Podcast episode 19: Why you don’t need to apologise for everything (including your existence)


Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.

I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m a writer and teacher specialising in overthinking and overworrying. Here I share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.


Hello and welcome to episode 19. Today we’re looking at how we can stop apologising for everything when we don’t actually have anything to say sorry for. I know the British are particularly adept at this, I’m British, but we’re not the only ones chucking out sorrys left, right and centre, and it’s about more than simply using the wrong word.  

When we have something to truly apologise for, when we really mean the word ‘sorry’, it can feel quite a difficult word to say. And yet we can throw this word around so easily in everyday life, saying sorry for the tiniest thing and when we don’t actually have anything to apologise for. 

Here are a few examples of what I mean: 

When you want to get past someone blocking your way: "Sorry, can I squeeze by please?"

When you need to get someone's attention: “Sorry, um, excuse me…”

When you want help in a shop: "Sorry, can I just ask…"

When you arrive early to meet a friend and the other person is already there: "I'm so sorry to keep you waiting".

When someone bumps into you: “Sorry, are you okay?”

Sound familiar?

All of these example situations have something in common – an apology is neither necessary nor expected. There is nothing in these situations that suggests you've done something wrong and need to make amends. 

There is nothing wrong in wanting to walk along a path or to ask someone a question, so what is there to apologise for? When you want to attract someone’s attention, in a polite and friendly manner of course, a simple 'hello' before making your request makes more sense.

With the example of the person you’re meeting, because they’re even earlier than you, you adopt the role of the late person, even though you’re not. What you’re really doing is apologising for not being as early to the meeting as her, when neither of you has done anything wrong!

And why do we apologise for another person’s actions, such as their bumping into you? That makes no sense! And yet so many of us do it.

So what is this all about, why are we apologising when we don’t need to and does it really matter anyway?

Well, let’s look a bit closer. Saying 'sorry' isn't the same as saying something neutral like 'hello'. ‘Sorry’ is an apology. It's an admission that you're in the wrong. By using the word 'sorry' you aren't simply getting a person's attention, you're apologising for getting their attention and that’s the crucial difference. Saying sorry in this context suggests you’re apologising for speaking up, for taking up space. You're telling the other person that you're wrong to be there, in that place, asking for attention when, in fact, you have nothing to apologise for. 

When someone apologises the standard response is to accept their apology and forgive them. So, in the everyday example situations I mentioned earlier, what role does forgiveness have? What do you need to be forgiven for? For walking along a path, for asking a question, for being bumped into, for being you? 

Perhaps you don't feel like you’re apologising when you use ‘sorry’ in these kinds of circumstances. It's just a word that you habitually use to politely get someone's attention, you know you’ve nothing to be sorry for. 

So if an apology is not your intention why use an apologetic word? 

Although you don't feel sorry for what you're saying or doing (and there's no reason why you would) the person on the other end of your ‘sorry’ doesn't know that and they would understandably believe you to be apologising to them. We represent ourselves to others in several ways and the language we use is a key part of communicating who we are. By being mindful of the words we use we not only reduce the likelihood of being misunderstood by others but we also ensure that we represent ourselves in the world as we truly are.  

So, what words can you use instead of sorry? How about 'thank you'.

Let me give you an example. You've had a testing and tiring day and you’re letting off steam to a friend. It could be that you’re in the middle of a big project at work or your kids are pushing all of your buttons, whatever challenges you’re facing you’re venting it all to your friend. And they've listened, they’re offered you sympathy and they’ve been really supportive. So in return you apologise for moaning on and being so negative. 

We all have challenges and tough days where we need to share how we feel with an understanding friend. So is this a bad thing to do? Are we wrong to share how we're feeling? Is this a situation where we do have something to apologise for? What if, instead of apologising to the friend, we thank them for listening to us?

As caring friends that's what we do for each other, we listen and give whatever support we can. When you help a friend you don't do it expecting to be thanked and you certainly don't do it expecting to be apologised to. Being appreciated and thanked for being a supportive friend makes you feel glad that you could be there for them, it gives you a little warm glow inside. But when your friend apologises to you for kindness you’ve given so freely it has quite a different effect. It can make you feel as though you’ve failed to help them, your attempts to comfort and support your friend fell short and they're just as stressed out as if they'd never opened up to you. The result is your friend feels guilty for what they perceive as moaning and you feel bad that you haven’t been able to help your friend. 

Now, imagine the same scenario but swap the word 'sorry' for the word 'thanks'. So, as the person who’s offloading about their nightmare day, you thank your friend for listening to you and for being supportive. How does that feel? You recognise that you have a good friend and you’re grateful that you can share how you feel and let off steam with someone who’s on your side. And your friend who’s been patiently listening feels glad that she could be there for you and help you deal with your challenges. Swapping those words creates a different atmosphere and feeling in both of you.

Okay, let’s use another example: you realise you’re late to reply to an email, you meant to reply straight away but somehow it slipped your mind and a few days have passed. You want to acknowledge that the recipient may have been waiting for your email and you don’t want to be rude by pretending that several days haven’t passed by. So you can choose to apologise for being slow to reply or you can thank them for their patience in waiting for your email. Both suggestions acknowledge the delay but by apologising you start the conversation negatively whereas by thanking them you begin the email with a more positive tone.

These are just two examples, there are plenty more ordinary occasions where you can swap sorry for thanks and change the dynamic of the conversation.

At the heart of this habit of peppering your everyday conversation with sorry is an apology for being in the world, for taking up space, for being you. 

Each one of us has as much right as the next person to be heard and seen. You are allowed to speak up, to feel what you're feeling, to express yourself, to take up space in the world. Of course you want to be kind, considerate and compassionate to those around you and you can be all of those things. 

You can get a person’s attention with a smile and a friendly 'hello' before making your request. You can thank someone for listening, for their support, for being your friend. You can acknowledge another person’s expectations with appreciation rather than apology.

We all have times when the right thing to do is to say sorry. So when you feel you want or need to make amends apologise sincerely, from the heart, and take any forgiveness offered graciously. 

Apologies are for when something wrong has been said or done, not for simply being the thoughtful, considerate, caring person you are. There is no need for you to say sorry for taking up space and for being you.

I’d love to hear what in this episode has struck a chord with you so do send me  an email to gabrielle@gabrielletreanor.com. 

Thank you for joining me for Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers. You can find the show notes and other episodes at gabrielletreanor.com/podcast. 

If you’d like to build your resilience, feel more optimistic, spend less time overthinking and more time enjoying what’s already in your life, by creating your own daily gratitude practice, take a look at A Thankful Heart, my three-week e-course that’s available to start whenever you are. Go to gabrielletreanor.com/courses to find all the information and join. 

You can also share photos of the joyful moments in your day with me on Instagram with  hashtag savouringhappiness and I’m @gabrielletreanor.

Thanks again for listening, until next time, lovely people.