I'm sorry you feel that way
When looking at apologies, it is often pointed out that a good apology has everything to do with owning up to mistakes and taking responsibility, with making clear you understand what happened. I think that’s true, and I may have something more detailed to add in the future. For many people, “I’m sorry for the offense caused” or similar turns of phrase do not meet that expectation, because they don’t focus on the initial actions, and imply that the fault is shared by the offended party.
However, that doesn’t mean they are never applicable. The (somewhat infuriating, but still very good) book “The Courage To Be Disliked” by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga works heavily with the concept of “separation of tasks”, arguing that the basis for a healthy life is knowing what’s in your area of responsibility and what isn’t:
First, one should ask ‘whose task is this?’ Then do the separation of tasks. Calmly delineate up to what point one’s own tasks go, and from what point they become another person’s tasks. And do not intervene in other people’s tasks, or allow even a single person to intervene in one’s own tasks.
This concept is closely related to Stoicism and a bunch of other philosophical schools that seem good at granting a foundation of inner calm, and it has a lot going for it. People arguing in favour of these directions often tend to underestimate how and where these spheres of responsibility overlap, in my opinion, and the infuriating part of “The Courage To Be Disliked” is that this point is brought up, but argued so terribly that it is dismissed.¹
Regardless of the shortcomings, the concept of the separation of individual tasks is still very useful when looking at apologies. If I have acted in a way that I come to understand as wrong and harmful afterwards, I believe making amends is my responsibility. This can take a variety of forms, and an apology will often be part of it. And this apology should at the very least make clear what I understand as “wrong” and “harm” in this situation.
But the problem with “I’m sorry for the offense caused” is not that it is not an apology, it’s that it’s an apology that demonstrates that the underlying conflict is not resolved. If you expand it charitably, it says “I still think my actions were fundamentally justified, I just wish I could have taken them without coming into conflict with you.”²
This is not an apology that retracts an action wholeheartedly – it’s an apology for only an aspect of what happened. And I think that apologising for only some aspects is a good thing to normalise. If I force the polarisation of either going back on everything I did or not at all, the chances are higher that I’ll decide to be stubborn and defend the good aspects of my actions by refusing to apologise at all, escalating conflict without an acceptable escape.
Of course, “I’m sorry you feel offended” is the weakest of partial apologies, and is often used to weasel out of exploring the remaining conflict by pretending that it is a full apology, which sucks. But I think one mechanism at play is that there is no good model for partial/aspectual apologies, and apologies like that are much less likely to be accepted, and much more likely to be torn apart.
Intervening in other people’s tasks and taking on other people’s tasks turns one’s life into something heavy and full of hardship. If you are leading a life of worry and suffering—which stems from interpersonal relationships—first, learn the boundary of ‘from here on, that is not my task’. And discard other people’s tasks. That is the first step toward lightening the load and making life simpler.
¹ I’d love to see a reenactment of the dialogues in the book, only with competent participants.
² The problem with the slightly different “I’m sorry you feel offended” is that it makes the other party the active one, implying and attributing at least shared blame.