This morning I read this article on xoJane about apologizing. The part that stuck out at me wasn't the main point of it, though:
Our reluctance to say sorry when we’ve been wrong often causes more harm than our original offense. We argue, we gaslight. We force the person we’ve harmed to justify, over and over again, their right to feel hurt by our actions, and then we still deny them that. We make them the enemy, we become the injured party. We demand apologies for having to think of ourselves as less than good people. And we don’t learn. - Ijeoma Oluo
I only learned the term gaslighting more recently, but the phenomenon is familiar. It's something I've lived through over and over. From when I was somewhere around five years old, my feelings were not only invalidated, but I was made to feel like I was crazy, overreacting, too sensitive, too emotional... When I got picked on, harassed, and bullied, I'd get upset - I'd try and stand up for myself, but beneath the surface I was internalizing all of it. Eventually I would crumple emotionally, and run away to cry my face off.
I wish that was the worst part. The worst part was that after a few minutes of sobbing, I would be approached - under the guise of being soothed and comforted. But instead of soothing, comforting words, the minimizing would begin: I would be told that the situation was "an accident", that they didn't mean to hurt me, and that I was overreacting. And that because it was me who had overreacted and caused a scene, that I should go apologize. I should go apologize to the person who had teased, bullied, and tormented me.
This happened over and over, I have no idea how many times. It blurred into a hazy memory of never knowing when I would be verbally attacked and made to feel like shit about myself. And then told to apologize for it.
Think that's confusing as an adult? Well, it wasn't confusing as a child, because as a child, I didn't have the ability to separate myself from the situation. I internalized all of it.
As an adult, I've found myself confused by how apologies could at times so easily go awry. I had a string of incidents in my late 20's where when I'd attempt to assert myself (something I was practicing as part of counselling to overcome the cloud of anxiety I'd taken up permanent residence within - I wasn't good at it initially and it's still a work in progress), and instead of the other person listening and responding in the way I expected, they'd explode at me. The situation was, in a blink of an eye, flipped on its head and thrown back in my face.
"We make them the enemy, we become the injured party."
I never understood what was going on, but I knew what I was supposed to do when someone exploded at me, antagonized me, or attacked me in some way: I was supposed to apologize.
And that's what I did. Over and over.
I'd try to communicate about something that wasn't working for me, the other person would explode, and I would apologize for causing the explosion (the original issue I brought up would never get dealt with). As much as this worked for years, helping to maintain the status quo - I wouldn't call it "keeping the peace", though that's what the original intent was in the pattern when I was younger - eventually, it stopped working.
Something changed when I started to really assert myself, when I stopped internalizing everything that was going wrong. The apologies stopped working. I'd apologize when the other person exploded, but instead of it restoring the status quo, in my panicked attempt to keep the situation from spinning out of control, my profuse apologies had the opposite effect: nuclear meltdown. Complete mental volcano eruption. I'm talking about projectile verbal vomit of years upon years of pent up resentments and hurts... Vile, destructive, corrosive, unfiltered hatred.
The first couple times this happened - well, old habits are hard to break - I continued to pander and apologize. I allowed my own feelings to be minimized. It was all that I knew to do. But it did not help. No matter how hard I tried to smooth things over, they would not be smoothed. Relationships ended.
Eventually, I recognized the pattern and realized that this wasn't effective. Not only that, but my counselling was paying off, and I was no longer willing to pander to people who were verbally attacking me. So I stopped. The next time this happened, I initially started my habitual apologies, but then I was hit with the sense of deja vu. I knew this story, I knew how it played out. So instead of continuing to apologize and try to fix things, I walked away. Same end result, save the turmoil. Not ideal, but it certainly saved me months of unnecessary upset.
The only thing that nagged at me was that it still didn't make sense. How did my apologizing for offending the other person or trying to fix whatever was breaking make them unleash such vitriol? The reaction was always completely out of proportion with what was going on. It was scary and out of control and... nonsensical.
Until a few weeks ago. I can't remember why, but I started talking about this with a friend, a particularly smart friend, and we figured at least part of it out. She said to me, they're pissed because I won't fight back. I thought about it, and tried to put myself in the other person's shoes (eventually realizing I'd been on the opposite side of a similar scenario a couple years ago), and it all started to fall into place.
Here's what happens:
- Person A does something that person B is not happy about, be it a small unintentional offense, or a full on contemptuous attack.
- Person B tells person A that they're not happy about what happened.
- Person A argues that they're wrong, gaslights, denies what they've done, and turns the situation around so that now person B is now on the offense.
- Person B (if they have been habituated to respond in this way or wants to avoid the conflict) quickly apologizes, backpedals, and otherwise takes responsibility for everything, doing everything they can to try and restore the status quo.
- Person A then explodes and ramps up the denial/gaslight/turnaround several times more, turning it into a full blown attack on person B - on everything they've ever done, on their entire being.
- Usually at this point, either person A then terminates the relationship immediately, or sometimes they'll go around in circles for a bit with person A yelling/attacking and person B pandering/apologizing, only to have person A eventually end the relationship. No amount of person B trying to mend the situation helps.
Why does step #6 happen the way it does? It's not inspite of the apology, it's because of the apology. It's because person B won't argue back, won't yell back, won't attack back and instead shrinks down and withdraws. It enrages person A. They go even more ballistic.
The apology makes person A feel like person B doesn't care enough to fight. It makes them crazy. And then depending on the situation, this may trigger them to unleash every single thing they ever held against person B in one horribly painful unburdening. Person B responds in one of two ways - either they keep trying to convince person A otherwise (which gets nowhere and person A eventually terminates the relationship), or upon hearing what a steaming heap of crap person A really thinks person B is, person B is too injured to keep trying to fix things and terminates the relationship.
When person A takes the road of denying, gaslighting, verbal attack, there's no winning and no way out. Unless... at step #4, instead of apologizing, person B fights back instead of apologizing - that being completely dependent on how person B has learned to deal with conflict.
The thing is, this could have all been avoided. If the initial expression/assertion of hurt had actually been listened to, and just empathized with or apologized for. Realistic? Not necessarily. But something to strive for. For so long, I've wondered why this particular train was unstoppable once it'd left the station. At least I finally have a bit of an understanding of it. I still don't know how best to deal with this kind of situation best after step #3, if apologizing inappropriately is off the table. But I'm a lot closer to figuring it out.
I'll keep you posted. And if you think you have the answer or some insights, comment away!