TW: description of an anxiety attack, PTSD and triggers, reference to sexual assault
I sometimes (no, all the time, but sometimes sounds nicer) feel like apologies serve the person apologising more than they do the person being apologised to. I never feel better when someone tells me they’re sorry they hurt me. It doesn’t mean anything, really; people say it because they hope you won’t sue, they say it because they want to end the conversation, they say it because they want to feel like they’ve fixed things.
I can’t remember if I mentioned this, specifically, so I’ll go through it again. I discussed my anxiety on an anonymous forum. It’s anonymous, so my name, my online name, my other online name etc. weren’t attached to it. That’s meant to be respected, though when I brought this up with the people who run it, I was told it was my fault for providing too much identifying information and they’re really sorry but they can’t do anything.
First the response was like “well it’s easy, you can just email someone about it!”
Then it was “well, by having anxiety about email because it’s a PTSD trigger for you to have unread emails, you’re being a bad person!”
Then it was “well, it’s not real anxiety anyway, because they said they emailed someone before!”
I haven’t been back since to know how much worse it got, but there are actually other ways to talk to people online other than email, and even so, anxiety doesn’t work like that. Sometimes you can do a thing, and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you do all the yucky things together and then go do happy things to make up for it. Sometimes you’re just in a better place to cope with it, or you push through because it’s necessary then deal with the fall out. This latter is a thing I can’t do, because that sets up flashbacks, and then it turns into a PTSD episode, so I don’t do it unless I literally have to, because the consequences are worse. It takes a few weeks to get back to a balanced point, and I have to self-care even more in that time, and I don’t have to explain that to people, usually.
So when I came back to the computer, I had an email from a total stranger to me, who had identified me as the person from the anonymous forum. The email started off with “Not to make you anxious, but…” and explicitly stated that an anonymous forum has no expectation of, you know, anonymity. I cried and didn’t sleep for two days, and agonised about replying, until the voices in my head got too much, and I had to reply just to shut them up.
So then this person wrote back, just to say sorry. They knew their email had hurt me. They knew they crossed a line. So they emailed again. I don’t know why my server-side block didn’t stop it coming through. But this apology only served them – it hurt me again, because it was an email and I didn’t expect it and I had nine emails and that made me cry. The email said nothing important. They knew that emailing me hurt me and deliberately chose to do it again, because their desire to say an apology outweighed my desire to be left alone and not receive emails in the first place, or have my identity outed. They, essentially, forced me to be part of a conversation to make themselves feel better.
I don’t feel better that they said sorry. They’ve extended the time that I have to suffer. Their apology doesn’t help me sleep without nightmares or feel safe checking to see if my mum sent me a cat picture.
I wish it was just them, but this seems to be a thing in society in general. When this was all new to me, and I was only just off work, I was assaulted and encouraged to report it to the police, since it fit the pattern of a serial case that was currently heavily publicised.
I had to go to the police station at 1am, otherwise they would send officers to my house, even though I had a flight to catch at 6am, and when I was there, I had to demonstrate the places I’d been touched in front of a crowd of drunk male people, at the front desk. Obviously, I didn’t get the job I was flying out to interview for, because I was so tired my brain stopped working. I also had bonus assault on the plane, because apparently being asleep doesn’t exempt you from the food cart, and flight attendants will ask the man next to you to hit you so they can ask if you want a drink, even though you already have one. It was fraught with issues, and as usual, I assumed nothing would be done.
A few weeks after, I had just woken up (at the respectable time of 11:30am) and my phone rang. This was when I was still stupid enough to try to answer it, before things got really bad. Obviously, my ability to communicate was rather impaired, coupled with the clumsy pre-fuel morningness that most people get at least once or twice. This man’s entire job was to deal with “victims of crime” (their words, not mine) and he spent half an hour yelling at me for being asleep during the day. Never mind that I was, you know, sick and not working; according to him, I was only allowed to sleep during the day if I worked night shift. He would not believe he was wrong, and even pulled the “let’s start this conversation over because you’re not cooperating” card. I gave up, yelled that I didn’t want him to call me again, and collapsed from the effort. When the case was over, and I’d dealt with the investigating officer directly (who was incredibly respectful,and behaved exactly as I expected), I put in a complaint.
Eventually, I received a letter from the acting commissioner for police complaints.
He was not amused with me, and I feel like I’ve gone through this before, so here are the highlights
- The person who took my call when I asked if I could report over the phone was very sensitive when she insisted on sending officers to my house, demanded my medical information, and refused to let me choose where I reported the incident.
