How many times would you say you apologize in any given week? If you’re like many working moms, the answer is waaaaay too many, and you might be unaware you’re doing it.
When I interviewed working moms around the country for my book I Love Mondays: And Other Confessions from Devoted Working Moms, women listed all sorts of scenarios that left them saying sorry: Not having time to chaperone their child’s class field trip; being unwilling to attend a meeting so they could go to their child’s recital; being unable to track down their child’s last annual physical for the camp nurse. On it goes … and many working moms apologize by default, hoping it will ease the stress.
But here’s the rub: When we apologize repeatedly for things we didn’t do, we send a message to others that we’re to be blamed. Worse, we’re modeling for our kids that we should apologize even when we did nothing wrong. So, here are a few quick ways to reign them in.
Track your sorries
The first step is realizing how much you are actually doing it. If you’re not sure but suspect that you might be on overload, follow the advice of clinical psychologist Janet L. Wolfe, Ph.D. and log your apologies.
For one week, write down each time an “I’m sorry” pops out of your mouth, what led to it and how you were feeling at the time.
Next, try to find out what your patterns are: Do you apologize when you’re nervous? Overtired? Feeling guilty for upsetting someone? Megan, a 38-year-old divorce attorney and mom to a 7-year-old, says, “I realized after paying careful attention that I apologize if I’m rushing and feel like I have to fix things quickly — not because I did something wrong.”
Once you know your trigger, you can slow yourself down in those situations and pay attention to what whether you’re just throwing an apology out of habit or because it’s warranted.
Show compassion without apologizing
OK, you caught yourself on the brink of apologizing but this is your chance to change things. What do you do in the moment where you’re triggered? Suggests parenting expert and therapist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., “When you realize you’re on the verge of saying “I’m sorry,” stop and take a deep breath (inhale until that breath reaches your heart before you exhale).
Then, take a moment to consider whether you are doing anything wrong and whether apologizing is appropriate for the situation. Is it really bad behavior that you were late to the staff meeting because your child was feeling nauseous after breakfast? Or that you can’t volunteer at the class fair because you have to present a paper? Most of us would agree these are stressful situations, but not reasons to ask for forgiveness. Instead, express compassion (“I see you’re upset and wish I could be at the fair — me too”) without saying you’re sorry.
State your boundaries beforehand
Many of us over-apologize because we haven’t made it clear to our supervisor, client, or staff in what conditions we’ll be putting family matters ahead of work. Hey, we didn’t know until we were in the moment, right?
Well, actually, if we pay attention to it, we can come up with the general themes (illness, tournaments, etc.) that will almost always trump work obligations; then we prep whoever needs to know at work.
If, for example, you will always leave early when your child is performing in a play, let the person know and spell out how you’ll handle work left undone.
For example, say to co-workers, “I can’t work on our report next week because I’ll be attending my daughter’s play, but I can stay late the night before or after to make sure we meet our deadlines.” That way, you’re contributing fairly without apologizing for something you didn’t do wrong.
And if you spew out an unwarranted apology once in a while out of habit? No worries — forgive yourself immediately and keep going. The whole point of this is to go easier on ourselves; give yourself a pat on the back for all the good efforts you’re making.
Michelle Cove is the author of I Love Mondays: And Other Confessions from Devoted Working Moms (Seal Press, 2012), and Seeking Happily Ever After: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Being Single Without Losing Your Mind, which is based on her award-winning documentary, Seeking Happily Ever After (Lionsgate, 2010). She is also the co-author of the national bestseller I’m Not Mad, I just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict, and the editor of 614: the HBI ezine, an online magazine that explores hot topics for Jewish women. She is currently in production on her documentary One and Only about only children, and writes about her life at The Cove and on The Huffington Post.