OCD and Apologizing

by stuart miles freedigitalphotos.net

by stuart miles freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve previously written about my son Dan’s tendency to apologize, and how I didn’t initially realize this was a compulsion – a form of reassurance to make sure all was okay. As is often the case, especially in my early days of blogging, I posted about something I felt was unique to Dan’s OCD only to hear from many others with the disorder who had the same symptoms; in this case, excessive, unreasonable apologizing.

But those with OCD are not the only ones who have issues with apologizing. In this recent post on Psych Central, the author talks about six kinds of apologizing and what he feels they mean. The gist of what he says is that people apologize for all sorts of reasons, such as to alleviate their own guilt, appease others, or to just be polite. Still others apologize because they are forced to do so. For example, a parent might say, “Apologize to your sister” to one of their children, but it is easy to recognize this doesn’t necessarily mean the child is actually sorry. The only apology that is a real apology, according to the author, is what he calls “apologizing from love.” He describes this type of apologizing in detail, but to summarize, it is a genuine apology.

Matt Bieber, on his recent podcast, talks about his own experiences with apologizing. He realizes that his own apologies typically fall into one of two categories. The first are illogical apologies which are compulsions related to his OCD and the second are apologies rooted in reality, based on relationships, and genuine.  I recommend listening to Matt’s insightful podcast where he explains his thoughts in more detail.

So why all this talk about apologizing? Well, I think it’s important to try to understand what is actually going on when we apologize, and then we can hopefully figure out if we are dealing with an OCD compulsion, a genuine expression of remorse, or something completely different. What makes something like apologizing so complicated in terms of OCD is that it is something we all typically do, so it might be harder to recognize it as a compulsion. For example, if a person with OCD turns his car around multiple times to make sure he hasn’t hit anyone, it is obvious to many that this is a compulsion. It is not typical behavior. If a young girl has to turn her light switch on and off fifty times at night or else “something bad will happen,” this too is an obvious compulsion. But apologizing? Most of us do it, and even if we apologize excessively, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have OCD.

When I finally realized Dan’s apologizing was a compulsion, I was able to stop enabling him by not reassuring him; there was a little less fuel for OCD’s fire. Once again it comes back to the fact that the more we understand about all aspects of OCD, the better equipped we will be to fight it.

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37 Responses to OCD and Apologizing

  1. I have realized with my own apologizing that when I am caught up in my emotional mind there is no point in apologizing. I’m doing it to make myself better, not to make someone else feel better and show that I mean what I’m saying. I need to wait to apologize.

    • That’s great that you realize what you’re apologizing is all about during those times, Kristen. I think that insight is really valuable. I never realized apologizing could be so complicated! Thanks for sharing.

  2. When Blake was very young (the summer after preschool), he developed what we then thought was a tic. He would say, “Excuse me,” over and over under his breath. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with OCD a few years later that we realized that this was a potential sign of his OCD. Later on, when he was an early teen, he would compulsively say, “Thank you.” The thank-you’s frequently were not genuine. They were OCD driven (If I don’t say thank you, people may see me as rude, and I might miss one, so I’d better say them a lot) and, sadly, became pretty annoying. His therapist had to design an exposure that didn’t allow him to say thank you – and he had to learn to express genuine gratitude. Now, that was interesting.

    • Thanks for sharing, Angie. Now that you mention it, Dan was pretty big on the “thank you’s” as well. I’d love to hear more about how Blake learned to express genuine gratitude at the appropriate times…I imagine it’s not an easy thing to do when you’ve been caught up in compulsions. What an eye-opening experience that must have been for your whole family!

      • Oh my gosh, it was crazy. The thank you’s and the I Love You’s. I felt like the most ungrateful parent in the world for being frustrated because they were robotic and never-ending. Maybe I should write about it?

      • I’d absolutely write about it, Angie!! It’s a topic that so many people can relate to, and I for one would like to hear more about how you dealt with it.

  3. Mr. Militant Negro says:

    Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.

  4. Great post, Janet! It’s good to know that it’s not always OCD causing “weird” apologizing. I do think a lot of my apologizing is rooted in OCD, but I think some of it is linked to low self-esteem. I feel “less than,” so apologize even when I know intellectually I haven’t done anything wrong.

    • Thanks for your comment Tina, and it makes sense to me that excessive apologizing could be linked to low self-esteem. I never realized how complicated this topic really is! I do think it’s worthwhile to figure out where the apologizing comes from, and then work on the related issue………thanks again for sharing!

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you for the great post Janet! We deal with excessive apologizing and excessive thanking with my daughter. It’s been very helpful to realize that both are compulsions and then try our hardest not to enable them. I agree with Tina regarding the ‘less than’ feeling too, as some of Eliza’s apologizing also stems from her low self esteem. LOVE your blog.

    • Thanks for the comment, and for your kind words, Anne! Once we realized Dan’s apologies were compulsions, it was actually quite easy to not enable him in this area. We either just ignored him or said, “It’s your OCD talking, and we’re not going to acknowledge and/or respond to it.” I wish everything were that easy!
      And I think it’s great that you realize some of Eliza’s apologizing might stem from low self-esteem, because now that issue can be addressed with therapy as well.

  6. This hits home for me. My loved one apologizes and thanks a lot. And I know it is OCD. When they were little we had a whole lot of “Mom” yes? “um…I love you” We called it pinging. (like a sonar) But looking back I think it was OCD looking for reassurance.

