“I’m sorry you feel that way,” and other “non-sorries” can often feel like an added insult, on top of the original grievance. But why is that?
Recent insights by Vernita Perkins, PhD and Leonard A. Jason, PhD are exploring the issue and helping explain why such non-apologies and avoiding an argument can actually do more harm than good. They also explain that such responses are in fact a form of gaslighting.
One reason that such apologies do more harm than good is that they serve the gaslighter, not the offended person. It is a sorry based on deflection, pretense of remorse and it tends to prioritize “winning” and ending an argument, rather than addressing core concerns. Such apologies also tend to place blame back on the offended individual, deepening the core issues.
A primer on gaslighting
The American Psychological Association defines gaslighting as manipulation of another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences or understanding of events.
It’s a term that was first popularised in 1940 by the British psychological thriller Gaslight based on a 1938 Hamilton play, Gas Light, in which a deceitful and conniving husband tries to drive his wife insane in order to steal from her.
The term also holds significance in decolonizing research where colonizers seek to maintain control over prioritizing accountability, equity and more generally, contributing to collective growth and well-being. It is a form of mental abuse.
Additionally, in a litigious society (society where there is constant fear of being sued), taking accountability for wrongdoing can be seen as a liability and avoiding it can become normalized and widespread.
How to respond when you’re on the receiving end of “I’m sorry you feel that way”
While you may be tempted to respond to any apology, gaslighting experts actually recommend avoiding any response, because it can indicate engagement (and indirectly validate the gaslighter), possibly making you vulnerable to further gaslighting.
Another recommendation on how to respond to non-apologies is to remain self-aware and to understand any potential underlying power dynamics in the relationship with the person doing the gaslighting.
On the part of the gaslighter, a more helpful solution is to approach the concerns with interest and curiosity and to address the disagreement with a meaningful discussion and possibly a solution that satisfies both people (we know this isn’t always possible and that conflict doesn’t always lead to closure).
Grappling with why an individual may be tempted to give a non-sorry may warrant diving deeper into issues with control and avoidance, and may require the help of a psychologist or an expert. Ultimately though, it can lead to more fulfilling relationships with others.
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