This past week I was on the receiving end of several apologies. Many were solid effective apologies, however, in the mix were some that were renditions of the “I am sorry my actions triggered you” apology.
To these people, I sent a reframe:
“Your apology is focused on me, and I would rather your apology be focused on you and how what you did stepped past standards of care in our community. Please know that my act of advocating for myself does not mean that I am triggered. I am simply advocating for boundaries.”
What is a trigger?
A person is triggered when an event or someone’s action reminds them of past events. An example would be if I was driving with freshly baked banana bread, its aroma filling the car. If I then experienced a car accident, I might associate the smell of banana bread with the pain and trauma of the accident. This will then influence my response to banana bread in the future. For example, suppose I was at a retreat center and the Chef made banana bread for dessert. I might get triggered by the smell of it baking and start to have flashbacks or emotions related to the car accident. The key issue that makes something a “trigger” is that the reaction to an event or someone’s action steps past the incident to include things from the past.
We all experience triggers on a spectrum. In response to any situation, my experience will be related to the actual experience, but experiences will always influence my perception.
The banana bread story is an example of a 100% trigger because baking banana bread would be reasonably expected at a retreat center. The retreat did nothing wrong. But most time in life triggers mix in and out to varying degrees. For example, in a given situation, I could mostly be advocating to re-establish a boundary that was broken, and a small part of my reaction could be triggered because this situation reminded me of other times something like this happened. All-day long every day we are all a mix of reactions and triggers because we all come into every situation with a back-story of experiences.
Even if it is a 100% trigger, stay person-focused
In the banana bread situation, the Chef could say:
“I am sorry that baking banana bread triggered you”.
I suggest a person-centered approach that does not assume a trigger. Person-centered approaches involve supporting each person as the expert on themselves. For example, the Chef could start by checking in:
“Let me know if I got this right… did the baking banana bread remind you of your car accident? If so, I am really sorry that happened”
The Chef and the retreat attendee could then work on an accommodation which might be, for instance, giving them the heads up when banana bread will be baked so they can be more prepared.
Shifting the apology when community standards of care are broken
I am now going to use an extreme banana bread story as this can help the reader understand the issue by drawing a starker comparison. Let’s suppose the chef had spit on the banana bread before serving it. When the person being served justifiably became upset, the “I am sorry my actions triggered you” apology is inappropriate. The chef has stepped past community norms and agreements. They have acted with aggression and lack of care. The person who is upset may or may not be triggered. They may just be grossed out and angry at the Chef, having little or no past experiences that are influencing their emotions. In this case, the person is not triggered because the confluence of past experiences is not occurring. It can also be a mix of both. The person could be triggered because the chef’s action reminds them of shitty things that have happened to them in the past. Whether the person is triggered is inconsequential to the fact that an act of aggression occurred that needs to be addressed. The fact that a reaction may be a trigger or part trigger should not undercut or cancel out their outrage at being served banana bread that has been spit on!
Creating a banana bread apology that offers accountability
I suggest that an apology can focus on the actions that overstepped:
- community norms or guidelines
- a general standard of care
- a previously established relationship agreement.
Such an apology from the banana bread maker could be:
“I am sorry I spit on your banana bread”
(they name a community norm and/or expectation they have broken)
“I am sorry I did not make enough banana bread and you did not get a piece”
(they name that their behavior slipped below standards of community care)
“I am sorry I put egg in your banana bread when we had established that all the meals were going to be vegan”
(they name a prior relationship agreement they have broken)
Banana Bread Apology that focuses on the person who is “hurt”
In the above examples, the person committing the “wrong-doing” is holding themselves accountable and making the apology about them. However, I frequently experience apologies that are the opposite of this approach:
“I am sorry that spit on your banana bread is triggering you”
“I am sorry that egg in your banana bread is triggering you”
“I am sorry that not getting a piece of banana bread is triggering you”
These types of apologies often feel condescending to the receiver. The person who is apologizing is making themselves the expert on whether the other person is triggered or not.
Deflecting attention away from one’s actions
So, if we can agree that these types of apologies are inappropriate, why do people use them? Why are these often the first words that want to come to out of my mouth when I have overstepped a boundary?
One of the key factors is that these types of apologies work to deflect attention away from my actions and instead place attention towards the person who is hurt.
If your actions are causing you cognitive dissonance because they do not match the “good” person you think you are, or want to be, then you might use these types of apologies to deflect attention away from the uncomfortable internal feelings your actions are causing. We do this so the “I am a good person” narrative does not risk falling apart.
These types of apologies can also be an attempt to rebuild or strengthen your “I am a good person” narrative because the apology seemingly is offering care for the other person. But this is not care! Care is about supporting another person, not about protecting oneself.
Many times the “I am sorry my action triggered you” apology is just avoidance. But the underlying reasons can become more manipulative.
When the person who has acted inappropriately indicates with their language that they believe it is all about the person being triggered, it is a form of gaslighting. The term Gaslighting (1) comes from a 1930’s play called “Gas Light” that was adapted into a film. In the story, a husband causes his wife to question her sanity by secretly dimming and brightening gas lights and making noises in the house, and pretending that these things did not happen. Gaslighting can be difficult to see at first, but it generally refers to a pattern in which the “gaslighter” attempts to make someone doubt themselves and their grasp on reality. (2)
The reality for the person who had their boundaries overstepped is that someone did something shitty to them. When the scenario is presented to them as being entirely about them being triggered it can make them start to doubt that something shitty was done to them in the first place.
