We socialize girls in our culture to over-apologize, and it needs to stop.
I’m not talking about the “I did something wrong, and I am sorry” version of a true, healthy apology. I’m talking about the insidious way we accidentally teach women that it’s only OK for them to have preferences, needs, opinions, and convictions until they become inconvenient or uncomfortable for people around them. Not only is this unrealistic and disrespectful, but the problem is actually something bigger. For many women, this practice has stolen from them the chance to learn to truly and sacrificially love.
You’ll hear it if you listen. Like when a woman in a restaurant has to step around someone’s chair that’s in the aisle: instead of a simple “Excuse me,” she says, “I’m sorry. Can I slip by you? So sorry.” As though she’s the one being rude for needing a clear path to the bathroom.
There’s a woman in a meeting at work, and she’d like to add some important information to the discussion. She says, “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure you have considered the data from the latest report I have.” Wait…she’s sorry she has something valuable to contribute?!
This language gives away something that researchers have discovered as well. There are a variety of sociological studies that acknowledge a subtle cultural communication to women that it is their job to be pliable around the preferences and needs of others to the constant detriment of their own.
We have told women (probably mostly accidentally) that it’s a burden to deal with who they really are or what they really need. In the event they do have real needs or rights, the least they can do is apologize for it!
So we do. Women say sorry ahead of time when someone else (man or woman) has to deal with our full humanity. We have taught our girls to become women who couch basic needs, rights, opinions, and preferences in the more palatable package of an apology.
One might argue that this habit actually helps make women the more humble gender, but I would disagree. Philippians 2 does say, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” So isn’t it good what women do? The Bible makes it clear that love is sacrificial, like in Ephesians 5:1-3; “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
So shouldn’t we really just high-five the women around us and conclude that women are just better at giving themselves up on behalf of others? Case closed? Isn’t that exactly what I’m saying women do?
Well, sort of. But with God, it’s the condition of the heart (not the external behavior) that truly matters.
I see many women do amazingly selfless acts. I also believe it’s possible to be made weaker in loving others while doing it. The evidence is found in the build-up of resentment and bitterness I encounter in so many women. Bitterness and resentment for supposed acts of love told me something weird was going on. Love is done willingly. Joyfully. Love never seeds bitterness in a heart.
Yet I hear years of bitterness in the stories of moms who hit a wall caring for their kids while ignoring all their own needs. I hear it in the stories of women at work who feel disrespected and passed over. I hear it in tiny ways in the bang-your-head against-the-wall-conversations where no woman in a group of friends will even say where she really wants to go eat and pretty soon can’t even remember what she actually prefers anymore! (“I don’t care. Wherever you want. No, I don’t care, wherever you want. I’m sorry I can’t think of anywhere to go.”) Someone, please just breakthrough and say, “Tacos. Get in the car.”
Our socializing of women steal from them the opportunity and empowerment to decide to love and instead thrusts on them the external behavior of trying not to be a burden to the people around them. These two things can look very much the same. Some of us may not even know the difference ourselves without some self-reflection and an honest assessment of our hearts.
Love fully acknowledges all our human needs and rights, and then love actually decides to joyfully set those aside to prefer someone else in our own place. ‘Being agreeable’ might feign real love for a while, but the bitterness build-up will give it away every time.
Real love is a bold, clear choice—not the learned pliability of feeling like an inconvenience to others or shoving your own needs in a drawer. Love looks at someone else’s need and says, “I’m willing to put myself second. I get to love you by giving up my own rights. And I’m also free not to.”
To avoid the build-up of bitterness and resentment for always going last, we have to be free to NOT choose this path with people as well. We see times in the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus where he walked away from people or whole towns, where he chose time alone with God over his friends; or dinner with his friends over attending to the crowds who needed healing. We must be free to say yes or say no in order to really love. Not every person is ours to love. Not every need is ours to meet. Not every minute is God’s timing. When we aren’t free, it isn’t love.
I’ve noticed this apologizing for ourselves also hurts our ability as women to receive love as well. If I never told my husband or friends what I really needed, I’d be stealing from them the chance to love me by sacrificing for me.
Any tired moms out there that need a night in a hotel room by themselves?!!? Feel like you should apologize for needing rest? Ever say sorry on your way out the door for an evening with friends? Can I get an Amen? Now let me ask you: have you ever said what you actually want, like or need?! Without apologizing.
It’s time to break the cycle, and we are going to with our own daughters, our own friends, and in our own circles of influence. Let’s call each other on it. Let’s question where it’s coming from in our hearts. Let’s make it OK to be free. And let’s not apologize unless we have done something wrong.
But please do it a little better than I did when my daughter came home and told me about her incident on the playground where she apologized to a friend:
Me: “Wait. Stop. What did you apologize for?!”
Her (wide-eyed): “I don’t know, mommy. I guess because Ivy was mad.”
Me: “What was she mad about again?”
Her: “That I like the swings better than the monkey bars.”
Me (annoyed): “That is unacceptable. We do not say sorry just because we like to do something. That is NOT a reason to apologize!”
Her (a little freaked): “OK, Mommy.”
Me (full lecture): “And furthermore… It’s perfectly OK for you to decide you want to give up the swings to play with your friend on the monkey bars but it is NOT OK to say sorry about liking the swings!”
Me: “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Her (unconvincingly): “I think so.”
Me: “I’m saying it’s good to love your friends enough to set aside what you want. But it’s not OK for you to say sorry for liking the swings. Got it?!”
She didn’t. But I hope she will one day. I want to raise my girls to be honest and forthright about who they are and what they want; to fully understand their rights and walk freely in them. AND I want them to know that they can set aside any of that to choose to love, because Jesus has made them free enough to do that—not because they have been taught to be sorry about it.