I won’t say a goddamned thing, and I will just ignore it, and I will most certainly not apologize for existing as a flawed but utterly forgivable individual. To my fellow apology addicts out there, I beseech you: Stop. Free yourselves. Don’t assume the default state is that you (or, if applicable, your small children) are the banes of the world’s existence. Don’t make other people’s mild and utterly unimportant inconvenience your problem. If you need an extra fifteen seconds to load your groceries, take it. If your kid has a tantrum in the middle of Walgreen’s, handle it the best way you know how, and apologize to nobody. Make 2017 the year of no apologies. Don’t be “sorry not sorry” — just don’t be sorry at all.
I’ve already started this, and I’ve got to say it feels pretty damned freeing so far.
To wit: The other day, my husband and I took Fluffy Trouble to toddlers’ open gym at the local gymnastics place.
Fluffy made a beeline for the trampolines, where she then sat her butt down and demanded ONE-TWO-THREE-KABOOM! That’s when I do a seat-drop on the count of three, which double-bounces her about two feet into the air. As every gymnast knows, double-bouncing is the number one no-no of trampolining (because it’s the funnest and awesomest way to jump, which every gymnast also knows). And, sure enough, about twelve Kabooms deep, one of the women on duty came over and said, “EXCUSE ME! We can’t have the ADULTS bouncing.”
Even a month ago, I would have reacted by scooping up my daughter and running sobbing SORRYs the whole way out to the car, never to set foot in Bounce again, as if the shame of it would outlive me. (Think I’m exaggerating? Six months ago, we were in a snooty hotel in Oberlin, OH that wasn’t soundproofed and wasn’t kid-friendly — I was put up there for a conference — and we got a noise complaint because Fluffy was up way later than she should have been and her verbal acuity makes her sound like a 5-year-old and our neighbors were probably like THAT 5-YEAR-OLD KNOWS BETTER THAN TO BE SHOUTING ‘IT’S RAINING’ IN THE SHOWER LIKE A DRUNK PERSON, and I had a full-fledged nervous breakdown about it and sobbed for most of the night and begged my husband to leave the hotel, which he smartly refused to do.)
But it’s 2017, and so here’s what I did instead. I said: “Oh. Okay!”
Then I laughed, backed off the trampoline, and watched as my kid had the time of her life.
And I didn’t give it another thought.