How can you tell if a narcissist is really sorry?
Easy. They’re not.
Genuine remorse requires the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions. It also requires empathy and a conscience. Abilities and qualities that personality disordered people typically don’t possess.
Perhaps they’re capable of approximating empathy, accountability and the ability to feel shame every now and again. But it usually doesn’t last for very long. Sooner or later (usually sooner), their primitive defense mechanisms kick in and that’s all folks!
Narcissists, borderlines and histrionics feel sorry for themselves when they finally experience a consequence for their abusive, dishonest, exploitative or criminal behavior. However, they’re rarely (if ever) sorry for hurting or deceiving you. Feeling sorry for oneself is profoundly different than being sorry for having hurt others. So don’t confuse their self-pity for penitence.
How can you tell if a narcissist is really sorry? Don’t fall for the non-apology apology.
Occasionally, the narcissist, histrionic or borderline will say something resembling remorse. For example, “We both did things that are wrong. We both did things we regret . . . ” However, they don’t get into the specifics of precisely what they did that was wrong and why it was wrong.
It seem like they’re apologizing and taking responsibility. However, if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that they’re not doing anything of the kind. One way they do this is by acknowledging mutual wrongdoing on your behalf.
Including your vague alleged misdeed with their vague misdeed isn’t an apology. It’s a form of what about-ism and a self-abdication of accountability. Should you ask the NPD, BPD or HPD to name their hurtful actions and explain why they’re destructive, they typically become impatient, insulting, angry/angrier, guilt trippy and/or indignant. And then, they play victim.
Common responses include:
- “You really need to learn to be able to forgive and forget.“
- “Why can’t you let anything go?“
- “Stop forcing me to talk about this. You’re making me angry again.”
- “You’re being mean.“
- “I know what I did was maybe hurtful, but . . . here’s why my abusive behavior is really your fault.“
- “I’m sorry I’m not perfect like you!“
- “Stop bringing up the past! That’s not fair!” (The past can be as long as 5 minutes ago, FYI.)
- “I can’t do anything right as far as you’re concerned!“
A non-apology apology is one of the ways they weasel out of accountability and blame shift onto you (or someone else). They can’t seem to admit to any wrongdoing unless you’re just as wrong or more wrong than them. And therein lies the problem — or one of many problems.
Due to their inability or unwillingness to take responsibility and deal with legitimate criticism, you can’t resolve anything. And, if you persist in trying, you’re the asshole.
Having a conscience.
Human beings are imperfect. Everyone’s done things for which we feel regret and remorse. I can recall the times in my life I’ve done wrong and why my words and deeds were wrong. It’s called having a conscience. Crazy can’t do this because they don’t think hurting you is wrong. They believe you deserve it because crazy, self-serving reason. As long as they achieve their intended outcome, the end justifies the means.
Cluster B disordered people are often professional grievance collectors who just look for reasons to feel outrage and take offense. They wield power by pretending to be victims. So, by a reasonable person’s standards, your alleged offense that “made them” abuse you could very well be a nothing burger.
When someone’s truly sorry, they can discuss the issues in the immediate aftermath of the hurtful behavior. I’m not talking about people who can’t let things go for months, years or decades later. Specifically, there’s a difference between processing destructive behavior that’s repetitive and ongoing, and having something you did once or twice over 5 years ago held over your head with each new present day conflict.
In other words, a narcissist, histrionic or borderline thinks it’s fair to hold their grievance(s) (real and imagined) against you indefinitely (i.e., forever). If you’re still hurting and upset with the narcissist once they decide it’s time for you to get over it (i.e., immediately) then you’d better let it go and never mention it again. That is, if you know what’s good for you.
Are you still unsure about the narcissist’s vague non-apology apology?
Here are some guidelines to evaluate sincerity or the lack thereof of an apology from a narcissist, borderline or histrionic:
1) They identify their hurtful behaviors without you explaining to them what they are. For example, lying to you, cheating on you, ridiculing you, undermining you to the children, etc. In other words, they take responsibility for specific actions when held accountable.
2) They can articulate why their behaviors are hurtful, destructive, etc. Again, without you explaining why they’re hurtful to them. Do that and they’ll just parrot back what you’re telling them. Meaning, what you want to hear not necessarily what they really believe. So many clients do this, and confuse the NPD/BPD/HPD regurgitating their words as taking responsibility. Any 4-year old can parrot back what mommy or daddy tells them they did wrong.
3) They take responsibility and demonstrate understanding without making excuses, justifications or blame shifting. To quote Jon Snow quoting Ned Stark, “Everything before but is horseshit.”
4) They express remorse for hurting you without seeking pity or comfort from you. Lots of clients mistake the narcissist, histrionic or borderline feeling sorry for themselves for being sorry they hurt you. Stewing in self-pity because they’re experiencing a consequence they can’t bully, lie or cry their way out of isn’t remorse. It’s important that you understand this.
5) They make a conscious good faith effort not to behave in similarly destructive, hurtful ways again. Some clients regularly get a “Sorry!” and then the same hurtful things happen over and over. This is analogous to a young child who’s learned that saying sorry gets them out of the time out chair faster.
6) They don’t become angry and abusive when trust isn’t magically and instantly restored. It takes time to rebuild trust — especially when there’s a pattern of ongoing abuse.
Don’t forsake facts for desire and fear.
If you’re a codependent who’s still in the FOG (fear, obligation, guilt) you’re at risk for self-delusion. Meaning, you want to believe the NPD, BPD or HPD has truly acknowledged their culpability and expressed remorse. Anything to avoid losing them. So, you feel grateful they feigned a facsimile of remorse and cling on to it, blinded by wishful thinking.
Wishful thinking, lovely as it sounds, isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s self-destructive. Wishful thinking is “the formation of beliefs based on what might be pleasing to imagine, rather than on evidence, rationality, or reality. It is a product of resolving conflicts between belief and desire” (Bastardi, Uhlmann & Ross, 2011).
A relationship without accountability is untenable. And there’s the rub. A narcissist, borderline or histrionic’s abusive and destructive behavior will continue and likely worsen without accountability. However, enforcing boundaries and implementing consequences will probably herald the end of the relationship. After which, the narcissist will smear you far and wide regarding what an unforgiving, grudge holding meanie you are.
Depending on how you look at it, this is yet another no-win situation in the never-ending no-win situations that is the reality of relationships with these individuals. Personally, I view removing oneself from an abusive relationship with someone who delights in hurting you as a huge honking win. But I’m crazy like that.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals with relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. Since 2009, she’s specialized in helping men and women break free of abusive relationships, cope with the stress of ongoing abuse and heal from the trauma. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. If you’d like to work with Dr. Palmatier, please visit the Schedule a Session page or you can email her directly at email@example.com.
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