Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

I Am So NOT Sorry: An Exercise in Exposure Therapy

One form of cognitive behavioral therapy is exposure therapy, where your brain is supposed to form new connections and rewrite the language of your amygdala (fear center), so that it doesn’t associate every dog with the pit bull who took a bite out of your thigh in the fourth grade. By doing the exact thing that you most fear, you are, essentially, telling the old neurons in your brain to take a hike so that new ones, who don’t know anything about the pit bull, can now live inside your brain and tell you that everything is peachy.


Yeah, well, that’s the theory.

So you jump into a pit bull fight and say, “Here, doggie, doggie, you want a treat?” If he doesn’t take your leg off, you are good to go!

If he does take your leg off, you have much more exposure therapy ahead of you… For which you might want to wear a padded suit.

Exposure therapy has two forms: systematic desensitization, which is more gradual, and flooding, where you jump in with your doggie treats. I learned all this in the book, Extinguishing Anxiety, by Catherine Pittman, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Karle.

I believe in the effectiveness of exposure therapy. I believe that our brains are plastic and, through exposure therapy, we develop new connections that compete with the jaded old guys, that our brains are capable of birthing a flock of optimistic buggers who are eager to try anything.


I tried this exposure therapy in May, when I spoke to about 3500 to 4000 people. Upon seeing all the chairs set up on the lawn, I experienced the same nausea that I do every time I have to drive across the Bay Bridge to the eastern shore of Maryland. Ever since my colossal breakdown, public speaking and pretty much everything that exposes me has that effect. So when I was trying out the microphone and sound system, I may as well have been looking down at a pack of pit bulls. However, I managed to get through the speech using relaxation techniques, exercise (I ran eight miles just before) and other tools that are described “Extinguishing Anxiety.” I am positive that my brain formed new connections from that experience, and that every time I walk up to a podium from now on will be a tad easier.


With that victory behind me, I have decided to use exposure therapy to conquer another behavior of mine in need of major modification: apologizing.

I have what my therapist calls an “apology problem.” I guess you could say that I am an apology addict. I can’t say “I’m sorry” enough in a day. Somewhere in my amygdala is written that if I say I am sorry, the person in front of me or on the other line of the phone has to like me … that my apology will smooth out any awkwardness between us. Sometimes it does, and I can live the next ten minutes with a tranquil consolation that the person now likes me and the world is one giant smiley face. However, two minutes later, I will inevitably say something inappropriate and I am back to apologizing.


It gets tiring, this apology habit.

So, as part of an exposure therapy exercise, I decided to try and see what would happen if I didn’t apologize…if I jumped over the neighbor’s fence and said hello to the pit bulls and gave them all some belly rubs.

Two nights ago was my big test.

There was a woman at a party with whom I used to be good friends. I really like her, but the friendship was not healthy for me… for many reasons. However, I have always felt guilty for distancing myself from her rather suddenly. If there was ever a temptation to apologize, this was it, and as the night went on, my need to apologize grew bigger and stronger and louder and wider. I felt like if I opened my mouth, nothing but an apology would come out. So I didn’t open my mouth.


“You’ll be okay. Really, it will be okay,” I had to reassure myself, just like when I was on the podium talking to 4000 people or at the highest point of the Bay Bridge.

I waited for the room to erupt in flames. But it didn’t. Or for me to suddenly collapse because she had been practicing with her voodoo dolls. But that didn’t happen either. There was a country’s worth of discomfort and awkwardness as I ate my crab balls … but nothing that eventful or bad happened. I was pretty sure that, by seeing me, she was reminded that she doesn’t like me. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I can live in my community knowing that a few people disapprove of me or something I have done.

By the time the three hours were over, the temptation to apologize was still there, but I knew that my brain had developed at least a few new connections that said it was okay to put my “so sorry” sign away. Moreover, I know that every time I resist the urge to apologize, and participate in a kind of exposure therapy, I will have paved a brain highway that communicates to my mouth that it only has to apologize when it’s appropriate and necessary.

If not, I’m sorry for wasting your time.

Originally published on Psych Central.

  • Elizabeth

    I have this same problem with apologizing!

    Exposure therapy is great and it is basically what my therpay for my OCD is. I have to keep on exposing myself to my fears and keep on discovering that I will make it to the other side. I may experience overwhelming urges to act on my thoughts and my anxiety may go up but when I make it to the other side, I feel so empowered.

    Great post!


