Have you ever made a perfectly reasonable request— for a raise, or for help with a project— and been met by a ridiculous, blustery, over-the-top negative response? Did it go so badly, in fact, that you felt stupid and wrong for having dared to ask in the first place?
Now, maybe the person you were talking to was just a certifiable jerk.
But— and I say this with love— it might have been your apology energy.
I know you’ve heard this before, but while our words are important, much of the communication that happens between humans is actually nonverbal.
Our posture, our tone of voice, the clothes we wear, the way we stand or sit, our eye contact, even our heart rate— these are powerfully communicating all sorts of things to the people around us.
Many people (but especially women) are shocked to learn that they’re accidentally communicating something that’s costing them: costing them raises, promotions, credibility, and support.
What are they communicating?
A nonverbal apology.
In fact, they’re broadcasting, “I’m so sorry!!! For everything!! Please don’t be mad at me!!” so loudly that it drowns out their actual words.
Apology energy is when we ask for something or declare something, but because we are inwardly conflicted, we project a nonverbal apology along with it. It sounds like this:
“So, um, I thought I’d maybe try to take a little time for myself? Just, like, half an hour? If it’s okay with you? Do you mind?”
When we do this, our voice, body language, and whole demeanor telegraph (much more loudly than the words we use): “I AM DOING SOMETHING WRONG! I BET YOU’RE MAD AT ME FOR WANTING SOMETHING SO TERRIBLE AND SELFISH! I AM SO BAD! YOU SHOULD BE APPALLED AND HORRIFIED!”
If you’re getting a lot of pushback from people around you, check your apology energy. (Then check to see if they’re jerks, or toddlers.)
Learning to make empowered requests is something no one teaches us, but it’s a crucial skill for the kindred spirits. After all– you ask for good things that make the world better! And the best way to sabotage yourself is by apologizing for the very thing you’re asking for.
So why do we do this? It’s usually because we have conflicting inherited beliefs. One part of us can see that it’s quite reasonable to ask our family to help clean up the kitchen after an enormous meal we’ve prepared, but another part of us is channeling a maternal ancestor whispering, “Just do it yourself. It’s easier. Maybe safer.”
Remember that there are good reasons for these inherited beliefs; they kept our predecessors safe. In fact, many people still don’t have the privilege of safely asking for reasonable things, so I believe that when we have voices we CAN use, we should.
Let’s take a look at a low-stakes request, like “Hey, can you please send me the report that was due yesterday?”
Imagine yourself voicing those words hesitantly, softly, with your head cocked to the side. “Ummm hey, sorry, I hate to bother you, but do you think you can get me that report? I know you’re busy but we really need it…” and while you ask, fidget uncomfortably with your fingers and look down at the floor.
Every part of that communication is shouting, loud and clear, “Please don’t be mad at me!! I know I’m unreasonable! I’m so embarrassing! Oh god! This is so uncomfortable!!!”
In other words, your big nonverbal communication is, “I’m doing something beyond the pale right now, and you should be appalled at my request and irritated by my very existence.”
People will believe what you tell them on that nonverbal frequency.
Imagine if you brought that dynamic to every offer, every pitch, every request, every negotiation: how much would it cost you over the course of your career?
A lot. Too much.
(Hang on though, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that we are working against centuries of cultural conditioning. Apologizing, contorting, manipulating, cajoling— these are viable options of navigating the world when you don’t have any power or legal rights. But they are counterproductive, self-sabotaging habits now, and it’s time to break them.)
My clients often worry that this new way of communicating will create conflict, but they are surprised to find that the opposite is true. Even when they ask for something and the answer is no, they feel stronger and clearer.
That’s because there isn’t this weird conflicted push-pull cringe-y energy mucking up their interactions.
So the next time you need to ask for something, whether it’s an overdue promotion or a big sale or more support at home, run through the conversation in your head ahead of time.
Listen to the way your voice sounds. Is it quavery? Are you ending your sentences with question marks instead of periods? Is there a lot of overexplaining or caretaking? Do you notice yourself twisting your body?
That’s apology energy, and it will sabotage you.
It means that you might have some inner work to do in allowing yourself to believe that you’re actually ALLOWED to have or want the thing you’re asking for. Before you can convince someone else that you deserve something, you have to be convinced yourself. This kind of inner work is invisible yet INCREDIBLY powerful, and it will have an impact on how much money you make, how good your sex life is, how tired you are, and whether you resent the people you love most. (By the way, this is exactly the kind of thing I work on with my private coaching clients– and I have room for one more new client before the new year! Is it you?)
Whether you’re asking a lover to touch you differently, or a family member to respect a boundary, or a board member to sign on to your new idea, first YOU have to believe that it’s ok for you to have that thing. Otherwise you mix apology energy with asking other people for permission, and I promise, that won’t go well.
Releasing apology energy from our interactions is a truly revolutionary and freeing act.
You don’t just free yourself, you make room and set the precedent for everyone around you.
It might feel really weird at first, and take some experimenting. That’s normal. You’re learning a new verbal dance, and you’ll need some practice— just be sure to practice with a friend, not your boss or a potential client!
Oh and by the way when you stop infusing your conversations with apology energy, it doesn’t mean you’ll come across as aggressive or entitled. In fact, ironically, when you stop cringing, you actually come across as LESS sharp, and more friendly. (But we still live in the patriarchy, so if you’re a woman, you may still want to take a page from Sheryl Sandburg and smile while you make your ask. Or not. You do you, depending on where you live and work, the culture you’re navigating, and how many fucks you have to give.)
So if you’ve got a request to make, run through your words until you can hear yourself say them clearly, graciously, with warmth and humor…and with zero apologies.
Then go make that empowered request.
Imagine what would happen if every person you love did this in her life. If they asked, clearly, for the raises + household help + holiday gifts + community support + social justice + rest + type of intimacy they need and deserve.
UMMMM HELLO MORE BEAUTIFUL WORLD.
Less apology energy. More good ideas, voiced brightly. More forward momentum. Yessssss. Can’t you just feel the potent possibility that’s wanting to bloom right here where we are?