“I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” Is The Most Infuriating Apology Ever

Photographed by Flora Maclean
I’m having what I would call a ‘debrief’ with a friend after a boozy pre-lockdown get-together. It started as a fun night, with plenty of drink and discussion, but ended badly with a heated disagreement. The next morning, with a sore head, I text to say I’m sorry things got out of hand and apologise for the immature way I acted. I expect to get a sorry back and for that to be that, but no – the embers are still hot, we stoke them and it sparks another fight. 
Trying to sort it out, I explain how I feel (patronised and hurt by her nasty words). After my outpouring, surely an apology is forthcoming?
I wait and watch as she starts typing
The message arrives: not "I’m sorry" but "Well, I’m sorry you feel that way."
We haven’t spoken since.
"I’m sorry you feel that way" may sound like an apology but dissect the semantics and you’ll find it’s quite the opposite. It’s actually the pinnacle of passive-aggressive buck-passing, an anti-apology, and it’s everywhere. Watch any reality TV show and it will crop up eventually (it’s ubiquitous in the Real Housewives franchises). On social media there are thousands of instances (most of them wholly genuine responses to "I feel sad/depressed/lonely" in which case it is, of course, perfectly acceptable) but it’s the insidious usage – the substitution of "sorry you feel that way" for a real apology – that is so pesky and problematic. I’m not alone in being triggered by it. Plenty of people online have started to call it out as insincere. 
On 18th November, Twitter user @Céline tweeted: "Idk who needs to hear this but 'I’m sorry you feel that way' isn’t an apology." The tweet got 4.6k likes. 

The thread continued: "I’m sorry I MADE YOU feel that way, is an apology because you’re actually taking accountability. And if you don’t feel sorry for what you did, just don’t apologise. No apology is better than an insincere apology." (While we are here, see also: "I’m sorry you feel that way's" close cousin, "I’m sorry you took it that way".)

In late November, Home Secretary Priti Patel gave a masterclass in the non-apology apology when an official investigation concluded that she had bullied members of her own staff. Addressing the findings in a broadcast interview, Patel said: "I’m sorry that my behaviour has upset people and I’ve never intentionally set out to upset anyone." It may sound like an apology but listen closely and you'll realise that it lacks sincerity and fails to take any real ownership or accountability. 
Zoe Clews is an anxiety, trauma and self-esteem therapist with a practice in London’s Harley Street. I ask her to help me unravel why a seemingly innocuous phrase can be such an irritant.
"'I'm sorry that you feel that way' is the standard non-apology apology," she begins. "The reason it can feel so irritating, triggering, shaming and downright incandescent rage-inducing is because someone is not apologising for the impact their words or actions may have had on you, they’re apologising for your feelings, which is neither their job nor their right. Their job is to apologise for their actions, behaviours or words."

It's the equivalent of telling someone who is wound up to 'calm down' – it has the exact opposite effect. 

