For awhile now, I've been teaching folks in toxic relationships how to respond with compassion to toxic others trying to reel them in --- without getting reeled in.
I teach them this magic phrase:
"I'm sorry you're going through that. What are you going to do to work it out/take care of it/take care of yourself/sort it out?"
The idea here is that when Jacky is short for the rent because of choices they've made or misfortunes that have befallen them, and they have a history of turning to you for rescue, and you'd like to transform that pattern, you say, "I'm sorry you're going through that. How are you going to work it out?" instead of, "I'm sorry you're short $200 because you went out drinking last weekend. Here's a check."
You also don't need to lecture Jacky, point out their failings, yell at them, educate them, or otherwise be their higher power or get entangled further. "I'm sorry you're going through that; how are you going to take care of it" is designed to express attunement and responsiveness while turning on the part of Jacky's brain that can learn how to work out their own problems, and see cause and effect --- drinking on the weekend results in too little money at rent time, results in an angry landlord, and results in living on the street. Eventually, with direct experience in cause-and-effect, Jacky can avert the outcome by changing their behavior, and you get to keep both your cool and your $200.
Here's the thing: this magic phrase is all about responding skillfully when someone else is trying to make you responsible for their behavior.
What about when someone is holding you accountable for your own behavior?
"I'm sorry you're having that experience" is exactly the wrong thing to say.
This is where I've screwed up. I haven't repeatedly reinforced that "I'm sorry you're going through that; how are you going to fix it?" is a magic phrase to use only in circumstances in which someone else is offloading responsibility for their behavior on you.
Use this phrase when you have caused trouble for the other person and it is no longer magical. In fact, it runs the risk of your doing something toxic and irresponsible.
Let's say you're Jacky, and your partner counts on you to pay the rent because this is what you've agreed upon. You go out drinking, and when the rent is due, you come up $200 short because of your weekend revelry. Your partner asks if the rent is paid, and you confess it isn't and that you're $200 short. Your partner becomes distressed in a range of ways in response to your behavior, your choices, your putting them in a bad position. They may be scared about being homeless, angry that you are unreliable, and frustrated that they will need to sacrifice hours and creativity to the process of coming up with some quick way of generating cash to make up for the shortfall in the short run and will have to leave you in the long run because this is no way to live --- and you don't even have the decency to acknowledge that your behavior violates their trust and causes them practical problems.
"I'm sorry you're having that experience," you say. "What are you going to do to sort it out?"
Wrong magic phrase.
Very, very wrong -- unless you do, indeed, want them to let go of you even quicker than they might.
"Hmmm...you blew the rent money on booze, and I'm facing eviction as a result of trusting you. What am I going to do about it?"
Your partner needs you to take responsibility for *your* behavior and its impact on them. You need to take responsibility for your behavior and it's impact on them.
"I'm so sorry I messed up. I'm so sorry I hurt you and caused trouble for us and see that now you are in a difficult situation because of what I did. I'm sorry I did it, especially seeing how it affects you and your trust in me. What can I do to make it right?"
This is a magic phrase for when your behavior is thoughtless, unskilful, and causes difficulty for other people.
"Oh, we must have had a miscommunication."
"Oh, I didn't mean what I said/did/didn't do."
"Oh, you're so sensitive."
All of these miss the mark.
It's amazing how liberating and how magical taking responsibility for your behavior, expressing sincere remorse, offering repair, and then taking corrective action can be.
"I screwed up. I'm sorry. What do you need from me to set it right?," followed by responsive, responsible action is all you need.
Even when you haven't screwed up, accepting responsibility for your impact on others is the way to go.
A few years back, a friend who works in a fast- paced setting asked me to meet for dinner. A couple of hours before we were to convene, she called.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "Something's come up at work and there's nobody to cover. It's on me because I'm the owner now. I'm going to have to stay. I really wanted to spend time with you, and I know your time is important. I'm sorry not to see you and also to throw a wrench in your schedule. What can I do to make it right?"
She hadn't screwed up. Circumstances beyond her control required her attention and a change of plans. Still, she proactively engaged me as early as possible, offered an earnest apology, imagined the impact on me of rescheduling, and asked what she could do to make it right.
My respect and affection for her deepened that day, even without our going out to dinner.
So, when you're in a decent relationship you want to preserve, "I'm sorry. (I blew that/ I did x/i didn't do y/I hurt you/I've had to deal with something unforeseen and I am concerned about the impact on you...). What do you need me to do to set it right, and how can I do better in the future?" is the magic phrase to use. Doing what the person asks is the way to lasting repair, of course; using the magic phrase without changing the behavior will just ruin your credibility and the other person's trust.
In a relationship in which others try to make you responsible for their behavior, "I'm sorry you're going through that" is the way to go.
In a relationship in which your behavior harmed the other person or the relationship, "I'm sorry I did what I did and that what I did hurt or inconvenienced you" is the better way to go.
I'm sorry if I haven't clarified this important distinction before. I hope parsing it some here helps to set things right. Let me know if there's anything else you need around it, okay?