  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mary Anne Thompson

    OMG! Therese, I so needed to read this. The other day out of the clear blue I got a letter in the mail from my 22 yr old daughter that I had given up for adoption and reunited with this past April.
    It was not a good letter, she called me on the carpet for having opinions and demanded an apology or she would not have any contact with me. The last time I had contact with her was in June when I mailed bday presents to her adoptive parents home address in New York. She never even let me know what she thought of the gifts, thanked me or anything. My supposed “offense” stating reality on Fb was something that upset her so she took me off her friends list, blocked me and broke off all contact. I had not heard anything from her since June until this letter arrived the other day. I feel FORCED into apologizing when I don’t even think I did anything offensive or her refusing me in her life. I waited 22 yrs to see her again, meet her, have contact after relinquishing her after birth. We had got very close through emails, phone calls, sharing things for a yr prior to her flying to Texas to spend my 51st bday with me. Now this….I am at a jumping off point. I love her with everything I have in me, but I honestly do not feel I have done anything to apologize for. In fact she has been rather offensive and said inappropriate things to me, the woman who gave birth to her and chose the family who raised her. What about her apologizing to me? I have not decided what to do. Write her or just write her off???
    Please keep me in your prayers,
    thanks M.A

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dee

    Gosh Therese I felt as if I was reading my own bioghraphy in a sense. I am a “sorry person” as I call it. You defined why I do it, apologizing perfusely thinking it will make folks like me. My sister does the same thing, put us both together and we compete to be the “sorriest”. Suffering from PTSD starting in 2010 after experiencing numerous “bad call’s” as a paramedic, I was treated with exposure therapy. That was rough but it worked in many ways. Applying it in different area’s of my life like with being sorry is a really neat thought. Thanks for enlightening me. Have a great day!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Deb (OLDFLYGIRL)

    Good morning Therese! This post made me realize that I have some ‘pit bulls’ of my own to wrestle with. I really hate it when people don’t like me! I don’t apologize to them, per say, but I am awkward around them and it seems I try too hard to make nice with them; in a way I guess I’m apologizing for not being a person that’s good enough to ‘like’! What IS that?!

    I guess my ‘exposure therapy’ would be to be in the same room with them and resist the urge to go over and try to be ‘nicer’ or something in hopes that I can make them like me?

    I’m going to have to wrestle with this for a while. I need to realize not everyone is going to like me, but most importantly God loves me immensely as I am. But I see it’s going to take some work.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Christina W

    This apology post strikes a cord with me..not because I apologize to so many others – though I do – but because I seem to always, always, always be apologizing for how I am..for being overwhelmed by decision making, or loud noises or not being one of those pick-my-self-up dust-myself-off “it was just my leg I didn’t need it anyway and I’m a better person for having lost it” or whatever type of person. I wish I were that..tough or triuphment but the truth is I feel guilty about everything I do and don’t do all the time, I apologize for apologizing, for being who I am and who I’m not and who I realize I am never going to be able to be. For not knowing the answers, etc. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Eileen

    Hi Therese!
    I praise you for all the study and work you put into getting better and helping others. You are phenomenal!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment RP

    Therese, another article that brings your readers close to you. Yikes, I’m the queen of “I’m sorry(s)” and thanks for the reminder, I need to pay attention.

    @ Mary Anne – sometimes it’s best to let things settle and pray hard so you can feel peace in your heart despite the tsunami feelings. Stay strong, you have not done anything wrong. I’m sure your journey in life (giving up child for adoption to start with) is not a simple one–be good to yourself first. Hugs.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Beth

    really just wishing you hadn’t used pit bulls as your example here. We have enough trouble in rescue getting those poor dogs, who by and large are wonderful friendly beings, into good homes. Please don’t perpetuate the stereotype! A dog is only as bad/aggressive/dangerous as its owner has taught or allowed it to be!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment spareparts

    Good morning, Therese,

    Indeed… I apologize for everything (even breathing); children are starving in India, and IT’S ALL MY FAULT…

    While I recognize this as an arrogant way to see things (i.e. expecting to be able to change how someone “thinks” of us by something we do or don’t do – this is simply beyond my realm), it is NOT intentional. I grew up feeling like this.

    While apologizing “appears” (to US) to work, the “liking” result we think we get from the other person ends up not being the productive, relational, healthy, respectful “like” that I think we want from people… really.