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Sometimes things are much more obvious in hindsight, don’t you think? But the good thing is once we realize that certain comments or phrases are reassurance-seeking, we can (hopefully :)) stop enabling our loved ones. Hope things are going well for you and your family.

  7. This is a great post. Was being Canadian one of the reasons for apologizing? 😉 I am told we do it A LOT.
    your son is very lucky to have someone so willing to learn and adapt to his needs. I hope you pat yourself on the back from time to time. it is not an easy road at times.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Heather. You’re the third Canadian to say Canadians apologize a lot….I never knew that! I’ll have to pay special attention to my Canadian friends and report back to you!

  8. I am an “apologizer” with low self esteem as well. Working on it!! 🙂
    Janet: Your blog very helpful to me. Thank you for all you do!

  9. kcg1974 says:

    Janet, this is such a great post! My husband is ALWAYS reminding me (telling me) NOT to apologize for something unnecessary. I suppose all writers and/or artists want to be “Liked” or “Loved” so perhaps this is a common trait. I’d be interested to know if I am the only one…? Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Kim. I definitely did my share of apologizing in my younger years – always wanting to be polite and make sure I didn’t step on anyone’s toes. Nowadays, I only apologize when I’m really sorry about something (I think!). It is definitely an interesting subject to explore!

      • kcg1974 says:

        A great and fascinating topic, Janet. Makes me take a look deeper into myself, wondering why I do it so often. Guessing it comes from childhood when I so wished to please my mother.

  10. 71 & Sunny says:

    I remember apologizing as a child, sometimes even for things I didn’t do because I just wanted peace. Thankfully, this has not been an issue for me as an adult, but I know of others who have struggled with it.

    • Thanks for sharing, Sunny. I can relate to what you say, and I think a lot of children just want everything to “be okay,” and will do whatever they can to get there. Glad it’s not an issue for you now!

  11. Interesting post, Janet, especially for me, the wife my husband calls the “I’m sorry girl.” I’m better about it now but growing up under the wings of an emotionally and verbally abusive mother, I constantly was attempting to better my position with her. I apologized for everything that appeared to have angered or frustrated her. It soon became habitual and I have continued into adulthood apologizing for whatever goes wrong that makes me feel uncomfortable and on occasion guilty. Thanks so much for this overview of the various kinds of apologies–very helpful.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Sherrey, and I know from my own experience that old habits die hard. But at least you are aware of your excessive apologizing (thanks to your husband :)) and where it comes from, and hopefully that is helpful to you. Thanks again for commenting and I hope to hear more from you.

  12. Faith says:

    This is actually one of my biggest compulsions, so I was surprised to see you write about it

  13. penny zako says:

    My Daugther is 11 and reading everyones comments has brought tears ; I’m not alone !!
    Thank you to all you wonderful people for sharing – there’s now LIGHT AT THE END OF A VERY DARK TUNNEL!!

  14. Penny Zsko says:

    I felt so helpless and alone as a parent until I came across you guys ; the advice is invaluable we need to get through 6-8 was before seeing a counsellor so as s family we will be putting into place some of your recommendations to help Annabel thanks again

    • Please keep us posted on Annabel’s progress. You say she will be seeing a counselor and I just want to stress how important it is that the counselor be experienced in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy – not just CBT in general, but ERP specifically. Good luck!

      • Penny says:

        Started today ‘not enabling’! Such s simple device but amazingly effective ; today we have a daughter that has smiled !!! Why didn’t our GP or the mental health nurses advise us to do this …

      • So happy to hear, Penny! Unfortunately many doctors and nurses are not aware of the proper way to treat OCD, and also unaware of the important role the family must play.

  15. Penny says:

    Thank goodness for your blog😊

  16. Ellie says:


    I realise this is an older post but, I wanted to thank you for it anyway …

    My son is 10, OCD exploded at around 7/8 though with hindsight I can see the signs were there from 4/5.
    His theme is that I’ll be kidnapped (yup, chubby, hormonal 40 odd year old women are definitely at risk of kidnapping huh ) or die and not be there to pick him up from school. He’d be hysterical if he wasn’t within sight of me but, luckily for him, I recognised it as OCD (in part because my eldest daughter also has OCD and I’d read & researched a LOT) and for over a year or more it’s been pretty much under control … until the last 6 weeks or so when OCD has tried on a new disguise! Fear of lifts/elevators, which happened out of the blue one day – I stamped that one out quickly by spending the whole day riding up and down in lifts.
    And then the last week or 2 there’s been a lot of apologies! Today, he’s been teary, off his food and just saying ‘Sorry’ so much I don’t know whether to laugh or cry … I made my mind up today that it must be an OCD thing and not ‘just’ anxiety and told him that ‘sorry’ is a banned word for now because I think it’s his OCD… instead, if he’s done anything that needs an apology, we’ll ask for an apology and he can say ‘I apologise’ … googled ‘OCD apologising’ and here you are.

    Thank you for confirming my thoughts and thank you for letting me know, all the way from 2016, that we’re not alone.


    • Hi Ellie, I’m glad you found this post helpful. You sound like an amazing mom with a great understanding of OCD. Your son is lucky to have you in his corner and I wish you all the best as you help him continue to fight his OCD.

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