- The person who interviewed me about my complaint did her very best and obviously she wasn’t biased at all since she was a police officer and stated that most of my complaint wouldn’t even be investigated because it was too hard.
- The man who had been yelling at me on the phone for sleeping when I was sick had apologised and, literally, “how dare you not accept his apology”. I had asked that he be retrained, and the response was “all officers go through training, so he doesn’t need to.”
Well, I said I didn’t want anything to do with him. I asked that he be retrained because it was clear he wasn’t able to actually do his job, that is, liaise with “victims of crime”, whatever their circumstances. Apparently they felt the fact that he wanted to apologise, you know, after someone told him I was offended (a fact he couldn’t glean for himself at the time), excused him from any wrongdoing. I had asked to have no contact with him – him wanting to apologise flies in the face of that. Apologising doesn’t improve his skills, or make him more aware that some people need to sleep a lot, or may have days off work, or be unwell, or just, you know different. (And, if he thought everyone had to be at work during the day, why was he calling me when he thought I was at work?)
I wrote back, I got a letter back, and I was so angry that I left it somewhere and haven’t read it yet. It’s clear they won’t listen, either. I hope he didn’t get to stay acting commissioner, though; I don’t even bother with the police any more, anyway. The last time I dealt with them, a man was threatening me in public, and they wanted to call me am ambulance. Because, you know, a man twice my size was threatening me.
Apologies don’t solve the underlying issue that caused the thing that someone decides they want to apologise for. Forcing someone back into a situation that is harmful or upsetting to them so you can apologise doesn’t indicate that you’re actually sorry you hurt them, or that you won’t do it again, because the very act of apologising is hurting them. Sure, apologies can happen organically, if you have a relationship with a person that is being maintained separate from the incident. In that case, though, you’re not going out of your way to force someone to accept it; you’re acknowledging an incident and making it clear you will do better as the relationship continues. There’s a context where you can ask how to improve, and sometimes there’s even a group to back you up or provide support. You do not need to force yourself back into someone’s sphere specifically to apologise, when there has been no indication (or a clear indication otherwise, as in my second example) that it is desired. All it does, most times, is bring up hurtful memories, retraumatise or trigger someone, and says to the person that your need to apologise outweighs their desire to not have to deal with you, or their desire to not be retraumatised/triggered/otherwise harmed.
There’s a social pressure on people to accept apologies. I’m not really sure why – part of it comes from the perception that a person apologising is lowering themselves somehow, or making themselves vulnerable. That’s not always the case – where there is no organic opportunity to do so, apologising requires a person to be intrusive and to use their power over someone to make them pay attention. There’s a growing fear of apologies; if someone apologises, it’s an admission of guilt that can be used against them in a suit for damages. Some people argue against that, with the idea that apologising is a social nicety, a thing that people say to acknowledge an incident without taking the blame – “I’m sorry you’re hurt” = “I can see that you are bleeding, let me get a first aid kit”. If either is the case, it makes deliberately reaching out to someone to apologise meaningless, because it means nothing. Then you get the opposite, people who apologise who hope that it will make people not want to sue. Like, when I complained to the hospital about the way I was treated, they said they were sorry and the staff were sent to communication training. I don’t know how communication training is meant to stop someone flat out assaulting someone else, but they said that in the hope that I wouldn’t take the complaint further. Of course, they want to not have it happen again, because people can sue for that. I don’t feel any more confident that it won’t happen again, because it’s such an ingrained behaviour that clearly a seminar won’t help. They apologised twice, actually, in each letter they sent. I only want to know that the person who stripped me and took my comfort bear away then forced him back into my hands (when I had made it clear before hand that nobody was to touch him, and other people touching my things makes them dirty and I cant use them again…) is no longer able to do that to anyone else, and that the person who told me that the surgery wouldn’t be happening and then wouldn’t let me leave after it did, doesn’t get to deal with people any more. Saying sorry to me isn’t the desired outcome – it’s a way to minimise liability by manipulating social norms. If someone says sorry they know they’ve done something wrong, so if they say that they’re expecting to disarm the person complaining and prevent future consequences. In that case, the apology is a weapon, meant to reinforce power.
Except, you know when it’s possibly an admission of liability or a weapon to derail an argument or they know that by doing so they’re reinforcing their social position. No wonder it doesn’t really mean anything.