I am sorry I got caught
Sometimes the unaccountable apology can hold an unspoken layer, which is the sentiment of “I am sorry I got caught”, or “I am sorry you are calling me on this”. In this case, the apology is more than just reflexive self-protection. It becomes a representation of an inability to have compassion for another. It is an inability to put another’s needs over one’s own or to see yourself in another person’s shoes. Typically, this is seen as narcissism.
Another uglier side of these apologies is they are often a setup for DARVO. DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. To escape accountability, the person denies having crossed a boundary, attacks the person bringing forth the boundary concern, and reverses the roles, painting themselves as the victim and the person bringing forth the boundary concern as the offender. This pattern is remarkably effective in silencing the person who has come forward. (1)
The “I am sorry my action triggered you” works to move focus away from the apologizer’s egregious actions, which is a form of denial. The apology hints at the belief that the main event is that the person on the receiving end got triggered. This can then be a setup for the next step in which the apologizer becomes the victim of the “trigger” the other person is having.
Here is an example of an apology for a boundary-crossing that is heading into DARVO territory:
“I am sorry that my action triggered you. What support do you need? You have to sort this out because helping you with this is taking up a lot of my time.”
It mimics care when instead what is being offered is further attack.
Power and privilege
Another undercurrent in these types of apologies are the power imbalances in our society related to gender, race, ability, class, and other “isms”. The person to whom society affords power and privilege may feel they deserve more care than others.
In these cases the “I am sorry my action hurt you” apology occurs because the person can’t even see they have done something callous or hurtful. To them, such actions are the norm in their society or community. In these cases, it is most likely that the apology will try to delve into what is wrong with the reaction of the person on the lower end of a power imbalance.
We all use these behaviors
It is tempting to read about these types of abusive behaviors and think, “I never do that!” Yet I believe we all use these techniques to a certain degree and admitting it is part of the solution. It is human nature to protect ourselves and avoid the discomfort of examining one’s own behaviors. If we can admit that these behaviours occur on a spectrum and that we all use them, we are unraveling the “I am a good person” narrative that so often gets in the way of a solid apology.
Apologies that hold you accountable for your actions
The prework in an apology is to figure out if you have overstepped community norms or guidelines, a general standard of care, or a previously established relationship agreement. Your job is not to figure out if the other person’s reaction is triggered by past experiences. That is their job to work through.
Steps towards an apology that holds you accountable:
- Assess if you have broken community guidelines, standards of care or prior agreements you have made. Work to ensure “I am a good person” narratives do not get in the way of this endvour.
- Assess power imbalances and how they might be making it hard to see if you have overstepped community guidelines, standards of care or prior agreements. This assessment might also lead you to realise standards of care in your community need to be changed so they do not favour those who society affords more privilege and power.
- Create an apology that names your action, or lack of action, that overstepped community guidelines, standards of care or prior agreements.
- Do not make yourself the expert on whether you think the person on the receiving end of your apology is hurt or triggered. That is their job to sort out. Support them as the most qualified expert on this.
- Consider actions or a plan to prevent the boundary crossing from re-occurring and self-accountability processes for these plans. People get tired of repeat apologies if there is no shift in one’s behavior.
- Finally ask if they consent to an apology from you before proceeding. They might not want an apology from you at this time.
I write this post in reaction to all the apologies I have received that did not feel good. I also write it as a reminder for when I want to apologize for my actions. This moment will inevitably arise as the processes of consent and boundary setting will inevitably be an imperfect and messy process. This gives us the chance to practice accountable apologies. So let’s make banana bread. The process of making and serving banana bread will never be perfect and so it will give us the chance to practice our banana bread apologies often.
1) This definition of Gaslighting is paraphrased and inspired by the article Gaslighting: “How to Recognize this form of Emotional Abuse” published on MAY 27, 2020 – by Jessica Howard. https://canadianwomen.org/blog/gaslighting-how-to-recognize-this-form-of-emotional-abuse/
2) Quote for the article “Darvo” Changing Minds website “DARVO“ When wrong-doers are confronted with their acts (which may be criminal), they show a pattern that can be abbreviated as DARVO. This stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. The person thus denies having committed the offense, attacks the accuser and reverses the roles, painting themselves as the victim and their actual victim as the actual guilty party [the offender].” http://changingminds.org/explanations/behaviors/coping/darvo.htm
Kathleen Rea fell in love with contact improvisation (CI) 21 years ago and has been involved in the CI community ever since. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and been nominated for 5 DORA awards. She has taught in the George Brown Dance College dance program for the past 21 years. Kathleen has a learning disability that throughout her life causes writing to take 4 to 8 times longer than for the average person. It is one of life’s great surprises and mysteries for her that despite the struggle she developed a love of writing and is a published author. She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts with a minor in Psychology. She had a psychotherapy practice for 17 years which she recently left to peruse her art career full time. She has a passion for functional movement and is a teacher candidate for the Axis Syllabus. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance productions a not-for-profit contact improvisation-based dance company that produces the Contact Dance International Film Festival, dance-theatre productions, and a weekly dance jam in Toronto. Being on the autism spectrum she also identifies as being neuro-atypical and works to educate the world about neurodiversity.