As my friend walked out the door of my office, my parting words to her were, “You are great, don’t apologize for anything.” She wasn’t heading off to be on trial, or to give an announcement about a change on campus that students wouldn’t like, she was heading off to share her musical gifts and passionate wisdom with our huge group of college students. She’s talented and capable, and had no reason to fear the experience. But, I knew, as she did, that somewhere in the midst of the powerful message she had to share, she’d feel the need to say “Sorry” for something, to apologize for making any mistake or being imperfect.
It astounds me that this is such common, necessary direction for me and for so many friends, particularly women. Even the mention of over-apologizing brings groans and sighs from a group of women, as so many recognize its prevalence in our everyday language of choice, sometimes as common as “please” and “thank you”. One oft-cited study, “Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior“, headed by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross at the University of Waterloo concluded,
“Using daily diaries and imagined offenses, we found support for the common stereotype that women apologize more frequently than men do. However, contrary to common interpretations of this gender difference, we found that men were no less willing than women were to apologize for their behavior once they categorized it as offensive. Rather, our data suggest that men apologize less frequently than women do because they have higher thresholds for what constitutes offensive behavior.”
The issue isn’t just that women apologize more easily, it’s that they intrinsically (or societally) believe that they have so much more to apologize for. This is unfortunate, but not difficult, to believe, as my experience has supported this strongly.
I recently attended a brand new small group where I didn’t know anyone, and even in our very first time together, each woman shared that one of their ongoing mental scripts was either “I am too much” or “I am not enough”. Too much or not enough of what, we asked? Whatever it was that we are expected to be as women. Whatever society expects us to be, we are “too much” of the negative and “not enough” of the positive. We unintentionally have bought into the lie that what is expected of us is right, and that it is unattainable for us because of who we truly are. We realized, from our conversation, that the things we feel are wrong with us are the same things we often find ourselves apologizing for, albeit subconsciously.
What makes our conversation as a small group intensely more discouraging, for me at least, is that every woman in that group is a Christian, and the disappointment that we each feel doesn’t just radiate out of unattainable secular standards for beauty or influence. That disappointment has infected the perception of the body of Christ and its standards for what a woman “should be”. Speaking for myself, I feel just as high of a pressure to conform to a certain standard from the church as I do from the world. – even more so, when I consider the belief that God stands with these unrealistic pressures. Certainly, the dangerous parts are where those pressures overlap and seem to double-down on all of us to fit into a certain mold. Instead of listening outwardly to ever-changing demands from others, we are supposed to be listening to the still, small voice of God that says that we are “eshet chayil”, “women of valor” – and yet we all know that instead we willingly submit to these unrealistic standards with very little grace offered.
Our pastor taught on this passage out of Romans 12, which I felt brought a perfect emphasis to this particular post. These verses, in particular, stuck out,
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:3-5)
What would it mean for me, and for my fellow over-apologizing women, to see ourselves with this sober judgment that Scripture calls for?
As the verses emphasize, this is not to think higher of ourselves than we ought, nor lower, and this is just what so many of us struggle with. The downside of over-controlling your reputation is the amount of responsibility, and blame, that we unwittingly take up along with it. And can I go ahead and just say, “WE DON’T NEED ANY MORE GUILT AND SHAME!” We need a fresh perspective that is full of grace and the deep belief that we are intentionally created with diverse gifts and interests and don’t need to apologize for that. Surely, there will continue to be times when we hurt one another, which demand apologies and repentance and forgiveness. However, if we really believed these biblical truths about us, I believe we’d stop saying sorry for things like asking a question, entering a conversation, or existing in a world that we don’t feel we belong in. I want to embody my gifts and passions in a way that expresses the confidence I have in the God who gave me these gifts and passions, and refuse to apologize for that.