    It is, in the end, difficult (but NOT impossible) to undo… It helps when a friend or two tells me NOT to apologize, or they challenge me and ask me EXACTLY what I am apologizing for. I guess that’s where some of those “new” paths can be burned in my brain, yes?

    Anyway, thank you for your posts. They are quite helpful.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cassa

    I used exposure therapy for a phobia. We mostly used the systematic desensitization method, with occasional unplanned flooding.

    I was terrified and there were many tears throughout the process but I have come from having a full blown phobia to having some anxiety around the triggering object that I am able to work my way through. I am supposed to keep exposing myself to the things I fear, so that I keep realizing that I’m safe in those situations. Trouble is, the things I’m afraid of aren’t like dogs or flies or other things that can be easily touched or exposed to without getting funny looks.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jill

    So glad to know others have this “affliction” – I sometimes feel like I”m apologizing for taking up oxygen! I am working on this habit as well and am quite astonished at how often I say it! It is a real battle. Why am I sorry when someone runs over me in the supermarket? My logic escapes me. But I’m hoping being aware and practicing keeping my mouth shut (I’m a compulsive gabber – can’t stand empty air!) will help. Good job with the not apologizing at the party – could definitely relate to that one.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Myke McCormick

    I learned, after a long time, with great difficulty, everybody will not like me.
    Then I learned that all the people that like me won’t all like me at the same time.
    I am not one of those people that don’t care. I really do care. I’m really good at pretending I don’t care because I’m really good at pretending period.
    I’ve stopped pretending, to me, that I don’t care if everybody likes me. Admitting I do care was oddly liberating. Now I care but I don’t expect & because I don’t expect I’m not disappointed. In fact I am often pleasantly surprised. Thanks for the topic. Not everyone is willing to talk about what they have not yet overcome.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cj

    I’ve noticed that my self-esteem makes great strides when I choose not to overreact when dealing with a potentially ‘I’m not worthy’ situation. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve apologized to people in the past just so they would like me or love me or not be mad at me or leave me. Even if they had been rotten to me!! I turned 50 last month and I’m pretty sure I would still be out there looking for someone’s forgiveness or grovelling at someone’s undeserving feet had I not finally begged God to come into my life and change me – including changing how I see myself. I am just begining to see myself in a positive light since I am seeing myself through His loving and caring eyes. Not how my family treated me or my ex- boyfriends or anyone else who treated me harshly. To know I am in control of never feeling so paranoid or neurotic that I have to assume I am always the one at fault and to blame, it makes all the recovery struggling feel worth it. I really do know the importance of being able to humble myself and say I’m sorry when I am wrong. But I also know it’s just as important to resist saying ‘I’m sorry’ just so someone will like you or not be mad at you or for any ridiculous reason. And for that, I am definately not apologetic.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nana

    Don’t you find it ironic that if your ex-friend reads your article she will know that you wanted to apologize and then in a way you will have said “I’m Sorry” anyway? lol

    I can completely relate to your need to apologize however. It is an easy way to not feel bad for saying inappropriate things.

    So if I have offended “I apologize”. 😉

Previous Posts

Seven Ways to Get Over an Infatuation
“Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I” wrote US songwriter Lorenz Hart about the feeling of infatuation. It’s blissful and euphoric, as we all know. But it’s also addicting, messy and blinding. Without careful monitoring, its wild ...

posted 12:46:43pm Feb. 19, 2014 | read full post »

When Faith Turns Neurotic
When does reciting scripture become a symptom of neurosis? Or praying the rosary an unhealthy compulsion? Not until I had the Book of Psalms practically memorized as a young girl did I learn that words and acts of faith can morph into desperate ...

posted 10:37:13am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

How to Handle Negative People
One of my mom’s best pieces of advice: “Hang with the winners.” This holds true in support groups (stick with the people who have the most sobriety), in college (find the peeps with good study habits), and in your workplace (stay away from ...

posted 10:32:10am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

8 Coping Strategies for the Holidays
For people prone to depression and anxiety – i.e. human beings – the holidays invite countless possibility to get sucked into negative and catastrophic thinking. You take the basic stressed-out individual and you increase her to-do list by a ...

posted 9:30:12am Nov. 21, 2013 | read full post »

Can I Say I’m a Son or Daughter of Christ and Suffer From Depression?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we read: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” What if we aren’t glad, we aren’t capable of rejoicing, and even prayer ...

posted 10:56:04am Oct. 29, 2013 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.