Ask an Expert//

How to Set Boundaries

An excerpt from Like She Owns the Place: Give Yourself the Gift of Confidence and Ignite Your inner Magic


Aside from “I feel guilty,” there is one other harmful phrase that is keeping confidence at bay for so many women. That phrase is “I’m sorry.” This phrase perverts even the smallest parts of our daily lives. How many times have you replaced the words “Excuse me,” “What?” or even “Hello” with “Sorry”? Guilt seems to live in our subconscious, and we even express it when we don’t necessarily mean it, because we feel like we’re supposed to feel it!

Do you ever feel like a “sorry” robot?

I will never forget one of the first times I bit back the apology I was about to make and chose confidence over self-doubt.

Man, did it feel good. It was ninety-seven degrees and I had just finished working out. Dripping with sweat and navigating an intensely humid New York City afternoon, I decided to stop in the supermarket to grab a few things before heading home. Six heavy bags later, I knew the only way to make it home in one sane piece was to get an Uber. As the driver approached my building, he slowed down, and rather than make the U‑turn (or go around the block) to leave me in front of my door, he attempted to leave me across the street, in the middle of traffic. I sat in the backseat, assuming he was waiting for traffic to pass so he could make the U‑turn. He didn’t. I thought: Hmm, I don’t want to annoy this guy, but I really don’t want to carry these damn bags. He looked at me in the rearview mirror, unlocked the doors, and waited for me to get out of his car. Then, like vomit, “Sorry” dropped into the back of my throat. For what seemed like the first time ever, I forced myself to swallow it. I asked him to turn around and leave me in front of my house. “Oh, you want me to turn around?” he asked, sounding confused— and annoyed. “Yes. Yes I do,” I said. He made a U‑turn. I got out of the car and went on with my day, without apologizing.

This little story is about so much more than an Uber ride for me. A few years ago, I would have let that driver leave me in the middle of the road, and I wouldn’t have said a peep, other than “I’m sorry!” after he got irritated. It would have bothered me for days that I’d paid for an Uber and hadn’t gotten my money’s worth— because I hadn’t had the confidence to get my money’s worth. A few years ago, I was terrified to ask for help at work when I was drowning in projects, so I suffered in silence and worked myself into complete and total exhaustion. A few years ago, I was too afraid to tell a boyfriend that his behavior was disrespectful and abusive, so I remained in a toxic relationship for way too long. A few years ago, I was way too insecure and way too worried about what other people thought of me to dare ask for what I wanted— even for the things that involved a base level of respect.

This got me thinking about the way so many of us live. The behavior we accept from others is a direct reflection of how we feel about ourselves. It’s not just about asking an Uber driver to leave you at your door, or slow down when he’s speeding, or put the air conditioning on if you’re hot (all things I have confidently asked for when needed— after years of self- coaching). It’s also about asking for a raise at work when you damn well deserve it. Or saying no to a man who is making inappropriate sexual advances toward you. Or cutting off an unhealthy friendship with someone who treats you poorly. Or speaking up when your champagne comes out and it’s flat. (Do you know how many servers I’ve apologized to because they served me a bad drink?) You get the idea.

So why are so many of us still obsessed with saying “I’m sorry”? Some research suggests that women are so worried about coming off as rude that we apologize when we really should be direct. According to a study in the journal Psychological Science, women have a much lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. In turn, this causes us to apologize more— even when we should be assertive. It causes us to use “I’m sorry” as a buffer to smooth things over when, in many cases, it’s actually the other person who should be saying it. Can you relate? I’m sure you can count more than a handful of times where you’ve started a sentence with “I’m sorry, but . . .” or found yourself apologizing when you did absolutely nothing wrong. Have you ever sent cold food back in a restaurant, only to apologize to the server for it? I know I have. May I remind you that you or I did not cook that food, and that we should be receiving food the way it’s meant to be served? Have you ever rung your neighbor’s bell because they were blasting their television late at night? I bet you stood at their doorstep and began with “I’m sorry, but can you lower your TV?” What about emailing a coworker and following up on a request? I’ll bet you apologized for that too, even though it was the coworker who was late on delivery. I think we overuse apologies because we are hardwired to be kind, nurturing creatures. We don’t want to piss people off. And even scarier to us, we don’t want to be disliked. But you must understand that asking for what you want or need does not make you a b****. Being assertive does not make you difficult to deal with. Having high standards does not make you a “princess” or “high maintenance” or any of these other bullshit terms the world likes to put on women who are confident.

Think about the women you admire most. Are they the kind of women who hang their head down and apologize for everything? Or are they the women who know their worth and confidently assert themselves? I live for women who are direct and firm but do it with the utmost respect for themselves and those around them. I think it’s important to note that you can live a guilt- free, unapologetic lifestyle and still be kind and loving. The two are not mutually exclusive.

You should never apologize for chasing the things you love. Here are a few scenarios where you can use a new phrase rather than “I’m sorry”:

  • If you accidentally bump into someone. Rather than say “I’m sorry,” say “Pardon me.”
  • When responding late to an email. Rather than say “I’m sorry for taking so long,” say “Thanks for your patience while I took a few days to respond.”
  • When you’re following up with someone. Rather than say “I’m sorry for following up,” simply say, “I’m following up.”
  • When you’re expressing how you feel. Rather than say “I’m sorry, but this is how I feel,” drop the sorry and simply say, “I feel . . .”

It’s time to create a new list of values for yourself, so that next time the S‑word tries to slip its way out, you can swallow that s**t.

Excerpted from Like She Owns the Place: Give Yourself the Gift of Confidence and Ignite Your inner Magic by Cara Alwill Leyba with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Cara Alwill Leyba, 2018.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...


Stop Starting Your Sentences With “If I Am Being Honest….”​ Here’s Why It’s Harmful and Disempowering

by Robert Glazer

14 Phrases We Should All Give Up in 2020

by Marina Khidekel
sittipun punpang / Shutterstock
Work Smarter//

The Most Common Communication Mistakes Women Make

by Hira Ali

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.