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Gaslighting

"I’m Sorry You Feel That Way" and Other Gaslighting Tactics

Why non-apologies do more harm than good.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is psychological abuse through verbal, written, and/or physical actions that cause the recipient to question their reality.
  • A non-apology is used to deflect, pretend to apologize, and ultimately win the disagreement by placing blame back on the individual.
  • The insensitivity of gaslighting often lies in the lack of self-awareness and self-inquiry to address control issues and avoidance of apologies.

In an internet search for “I’m sorry you feel that way,” the first link that popped up speaks directly to one motivation: “...a quick way to use the correct apology language to end an argument without having to admit fault” (Forsythe, 2021).

As we well know, particularly in the United States, we live in a society of legal liability fear, a constant worry of being sued. Yet these attempts to avoid lawsuits often cause further psychological harm in the lack of accountability, responsibility, just consequences, and a sincere, meaningful apology. The “I’m sorry you feel that way” approach, along with avoiding an argument in lieu of admitting fault, is good old fashioned gaslighting.

What’s Behind the Harmful Response?

It’s hard to miss the massive transformation our civilization is facing since the 2019 pandemic exposed global wounds festering just below the surface. We have continued to layer an existence on top of centuries of harm, trauma, and terrorism. The evidence is clear all around us, yet so many people remain in denial about two painful things exposed in this pandemic that humans have in common: harm and grief. So why do we continue to harm when we know how much harm hurts?

Addressing the Harmful Response

Gaslighting subject matter experts caution against addressing the “I’m sorry you feel that way” response with any reply because it indicates engagement and incites further gaslighting from the abuser.

Gaslighting, an informal term that originates from several literary and entertainment sources—including, Gaslight, the 1940 British psychological thriller based on the 1938 Hamilton play Gas Light, and the 1944 film Gaslight—is a form of psychological abuse through means of verbal, written, and/or physical actions that causes the recipient to question their experiences and reality.

In decolonizing research, gaslighting falls under the manipulations of a colonized ideology, where maintaining control and dehumanizing others ranks above being accountable, equitable, and contributing to psychological wholeness and well-being.

One solution to address sorry gaslighting is to employ self-awareness and comprehend the positionality of the psychological abuser.

Meaningful Actions for Recipients of “Sorry” Gaslighting

As the recipient of sorry gaslighting, attempts to silence and invalidate you never work. It can actually create further animosity and an unwillingness to engage with the gaslighter. And on a deeper level, if the concern is ongoing, the psychological harm and frustration can avert your attention to unhelpful thoughts.

Seek support from qualified peers, mentors, or psychological professionals who can provide specific steps and practices with follow-ups as you learn to navigate through your experience. This support should be relevant to the social changes we are experiencing on a global level, so make sure the qualified individuals themselves engage in continuous learning and decolonized self-development.

Stopping Sorry-Not-Sorry Gaslighting

Non-apologies do more harm than any good. The premise behind them is to deflect, pretend to apologize, and ultimately win the disagreement merely by placing blame back on the individual or group making the initial concern. This thinking and behavior not only dismisses the concern, but it attempts to invalidate it and terminate any further discussion.

Sorry gaslighting, instead of silencing a rebuttal, actually creates a deeper issue. Any qualified medical professional will tell you to clean a wound thoroughly before bandaging and to follow up on the wound over time to ensure it is healing properly.

So, when someone raises a concern, letting that concern become infected and dismissed with sorry gaslighting, only exacerbates the issue. A better practice is to inquire why the concern exists and to address the disagreement with a focus on finding a meaningful solution.

Since recipients of this sorry gaslighting are not silenced, but rather psychologically harmed, users of the “I’m sorry you feel that way” language should consider asking themselves why they feel the need to provide this abusive response.

The insensitivity of choosing to gaslight rather than to be conscientious and thoughtful enough to ask why, lies in the lack of self-awareness and self-inquiry to address control issues and avoidance of apologies. The sender could consider how they would feel if someone chose to sorry gaslight them.

Here are some points to consider next time you feel compelled to use your power dynamic to sorry gaslight:

  • Ask yourself: Why you are avoiding addressing the concern presented to you?
  • Rethinking your sorry gaslighting response, instead perhaps draft an email and ask a trusted peer, colleague, or mentor to take a look before sending it, especially when it may be a sensitive or triggering concern.
  • If you are courageous, explore why you felt challenged, and the need to avoid the concern. Beyond any bias, is there any truth to the concern? Thoughtful people rarely bring concerns without substance, so what are you missing or not seeing in your interactions with this individual or group?
  • Seeking a qualified therapist or psychologist can help you understand why you sorry gaslight, and can direct you towards meaningful interpersonal interactions.

Gaslighting is psychological abuse that creates harm. Learning why you engage in this abuse and how you can stop harming others can lead to meaningful lived experiences.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Facebook image: Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock

References

Berenstain, N. (2020). White feminist gaslighting. Hypatia, 35(4), 733-758. doi:http://dx.doi.org.tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/10.1017/hyp.2020.31

Borresen, K. (2018). If you say this during an apology, you’re doing it wrong. Leave your non-apology at the door. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/im-sorry-you-feel-that-way-apology_n_5ac…

Davis, A. M. & Ernst, R. (2019). Racial gaslighting. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 7(4), 761-774, DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2017.1403934

Durvasula, R. (June 16, 2020). How to Spot the Hidden Signs Someone is Gaslighting. MedCircle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FISZshe9L3s

Forsythe, F. (August 20, 2021). I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: 8 Things That Hide Behind It. Learning Mind. https://www.learning-mind.com/im-sorry-you-feel-that-way/

Ruíz, E. (2020). Cultural Gaslighting. Hypatia, 35(4), 687-713. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/hyp.2020.33

Sweet, P. L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851–875. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122419874843

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