There’s more. Clews continues: "'I'm sorry you feel that way' is also minimising. It's an instant shutdown that lacks empathy for how you may be feeling – a passive-aggressive way of saying, 'I don’t have the energy, curiosity or responsibility to find out why my actions, behaviours or words have hurt you.' And it implies you shouldn’t be feeling that way at all. It’s an abdication of any responsibility painted over by superficial politeness that seeks to invalidate your emotions." Clews believes that in many "I'm sorry you feel that way" situations, the person might just as well say they don’t care how you are feeling, as that might at least facilitate an honest conversation. 
To me, the phrase has become like a red rag to a bull. It’s the equivalent of telling someone who is wound up to "calm down" – it has the exact opposite effect. 
Twenty-seven-year-old writer Fani had her own "sorry you feel that way" rage. "One of my closest friends said it a few months ago after a discussion where I felt like she didn’t understand me and my feelings and started making it all about her. Then I got the classic 'I’m sorry you feel that way'. I was speechless. To be honest that reply really didn’t help. It’s not honest because instead of admitting you’ve done something wrong, you just pretend to agree with the person that’s upset so that they stop feeling annoyed with you. Instead of dealing with your feelings and doing the work, they say this to make the issue go away. It’s a classic response for someone who isn’t empathetic."
What would have worked better in that situation? Fani says: "I prefer something like ‘I hear you, I shouldn’t have done that’ or even 'You’re right, how can I make it better?'"
Clews backs this up. "Personally I'm a fan of anything – no matter how provocative – over passive aggression. In any personal or professional relationship, feeling as though you haven’t been heard and acknowledged creates resentment, anger and frustration. A true apology takes ownership of the impact of actions and words. Being thoughtful in how to express that is paramount in helping the hurt or offended individual to feel acknowledged and heard, rather than belittled or dismissed." 
That was the case for business and lifestyle mentor Charlotte, who got her "sorry, not sorry" while on holiday at a luxurious resort. "I had paid a lot of money to be there and was really looking forward to my stay. However, when I got to my room it was very small; I booked a suite. The hotel was fully booked so I couldn’t swap. They offered me a free meal and bottle of expensive wine to compensate and, although lovely, it in no way made up financially for my nights lost in the suite. I expressed that I wasn’t happy, explained clearly why, and was simply told ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ by their representative." The issue got resolved in the end but Charlotte says: "Those few little words still always stick in my mind... 'I’m sorry you feel like that'. It comes across as rude and dismissive."

They're apologising for your feelings, which is neither their job nor their right. Their job is to apologise for their actions, behaviours or words.

For Haley, 31, it was a bit more personal. "I started seeing someone new just before lockdown but before long he called it off. He said he wasn't ready for a relationship, I was. But then he came back, apologised and chased me again. We dated again for a few more weeks. Then, one day when I asked if he wanted to go for a walk, he dumped me, again, because he ‘wasn't ready’. For the first time in the six months of knowing him, I lost my shit and reminded him of all the cruel things he’d said and how careless what he did was." His response? "I'm really sorry you feel like that." "I was so angry," Haley says. "He messed me around so much."
Turns out, Elton John (and let’s not forget Blue) was bang on when he sang "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" but why? Why do we find it so hard to apologise sincerely? Clews sheds some light. "Many of us struggle with this because putting yourself at someone's mercy takes a strong sense of self. We don't want to be wrong, to look bad or weak. It's no secret that it's actually strong to be vulnerable. It takes guts to admit you royally messed up and are genuinely sorry. It doesn’t feel good to completely own the fact you were thoughtless, careless, rude or selfish – none of us likes to be seen in a bad light but people who have a strong inner sense of self don’t rely on what everyone else thinks of them and in this way, they are able to apologise (even though it may smart like hell)." 

In many 'I'm sorry you feel that way' situations, the person might just as well say they don't care how you are feeling, as that might at least facilitate an honest conversation. 

"For those who don’t have that inner strength," she continues, "it’s easier to default to denial, blame and finger-pointing. 'I'm sorry you feel that way' is simply a polite way of saying 'You're wrong and I'm right'."   
So without starting a war, how should you react to an insincere apology? 
"The most important thing to say is 'I don't feel you've actually acknowledged my feelings here. Would it be helpful if I explained further why I am feeling the way I do?'" She suggests inviting the person to pick a time to have a deeper conversation, which also allows you both to get back into your "window of tolerance" – the emotional place where we are not triggered but feel steady and adult.    
For those who find themselves apology-averse, Clew offers a reminder that a proper apology has four steps. First (for anyone down the back), actually say sorry. Second, validate and acknowledge (for example, "I see why you'd be upset by that"). Third, take ownership, and finally, ask how you can move forward – maybe you can compromise and do something different next time.    
For me, I think I lean towards over-apologising. My challenge is not to use "sorry" as a get out of jail (or the doghouse) card but to really mean it every time. For those who dislike or suck at saying sorry, my advice would be this: practise. 

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