I have two habits that I never considered problems until recently. The first is the habit of apologizing for just about anything. If I drop something because someone bumps me in the arm, the first thing out of my mouth is “I’m sorry.” It’s as if I race to see who can apologize first—I’m sorry. “No, don’t be sorry,” I tell them. “I’m the one who should be sorry.” This over-apologizing is something I’ve been doing my whole life, and I’ve come to view it as humiliating and ridiculous.
The second habit comes right before I state an opinion or decision: I offer an immediate disclaimer. It’s some version of: You might think this is stupid (crazy, outrageous, etc) or I hate to say this but… When I utter these phrases, the person usually looks surprised and responds with “No, no, not at all” which then makes me uncomfortable for exposing my insecurity. On many occasions, I have spent hours ruminating about a conversation, the he saids, she saids, or the I said and they saids of a brief encounter. I even have the stamina to continue this agony for an entire day. At night, I will toss and turn, restless with repetitive thoughts about what I said, or what I could’ve said differently. I try to turn off the thoughts, but they seem to have no boundaries.
All of this began when I was a child. If I mentioned that my father drank too much, and I was afraid he would kill someone while drinking and driving, my mother would say, “You worry too much.” When I told my parents that the pills my swimming coach was handing out might not be salt pills as he claimed, I was told I was letting my imagination run wild. “Keep your thoughts to yourself,” my father said. “The problems at the pool are too big for you.” I write about this in my memoir Swimming for My Life.
So that’s what I did. I kept my thoughts to myself. I learned to get into my parents’ heads to determine how they might view my thoughts or actions. Outwardly, my behavior became passive. I sat in the car with my father while he drove down the road, drinking a Bud Light, and I prayed that he wouldn’t kill us or someone else. I took the salt pills and swallowed my fears. Keeping my mouth shut seemed less painful than the risk of being dismissed or diminished. Or hearing that I was imagining something. But hiding my thoughts didn’t feel good either. It was a defensive strategy that left me eating too much or biting my fingernails.
So, slowly over time, I changed my presentation. As a teenager, I began to preface controversial statements or questions with an apology or disclaimer. I said things like I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with that. Or Maybe I’m too thin-skinned (sensitive, touchy, etc) and then I would state my opinion. To my father I would say something like, “I know you’re not going to like this, but I got scared yesterday when you drank while you were driving.” But what I really wanted to say was “Dad, you scared the hell out of me!” or even better to say in real time, “Dad, let me out of this damn car. I’m not going to swimming practice if you drink.”
The softer comments were a start, effective in dealing with difficult people in challenging situations, but until recently, I used them constantly. And it didn’t stop the rumination. I continued to ruminate about the troublesome conversations, beating myself up for my lack of ability to really speak my mind.
Then last month, in the midst of a remodeling project, a saleswoman arrived at the house to measure for venetian blinds. Everything she said was followed by a disclaimer. “Oh, maybe it’s just me,” she said, “but…” Then it was “I don’t know what you’re going to think about this, but…” Sprinkled between her disclaimers, were at least three I’m sorrys, which frayed my nerves. Wasn’t this the same habit I was trying to break? Every sentence out of this woman’s mouth sounded like a preemptive admission that she was some kind of imposition.
As I thought about how easily I resort to this behavior, I started noticing that so many of my female friends did the same thing. They soften their opinions to be less threatening, especially to men. When I really thought about my childhood, I realized that telling someone You’re too sensitive is a way of shutting that person down. It’s an indirect way of invalidating or insulting, a kind of micro-aggression that women often hear after admitting they don’t like being told they’re headstrong, opinionated, bossy, or worse. This woman made me see that my disclaimers were a way of doing the same thing to myself, a way of putting myself down before someone else could.
So, I’ve figured out some subtle self-directives to break the pattern.
Pause and reset
Now when I catch myself using a disclaimer, I immediately stop and ask for a reset. I allow myself to notice the feeling behind the disclaimer. Am I feeling lonely? Unappreciated? Insecure? I try to determine where the feeling started. Was it related to an old message from my parents suggesting that I was selfish? A coach telling me to “lose the worried look?” Or was it a past relationship that I eventually came to see as abusive?
Walk through the underlying feelings
After I restate what I want to say, I tell myself to walk through the feelings without judgment. I don’t let my mind wander to the other person’s head. In the rare instance when I’m told I’m being too sensitive, I say things like, “Yes, I’m sensitive. It’s who I am.”
The changes I’ve made are the difference between feeling out of control and being in charge. As a child, I had no control. It was painful to see bad things happen without my being able to intervene, but by putting up a wall to protect myself from an imagined reaction, I was constantly edgy, battling restless thoughts all day and night.
Hold a dialogue with myself
Now, I take charge of my emotions by having an internal conversation with myself. If I’m in conflict with one of my kids and I find myself chewing on the details to a point where I’m unfocused in my work, I take a moment to talk to myself. Kim, this is important, but let’s set the family stuff aside to revisit once you finish what you’re doing. I redirect my thoughts to the project at hand. At night, if the ruminations start, I do the same thing. I tell myself, You have some great ideas, Kim, but you need to sleep. Why don’t you put these ideas aside for now and revisit them in the morning?
Miraculously, these subtle self-directives are working for me.
Changing established habits isn’t simple. It’s hard work. But what I’ve learned through experience is that taking charge of my repetitive thoughts has a broad impact on my daily life. I get more done, I feel calmer, and, in general, my relationships have become stronger. Getting over the habit of automatic apologies and disclaimers has helped me to identify those in my life who are the most challenging and also those who are the most encouraging.
That simple change has helped me to sleep a whole lot better.