There’s another aspect to apologising, and that is the gendered one – a female is expected to apologise for speaking up in a business environment, otherwise they’re considered rude, even if a man doing the same does not have to, unless they’re considered less manly, meaning everyone who isn’t binary or a masculine stereotype also has to apologise for existing. There, it’s used to reinforce power in the other direction, because having to frame their speech like that to be taken seriously makes people feel less respected, less valuable, and less like part of the team. And so on.
Then there’s domestic violence situations, where the violent party apologises, manipulating the non-violent party’s emotions to make them stay. Also based in power, also reinforcing power, but not quite the same – it is aimed to make the non-violent party not trust themselves, because if they apologised, they won’t do it again, even though there’s that instinct saying not to trust it. Especially if there’s a big redemption arc, or another layer of power, or a promise.
It’s very rare that making a special effort to force yourself back into someone’s sphere just to apologise for breaking it is a good thing. It hasn’t ever been, in my experience. It’s a lot more powerful for someone to learn from it and move on.
In this case, apologising necessitated repeating the very action that caused harm. It shows a remarkable lack of awareness. I ended writing back and expressly stating I did not want to hear from them again, taking the blame for not being clear enough on that the first time, because as a non-binary person everything I say has to be softened and qualified in order to be taken seriously. I do not want to hear from you. I do not want to continue in a situation where you might feel it necessary to continue invading my personal space and making me cry and have voices in my head. I do not want you to take away my choice of whether I engage with you or not because you have decided your need to assert yourself and apologise is more important than my need to not be placed in a situation that will trigger me. There are so many layers and issues around apologies, and the word ‘sorry’ (which, being Australian, also transfer to ‘deeply regret’), that you can’t just expect that saying it it will make things okay again. Especially, when, you know, you’re preventing the person you’re apologising to from moving on for no other reason than your desires. Sorry doesn’t make it never have happened, ignoring someone’s expressed wish to not hear from you isn’t justified by the word ‘sorry’, and it’s very rare that just saying ‘sorry’ without any actual understanding of what you did informing your actions is going to be helpful.
Basically, it’s like this:
“I know that emailing you will make you have an anxiety attack and that you didn’t want anyone to know that it was you, so I’m ignoring that and emailing you anyway!”
“Yeah, um, don’t do that. That’s ridiculously harmful, wrong, and disrespectful, and you actively chose to hurt me. I don’t want to hear from you, this isn’t a discussion, I’m out of the situation now, move along.”
“I’m so sorry!”
All that says is that this person didn’t understand that they did something wrong, and chose to repeat their error because they sort of maybe got the impression that they possibly hurt someone and decided apologising would acknowledge that they screwed up. Unfortunately, apologising only magnified the harm they caused, and highlighted that they did not understand what their error was (they outed someone, they emailed someone who specifically stated that email was a trigger, and then did. it. AGAIN. when they were told not to.)
It’s still nothing on the scale of spectacular unawareness that led to this thing becoming so pervasive it’s functionally permanent. But, in that case, I get to choose whether I let that into my mind today, and I choose not to.
Because I have that choice. This other person took that away from me. Hopefully, if they still don’t get it, this time the server-side block works.
I really shouldn’t have to block people to prevent their stupid impacting my QOL. Nor should anyone be forcing themselves on other people because “saying sorry will make you feel better!” or “apologising will make everything okay again”. It doesn’t.
And now, because I typed that one phrase, I’ve gone and triggered myself. It’s not just a memory that’s uncomfortable and will go away. Nope. It’s the heartbeat-raising, hyperventilating, hearing-their-voices-in-my-head, feeling-like-I’m-there, sense-of-wrongness that means nightmares for a week. In a few minutes, I’ll start shaking. I would normally get my bear, but he’s dirty, and comes with memories of him being taken from me. Right now, I can’t breathe.
I had a panic attack at work, and I pushed it down and went to get on with stuff. I wasn’t allowed to get on with stuff until I explained why I was shaking. I wasn’t allowed to get on with stuff until I was walked around the office and apologised to everyone because their toxic work environment gave me PTSD.
So I really don’t want people to be apologising to me, especially if they’re only doing it because it is the thing they feel like they have to do, especially if it comes with them forcing themselves into my life via email which is marked unread because that’s how emails come, and if they’re not read, printed, acted on, filed in ten seconds that’s punishable by silent treatment and a formal complaint, a thing which they were just told not to do.
The best thing to do, if you screw up? Is not do it again. Not do it again because you’re sorry and that makes it okay.