I used to preemptively apologize like it was my job. Now, I only do it like it’s a small side hustle. If you’re a chronic over-thinker ™, mayhaps you also notice this tendency.
A couple of years ago, it seemed like every time I hung out with a friend or group of friends, I’d leave with a sneaking feeling that I’d done something wrong. Regardless of how the overall conversation went, if there was a sticky moment I’d replay it over and over in my head. Why’d I said that? How might it have been received by the other person? What piece of information from their life might I have forgotten? How could I make it right?
Though I’d tell myself over and over that I was being paranoid, I couldn’t seem to let it go. I was worried that I wasn’t approachable enough for them to feel comfortable coming to me about it. Underneath it all was a gnawing fear that this one screw-up would surely be the downfall of the friendship, resulting in general doom and destruction.
In order to forestall said doom and destruction, seven times out of ten, I’d reach out and say some variation of “Hey! So, when we were talking I said this thing, and I realize it might have been perceived as rude/snarky/insensative. I’m really sorry, and what I actually meant was X.”
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that at least half of the time, the person I was texting didn’t even remember the interaction that was keeping me up at night. The other half, they would say it was fine, not to worry about it, or that they didn’t take it the way I was worried they had.
If you’re thinking I was an insecure, neurotic wreck and that my friends were far more patient than I deserved, you would be correct. I justified this behavior by telling myself I was being a good friend, making it as easy as humanly possible for them to express any grievance. But the underlying motive was less awesome. Underneath this behavior was among other things, a feeling of responsibility for other people’s feelings.
I didn’t trust them to take responsibility for their feelings, move through them, and come to me for reconciliation if necessary. And I was so sure that my friendships were tenuous, that I tried my hardest to read my friends’ minds. ‘Twas exhausting.
In many situations, I’ve found myself contorting my thoughts and actions to manage other people’s feelings. This was one of the few examples of this behavior. In my work, this has led to a deep-seated perfectionism that causes me to obsess over every word I write beyond what is reasonable. There is part of me that believes I am capable of phrasing things so “perfectly” that no one will be able to disagree or feel angry or upset with me.
Dr. Therapist has challenged me on this numerous times. You see, I am not, in fact, responsible for other people’s feelings. None of us are. Sure, we can be kind and humble in our communication, quick to apologize when we are in the wrong. But that’s different from carrying the weight of another’s emotional well-being.
That is a load that is not mine to bear, no matter how much better I think it will make me feel. No matter how guilty I feel when I disappoint someone. My pal Kerrah Fabacher recently released a podcast episode on this very topic. She said, “There are circumstances when we can help relieve a person from the burden they carry because that is the loving thing to do. However, we must be able to distinguish between what is our responsibility and what is not.”
In relationships that can feel somewhat tenuous, such as friendship and dating, it might be tempting to overcompensate for that insecurity. As singles, many of our relationships can feel that way. Friendship is unique in how the tie isn’t legal or necessarily situational (like work colleagues). The ties of friendship transcend many others, but we live in a culture, both within the church and outside of it, that tends to value romantic love far more highly. What ties friends together, ultimately? Shared experience and time, to be sure, but mostly, I think it’s choice and intention.
And so, for those of us who tend toward anxiety and worst-case scenarios, it might feel more comforting to try and stay one step ahead. We also might find ourselves drawn to relationships where that is the expectation. My pal Kerrah has a few diagnostic questions that I found helpful.
- Do I feel responsible for someone else’s feelings or behaviors?
- Do I often say “I’m sorry” for things that aren’t my fault?
- Do I own up to my mistakes?
- Do I rescue people from the consequences of their decisions?
If you said yes to these questions, I’d encourage you to consider digging into the idea of boundaries. And Kerrah has a ton of awesome resources to help. I promise this isn’t an ad, nor did she ask me to plug her stuff, I just really love what she’s doing.
When you think about your relationships, do you think this might be an area of growth for you? It continues to be one for me, so you won’t hear any judgment from me. If you aren’t ready to take action, consider taking this to God, then opening up to a trusted counselor or mentor.