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What is OCDOCD SubtypesExcessive apologizing – Is it OCD?

Excessive apologizing – Is it OCD?

8 min read
Melanie Dideriksen,  LPC, CAADC

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Often, people with OCD feel the urge to compulsively apologize when it is not needed. This behavior is most commonly seen in the OCD subtypes of Scrupulosity OCD, Responsibility OCD, and Harm OCD, but it can be involved in many other subtypes, as any subtype of OCD can involve an inflated sense of responsibility and guilt sensitivity.

What is excessive apologizing in OCD?

Scrupulosity OCD, Responsibility OCD, Harm OCD, and many other themes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can involve compulsive, excessive apologizing as a response to fears about what others think, being a bad person, hurting other people, being a burden, making a bad impression, or doing something wrong. People with OCD may often fear that without apologizing they might do harm, offend, or shirk responsibility. They may also feel the need to excessively apologize about their OCD behaviors.

People who suffer from excessive apologizing will engage in these compulsive behaviors due to an intense urge or desire to temporarily quiet their intrusive thoughts and persistent worries, or to avoid negative, often extreme outcomes that they fear will occur if they don’t apologize. Unfortunately, apologizing excessively, like any other OCD compulsion, only perpetuates the cycle of OCD, and can significantly interfere in one’s ability to engage in relationships, or negatively impact one’s self esteem.
Let’s consider an example:

Tracy is an 11-year-old child who was diagnosed with OCD in the past year. She has always done well in therapy, learning how to use response prevention, instead of engaging in compulsions when she fears things like germs, chemicals, hospitals and health anxiety.

However, Tracy has one behavior that is still quite noticeable, and she knows that addressing this in ERP sessions with her therapist is the right decision. Tracy is an excessive apologizer: she apologizes to her mom after having an intrusive thought about too much screen time on her tablet; she apologizes to her dad over and over when he has to take her to a friend’s house; she apologizes to her little brother whenever she has an intrusive thought regarding his germiness, which occurs frequently. Tracy often will get up out of bed to tell her mom and dad, “I’m sorry if there is anything I forgot to apologize for today.” She will also ask for reassurance from her mom: “Do you think I’m a bad person because I don’t want to play with Jessica during recess?” Tracy will sometimes tell Jessica she wants to play with other friends today, and then will spend the second part of the school day telling Jessica she is sorry over and over.

Tracy will lie in bed at night thinking about her day, analyzing any perceived wrongdoing on her part. Tracy will often go back to school the next day with a list of kids she needs to apologize to for any little thing. Her behavior is a result of deeper OCD fears about disappointing or harming others, but it has made it extremely hard for Tracy to feel close to any classmates or even family members—when she’s around other people, she’s consumed with worries about doing anything wrong, apologizing profusely whenever a worry enters her head.

Common obsessions experienced by people struggling with excessive, compulsive apologizing in OCD include:

  • My intrusive thoughts make me a bad person, so I need to apologize or confess.
  • I am a bad person.
  • What if I want to harm someone.
  • God may be angry at me.
  • I am a burden to my family.
  • I am taking up too much of someone’s time.
  • Someone is annoyed with me because I have a question, or I can’t figure something out.
  • I may have forgotten something I need to apologize for.
  • It’s safer to apologize.
  • They seem bothered or sad—I should apologize.

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Common triggers

People with OCD who find themselves apologizing compulsively and excessively may be triggered by situations involving anything that calls into question their character, morality, friendship, worth, kindness, or identity. Triggers are specific situations, objects, people, or thoughts that provoke obsessive fears. When someone with OCD feels triggered, they have a hard time allowing that fear to be there and feel that they cannot tolerate the discomfort they feel without engaging in compulsions—in this case, apologizing until they feel reassured.

Triggers for people with OCD to engage in excessive apologizing include:

  • Situations where they perceive someone to be hurt or annoyed
  • Situations where they think they are wasting someone’s time (taking too long on a test, exam, in the grocery line, getting ready to leave the house, using a bathroom)
  • Doing things for themselves
  • Choosing to spend time with one person instead of another
  • Delivering a decision that may not be well received or may cause discomfort
  • Having intrusive thoughts about harm
  • Not remembering details about what they said to someone

How do I know if I’m apologizing excessively as a compulsion or safety behavior in OCD, and not merely being conscientious?

To better determine if you’re struggling with OCD, it’s important to take a look at specific criteria. You can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you experiencing obsessions, or unwanted intrusive thoughts, fears, or urges related to doing things wrong or failing to apologize? How persistent are the obsessions?
  • Do you engage in compulsions, or apologize in order to reduce your anxiety or prevent something bad from happening?
  • How much time do the obsessions and compulsions take?
  • Do obsessions and compulsions lead to significant levels of distress?
  • Do obsessions and compulsions impact your daily functioning, like friendships and relationships?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, you may be struggling with OCD. It’s important to consult an OCD specialist to determine if an OCD diagnosis is appropriate for you.

Common compulsions

When people with OCD involving excessive apologizing experience intrusive thoughts, fears, or urges that cause distress, they may feel the need to compulsively apologize in order to get rid of, push away, or neutralize their anxiety or to prevent others from being upset.

Compulsions can be physical or mental. Just because someone cannot see the compulsion from the outside, does not mean it doesn’t exist; for example people who compulsively apologize may also compulsively ruminate extensively on what they said in past conversations, or seek reassurance by repetitively asking others if they are upset.

Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with OCD involving excessive apologizing include:

  • Apologizing for wasting someone’s time
  • Apologizing just in case they have done something wrong
  • Apologizing for any past wrongs that they can’t remember
  • Seeking reassurance from family or friends to see if there is anything they need to apologize for
  • Repeated apologizing until they get a desired response
  • Trying to remember every detail of past conversations
  • Monitoring others’ moods or expressions for signs that they may be upset

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How to overcome excessive apologizing in OCD

OCD involving compulsive, excessive apologizing can be debilitating and interfere in people’s lives and relationships, but it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist, individuals can find relief from the cycle of OCD.

ERP is the gold standard of treatment for OCD and is backed by decades of clinical research. Most individuals who do ERP with a trained OCD therapist experience a decrease in OCD symptoms, reduced anxiety and distress, and increased confidence in their ability to sit with anxiety and uncertainty, rather than being ruled by worry.

People who struggle with excessive apologizing as a compulsion in any OCD subtype will work with their therapist to build an exposure hierarchy and begin confronting one trigger at a time. Usually, an ERP therapist will start with exposure exercises that bring a low level of anxiety and work up to harder exposures as confidence is built. When doing exposures, the goal is always response prevention: your therapist will guide you in resisting the urge to respond to worry and anxiety by over-apologizing. Over time, this allows you to tolerate anxiety from OCD without relying on compulsions to feel better.

Examples of possible exposures done to treat excessive apologizing include:

  • Only apologize once, rather than continuing until receiving a desired response
  • Refrain from apologizing if you don’t feel you did anything wrong
  • Write about the worst-case scenario of failing to apologize for something
  • Say mean things to your therapist without apologizing
  • With a loved one’s involvement, bring them into a therapy session and say something mean without apologizing after

If you’re struggling with OCD and are interested in learning about ERP, As an OCD specialist, I’ve used ERP to help many people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment with the NOCD Care Team to find out how treatment can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training and ongoing guidance from our clinical leadership team. Many of them have dealt with OCD themselves and understand how crucial ERP therapy is.

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