Sorry, not sorry: The link between gender, autism and over-apologizing

Sorry message on a typewriter Getty Images/Carol Yepes
Sorry message on a typewriter Getty Images/Carol Yepes

Freelance writer Lisa Jade Hutchings is someone who habitually apologizes. This means that Hutchings, like millions of other people, tends to say she is sorry even there isn't necessarily a reason for her to feel remorse. Many people do the same, but seemingly can't help it. It's an impulse they can't always control.

Although over-apologizing is rarely discussed as being a symptom of a disability, for someone who over-apologizes, their trait can profoundly impact every area of their life. Apologizing too much can annoy your boss or strain a relationship. People who apologize unnecessarily can be viewed as weak or submissive; even worse, they may be dismissed as manipulative or insincere. When they really apologize for something serious, is it wholehearted or another nervous tic?

As experts explained, over-apologizing is linked to a person's past struggles in social scenarios. When a person apologizes too much, it is usually because they have been hurt in past situations that required strong social skills. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the groups most likely to tend to over-apologize are neurodivergent individuals — that is, people whose brains do not process information in a typical way. Neurodivergent individuals include those with autism, ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, dyslexia and other similar conditions.

Hutchings was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of nine. It was the early 1990s, a time when ADHD was widely misunderstood and often viewed shamefully. But even after getting a diagnosis, Hutchings says the response was to "medicate someone, put them in the corner, and hope they get 'better.'"

"I grew up not understanding myself for much of my life," Hutchings told Salon. "That, coupled with significant trauma, paved the way for me to become a chronic people-pleaser. It was only later in my mid-thirties, when I received my autism diagnosis that I really started to connect the dots" about many of her neurologically atypical behaviors.

In her case, Hutchings emphasized that "I don't feel I tended to apologize or overcompensate because of being neurodivergent, but rather because neither myself nor those around me understood who I was or my internal operating system."

This approach is "how I protected myself," she said. "Thinking back, I have often felt (and still do at times) ashamed of who I was, neurodivergent or not, [and] apologiz[e] to avoid further judgment or harm."

Experts agree that people who constantly feel a need to say they're sorry — whether before a hypothetical offense has been committed or after the fact — often do so as a reaction to past trauma. This is where over-apologizing intersects with neurodiversity: Neurodivergent people are particularly prone to over-apologizing because they are unusually vulnerable to being traumatized due to their poor social skills.

"This can manifest as misreading situations or responding in a manner that can sometimes result in adverse consequences (such as being misread as impolite or abrupt or unkind)," Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, told Salon. "One thing that is essential to remember about neurodivergence is that, unlike antagonistic personality styles where abrupt or impolite statements may be made secondary to entitlement or lack of empathy, for a neurodivergent person the ill-timed or tempo-ed response is not secondary to social antagonism, but to processing issues more often."

Duravsula added that "neurodivergent people who do not have co-occurring antagonistic personality styles will often be quite contrite and apologetic if they are informed that their conduct or words may have hurt someone."

In other words, when neurodiverse people apologize excessively, it is not because of their neurodiversity; it is because of the social consequences that ensue because of their neurodiversity. In general, over-apologizing is a trait that may more broadly indicate other issues with identity and mental health.

"Excessive apologizing is observed in people who may have a propensity to excessive self-monitoring, and we may witness this in social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, anxious/avoidant personality styles and disorders, people who are depressed and prone to excessive self-blame," Durvasula explained. She also said that people will apologize excessively if they suffer from post-traumatic stress or complex trauma, as "part of the fallout of trauma is often to blame the self — and that can be compounded if the world at large also blames the person who experienced the trauma."

This is especially true for people who have been in relationships with antagonistic and narcissistic individuals, and as such "often face interpersonal manipulations such as gaslighting and blame shifting [and] will often blame themselves because of the dynamics of these relationships."

Durvasula is not alone among psychiatric professionals in noticing these patterns among people who over-apologize.

"I agree that for many people [thoughts like] 'I don't know the rules,' 'if people are angry or unhappy, it must be my fault' and deep shame can be factors in apologizing too much," explained Olivia James, a London-based therapist who specializes in trauma and treats high-functioning professionals who struggle with anxiety. After mentioning that she has heard neurodivergent people call into radio phone-in shows and apologize for things they hadn't done wrong, James cited other examples.

"Those who are hypervigilant due to anxiety or trauma are very prone over-apologizing," James wrote to Salon. "Apologizing can function as appeasement, a survival strategy, [telling others] 'I'm not a threat, I mean no harm, please don't attack me.'"

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In particular, James noted that women are conditioned to have this type of response.

"Good girl conditioning is a factor for many women," James explained. "We are taught to take up less space and be less demanding than men. Many women apologize too much." Excessive apologizing can also reflect cultural differences, with James noting that "some cultures have more politeness than others and there is a marked difference between England and the Netherlands, for example. Moving to a different culture can lead to problems with calibration."

Dr. Catherine Lord, a professor of psychiatry and education at UCLA's Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior echoed the intersection between gender and neurodiversity when it comes to apologizing too much. "I think in general women do this much more than men who aren’t neurodivergent," Lord explained in an email.

Lord agreed that autistic people sometimes apologize excessively, observing that it can be "reflexive, we learn to do it when something goes awry, like saying sorry when you bump into a wall. Some autistic people, like some women, may feel like they are more responsible for something going wrong — which isn’t true, but it becomes automatic. I also think sometimes we say it automatically because it feels like we should say something and we don’t know what else to say (though this isn’t conscious)."

This instinct to apologize as a survival strategy — and because one doesn't know of anything else to say — also exists in victims of child abuse. This brings us to Kim Johnson, a 32-year-old policy writer and patient advocate from Colorado. Johnson wrote to Salon that she had lived a very traumatic childhood in which she frequently moved and described her parents as "both pathological liars and the embodiment of narcissists." From there, she detailed how her habit of over-apologizing can be traced back to their behavior.

"The apologist in me was fostered from an early age by the psychological abuse and gaslighting that I endured," Johnson explained. "When I was incredibly young, my parents conditioned me to apologize when I did not even know what I was apologizing for. There would be instances where I was simply told to 'apologize' — and I would." Johnson claims that she was trained to apologize during family disputes, even violent ones, when she did not feel she had done anything wrong. "As a teenager, when my twin brother and I realized how wrong our lives were, we would have conflict[s] with my parents. The thing was, there was no end, and often, the only way to create that end was to apologize."

Johnson added, "In those moments, I was not saying that I was sorry because I meant it. I was saying that I was sorry as a means to survive."

As Johnson's story demonstrates, the habit of over-apologizing is ultimately rooted in people being conditioned to feel like they must account for themselves, regardless of whether doing so is actually linked to any coherent or rational sense of morality.

Durvasula ticked off the other factors that might cause someone to excessively apologize because of an asymmetrical distribution of power. These factors include "race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, cultural or religious background" and involve people who "may be socialized and conditioned with those holding less power and privilege [to] apologizing as part of imbalanced systems of power."

If you tend to over-apologize, know that there is hope. As Hutchings told Salon, "unlearning the habit of excessive apologizing — which, from my perspective, usually goes hand in hand with trauma — has meant discovering what I must hold myself accountable for (my sphere of influence) and what other people's stuff is (outside my sphere of influence)." She credits her support team including a romantic partner, friends, therapists and family members who "make up my small circle." She also learned to show compassion to herself.

"Compassion is not nice," Hutchings explained. "It is about finding your voice, taking an honest look at a situation (along with your role), and responding to protect your peace while minimizing harm, such as putting boundaries in place — something I still find incredibly uncomfortable."