Narcissists rarely apologize, and when they do, it’s often just another manipulation tactic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that their apology is not genuine, and more than likely, it’s not. The narcissist tends to prefer reparative actions as apologies rather than verbally saying they’re sorry. That’s not always an option, however, but regardless of the type of apology proffered, the question remains, how should you respond?
View it with suspicion. Narcissists use apologies as a manipulative tactic all the time. The proof of whether they understand the impact of their behavior is if their actions change going forward. If it’s a real apology, you should see some changes, and if not, it’s nothing more than manipulation.
In order to determine whether or not the apology is real, it’s vital to know what makes for a strong apology as well as how narcissists often use apologies as a manipulative tactic. Then, we’ll explore what to look for to see if they really meant it or were they just using it to placate you.
Why Do Narcissists Apologize?
Healthy people apologize because they recognize that they did something that hurt you, they understand why it hurt you, they feel remorse for it, and they want to modify their behavior so it won’t happen again. It’s different for a narcissist.
Narcissists have difficulty taking responsibility for anything wrong they’ve done. They are extremely sensitive to criticism and because of their low self-esteem, they cannot face it when they have done something wrong. That makes them unlikely to apologize for anything.
If they are pressed to apologize, the apology means something different to the narcissist than it does to a healthy person. Where the healthy person feels remorse, the narcissist feels like they have done something for you and now you owe them.
The narcissist will also likely feel that the apology makes them appear to be a good person. It makes it seem as though they genuinely care about your feelings. It’s in turning the apology into a favor they’ve done for you that the narcissist keeps the relationship operating on their terms.
They might even convince themselves that apologizing to you was something heroic they have done for you. In any case, the narcissist sees the apology as something they do to manage the relationship they have with you as well as their image to other people.
Most narcissists don’t have the capacity for self-reflection, and thus, they don’t really understand or care how their behavior impacts other people. They may know that apologizing gets them out of hot water and makes them look good, but they don’t really see how their behavior affected you.
Even after they apologize, it’s quite likely that their behavior will remain the same. That’s the unfortunate truth that you have to accept.
Narcissistic Apologies and Trauma Bonds
In a healthy relationship, when someone apologizes, it serves as a bonding experience between two people. You feel that the other person has recognized that they hurt you and will strive not to do it again. You feel as though you can relax and trust this person.
With a narcissist, however, the apology doesn’t mean they understand how they hurt you nor does it mean they won’t do it again. In fact, quite the opposite. The narcissist uses it to reset the cycle of narcissistic abuse.
As with other toxic relationships, there’s a cycle of abuse. At first, the narcissist is charming and supportive, but eventually, they start to change. The tension builds as they begin to devalue you. For you, it’s hard to understand these changes. You’re thinking that the relationship had reset, that things will be better now, but that’s not what you’re experiencing.
Instead of building upon that bond of love and trust as would happen in a healthy relationship, the tension is increasing as is the devaluation and hypersensitivity. You may strive to alleviate the tension with loving gestures, but your efforts will likely be met with disinterest at best and outright hostility at worst. Sooner or later the tension erupts in a new argument and the cycle begins anew.
You hope the narcissist will change and you’re relieved that they apologized, but instead of a loving bond, what forms is a trauma bond. These are the bonds that form in toxic relationships and they are harder to break than those that form in healthy relationships.
Trauma bonds result from the inconsistent reinforcement that is typical of a relationship with a narcissist. That’s because narcissists have no capacity for empathy and are incapable of the cooperation and compromise that are necessary to form healthy relationships.
How Do Narcissists Use Apologies?
Narcissists will use an apology to simply get what they want and to make themselves look better in the eyes of other people. One of the things you’ll likely notice about an apology from a narcissist is that it lacks an understanding of how what they did hurt you.
You won’t likely hear them say something like, “I can understand why what I did upset you. It was thoughtless.” They have no capacity for truly understanding how their behavior hurt you.
If you listen closely, you’ll likely see that they are simply repeating what you said they did to you. They’re not really demonstrating an understanding of what they did wrong; they just want to get back to the way the relationship was. As clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula notes, “A narcissistic apology is a way of…keeping the trains running on time.”
They are apologizing to get you to prove you care about them by forgiving them or they may need something from you. Perhaps they just want to look good to the people you both know. They may also be fearing that you’ll leave and deprive them of the narcissistic supply they need from you.
You can usually tell this is what is happening by the fact that if you don’t accept their apology fast enough, they will show their true feelings. They will begin lashing out again with more insults and anger. If they were really sorry, their apology would not be contingent upon you accepting it.
It’s important to remember that narcissists are comfortable with lying. An apology is just another type of lie for them, and they use it to look good to you or other people. It makes them seem compassionate, but usually, that’s not the case.
How Should You Respond to the Narcissist’s Apology?
Given that narcissists often simply use an apology to get what they want and don’t really care about how they’ve treated you, how should you respond? There are a number of things you can do if you are unwilling to or cannot go no contact with a narcissist.
- Understand the Limitations of the Relationship: You must have realistic expectations about a relationship with a narcissist. You need to know that you may never get a sincere apology, they won’t accept responsibility for their action, they won’t be able to understand how their actions impact you, and they probably don’t even want to hear your opinion about their behavior. Given that, you’ll have to take appropriate actions to take care of yourself in this toxic relationship.
- Set and Maintain Strong Boundaries: This is vital for any relationship, but it is absolutely critical in a relationship with a narcissist. You have to identify your boundaries and let the narcissist know what they are and what the consequences will be if they violate them. More importantly, you must enforce those consequences every single time the narcissist violates a boundary.
When you are specifically dealing with an apology, tell the narcissist that you won’t accept it immediately, but you will express your needs without interruption. Give yourself a few moments to cool down, and of course, if the narcissist becomes hostile in any way, simply leave. Tell them that you will revisit the conversation after you’ve had an opportunity to cool down and properly consider their apology.
- Watch for Change in Their Behavior: The words that come out of a narcissist’s mouth mean very little. Instead, watch their behavior to see if anything changes. If it does, that may make things better for you. If it doesn’t, you may have to make different decisions for yourself going forward.
It’s also helpful to praise their actions if they do manage to change their behavior. Let them know you noticed and that you are happy about it. Giving them positive reinforcement for caring about you and doing something to improve your relationship can encourage them to do more of that in the future.
- Stay Safe: Narcissists are prone to irrational behavior, and they can, at times, become physically violent. If you see any indication that the narcissist you’re involved with is becoming violent, get yourself and any other loved ones to a safe place.
Signs they are escalating toward violence include screaming, belittling you, becoming more physically aggressive, drinking in excess or using drugs, or making threats to harm themselves, your, or other people. One of the boundaries you set is that these kinds of behaviors are deal-breakers for your relationship.
Because of the nature of a relationship with a narcissist, it’s a good idea to keep a running log, a journal of your interactions with them. It will also help you to clarify your perceptions of what happened, and it can be a helpful self-care practice. You can also use it to help manage your expectations and how the relationship is affecting your own self-esteem.
You can have a long-term relationship with a narcissist, but to truly be happy, you’ve got to adjust your expectations and look for certain kinds of satisfaction in other relationships. The latter includes looking to someone else for genuine compassion because the narcissist can’t give you that.
Now that you know how to react to a narcissist’s apology, you’ll also want to read this article to learn vital information about why they avoid apologizing. It will give you more valuable insight into their behavior and how they really think about the people in their life.
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