I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.

Harm Reduction and Equivocations that are Easily Misunderstood.

J. D. Carlston
6 min readJan 7, 2021
Dammit Karen

I once had a partner that would get angry every time I said “I’m sorry you feel that way.” At the time they couldn’t explain their response in a way I could understand, but I’ve since learned.

How do you know when someone is REALLY sorry?

I’ve heard a lot of people condemn that statement. I’ve heard others praise it and encourage it’s use. It can mean someone is (1) shirking responsibility or feelings, or (2) someone is expressing sorrow for another person’s circumstance.

In different lights, I can now see the important distinctions. It took me a while because I never even imagined the possibility of the first as an option.

At the time this was happening I really could not understand what the issue was with saying this. I genuinely felt sorry. I said it clearly. I did what I could to learn and correct my actions, to understand their point of view and integrate it into my own as much possible.

I also refused to take responsibility for a version of events that didn’t gibe with my own. But really, as it turns out, I misunderstood the underlying needs.

Theirs was a very different version of events, so different it was difficult for me to comprehend. The story they assigned to my actions was one of betrayal and abandonment. I think they may have seen themselves as a victim of conspiracy — that I was actively trying to work against them somehow.

Communication broke down.

At the time it didn’t make sense to me. I knew I was responsible for my actions. And I knew I was only responsible for my feelings, not someone else’s. I saw that they were in pain, and saw the anger laid on top of it. I saw that anger was directed at me. And yet, what they kept telling me I was doing to them made no sense. The victimization they claimed I’d perpetrated had no basis in my sense of the world, in my feeling or reality. Like, none.

The pain they felt lived in the story they were telling themselves about me, not in my physical actions. I made great efforts to show them I cared: Spent time, said words, gave gifts, listened to their grievances, compromised and looked for common causes.

I wracked my brain. I did what they asked and it didn’t seem to matter. I attended courses, talked to experts, read books.

In hindsight I finally realized the demands for my apologies over perceived grievances were an exploit that triangulated, manipulated and controlled my behavior whenever I attempted to engage with them.

Intent matters. The stories and the means matter, along with the end results. How you assign meaning to actions matters as well.

Saying you’re sorry can mean next to nothing, or it can mean everything.

I recently posted about how I’m striving to be mindful with my “Sorries” here as well as on twitter. Save them for real rainy days. Be specific — “I’m sorry that I _____.” Make them count when it matters.

Ultimately, there are different linguistically accurate interpretations to “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.” Each one has a different emphasis. Some are taking responsibility and others are not.

The only way to determine which is which is by watching the offending party over time and asking questions around the incident of harm.

As we’re reeling from the Coup at the Capitol and the genuine (and not-so-genuine) apologies and infighting come rolling in, we need to take stock. The future depends on it.

Four, no Five, no Six people are dead. The Capitol was vandalized. Fascism, racism, sexism, classism (all those damned isms!) are still alive and well, and really, seriously, fuck that shit.

People — government officers no less — who were complicit, who have dubious authority to kill people, who organized this coup, who call for sedition and to thwart democratic processes need to be held accountable. We need to address this head on and look at how we’re going to make it right for all our people, for our country.

Here are some questions you can ask as you’re trying to determine which kind of “Sorry” they are.

(1) Do you have a clear vision of what you would have liked to happen?

Have a clear vision of what led to the harm and how the actions could have differed and will change going forward.

You must know how you’re measuring success and whether those measures are reasonable and attainable. There must be pathways to address grievance in all functional systems.

(2) Do you understand the reasoning behind the actions that were taken?

Understand the other person’s perspective and what measures were important to them. There are probably large gaps in your worldviews, reasoning and actions in the situation.

What story drove their feelings and actions? Its totally possible that the stories are not grounded in reality. The constellations of connected events are probably not the same.

Compassion helps us be more resilient regardless. Sometimes what’s needed for growth is to cut all cords. What series of causes and effects led to their actions?

(3) Are they engaging with you about the series of events that led to the harm and their part in them?

See if they engage with the process of apology and transformation. To change they have to understand what led to the series of events and the different perspectives at play.

You both must be able to communicate your visions. You both must be willing and able to listen and share— to seek missing information and bridge the gaps in understanding and action to move forward. That is, IF you want to move forward in some kind of relationship. And No, it’s not possible with everyone.

(4) Do they understand what actions they could have taken to avoid the harm, and can they see another path to get their needs met without harm going forward?

Remorse is a series of actions coupled with a deep understanding of personal guilt for a wrong committed. They must acknowledge where the harm occurred and what actions or inactions led to it. Change must occur to resolve regret.

This might take more than once, maybe many more times. It takes work and commitment to change. It takes time to build trust. It takes repeated action. Not everyone cares if they hurt people, and some people enjoy it. Others might be feeling desperate. You need to know the difference.

(5) Is the story being told about the events actually creating a skewed perception of reality?

Build a shared version of reality. Work together to test it. Differences must have a path to move toward reconciliation.

If someone is unwilling to commit in peaceful process, if someone is using anger, disinformation, victimhood or indifference as a cudgel to control others, if they’re unwilling to work to make changes it’s time to stop trying.

Their sorry is worthless.

Self-defense is warranted.

Notice when they get angry and understand its root. Anger is often driven by insecurity and hopelessness, always by unmet need. Its an externally focused stress response. But it isn’t always justified (by fact). And then sometimes it is.

Being intolerant of intolerance is not a paradox.

Bonus: What would it look like to offer them forgiveness? How might I achieve balance knowing what I now know?

If the people aren’t sorry, if they don’t continue to listen, change becomes impossible.

Compassion is equal parts self and other care, starting with self.

Sometimes all someone wants to do is cast their shadow on you. Be your own light.

That’s when I start thinking about Sapolsky’s (relatively) peaceful baboon troop and how they achieve it.

Listen to what’s important. Clear standards, kind behavior, strong boundaries, and a path to diffuse emotion, rationally, can improve systems of change.

As always, feel free to reach out to me here or on twitter. I’m curious about your thoughts and appreciate feedback.

Here’s some more info on why this is NOT an apology:

Psychology Today: "I’m Sorry That You Feel That Way." The Subtleties of Gaslighting.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mental-health-revolution/202203/i-m-sorry-you-feel-way-the-subtleties-gaslighting

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J. D. Carlston

Human hacking the boundaries of experience. Mixing Poetry & Engineering. Making hay wending wyrd. Twitter:@jdcarlston, IG:@r0zm4ddr, (they)