When I say sorry, it may not be because I want to apologize. It may be that I am afraid of the distance I notice between us.
You see, I have a past where I have been hurt many times. The people I was closest with would blame me for their feelings. I have internalized that, and even though I’m wiser now than I was then, and I know we all have agency over our actions and responsibility for our feelings, my nervous system still responds as the younger version of me I was then.
You may know the fight-or-flight responses we have as a way to take care of ourselves when we are in perceived danger. Do you also know freeze and appease responses? Freeze is when I dissociate and stop speaking to you. I may not register your touch or just seem “distant.” But this one, this “sorry”: it’s my appease response.
My nervous system registers the conflict, this fight, or distance that we have as danger. My sensitive brain hits the alarm button, and my trauma response of appeasing makes me want to try to mitigate the conflict.
I will tell you I’m sorry. Not because I am (there might not even be anything to be sorry for), but because I am afraid of the danger of distance. I will tell you I’m clumsy, that I didn’t mean to say or do that thing that triggered you. I will tell you I’m clumsy or that it’s all my fault.
Just to have you closer again. To make this distance between us smaller, because the distance is so much harder to deal with than taking the blame. I’ll take the blame as I did for years, carrying the burden for more than myself, the whole world if needed, just to feel safe.
It doesn’t work, though. The distance between us may be smaller; the immediate danger may be gone—for now. But I censor myself to be with you. I’ll park my desires and ignore my boundaries for the sake of safety.
So when I apologize for something that you notice is a strange thing to apologize for, can you come closer? Can you drop your triggers for a moment and see my fear? We can talk about the conflict later when safety is restored between us. There’s probably something needing discussion, but when my brain has hit the alarm button, it’s hard for me to talk about these things without compromising myself.
Give me some time. Give me a smile if you can. Hold my hand and tell me you love me, and we will take care of what needs care. But first, let’s find common ground for safety so that I don’t apologize for who I am anymore.