From time to time, nearly all of us make mistakes that hurt others. Fortunately, an earnest apology can soothe feelings, rebuild trust, and infuse healing into a damaged relationship.
Authentic and heartfelt apologies, however, are rarely given by narcissists.
Attending to others’ feelings or rebuilding trust are generally not narcissists' top priorities. Loath to admit mistakes, narcissists focus on preserving their image and protecting themselves from discomfort—regardless of the discomfort they cause others.
Apologies that begin with phrases such as “I'm sorry but” or “I'm sorry if” often lack authenticity. Such faux apologies seek to avoid responsibility, make excuses, downplay what was done, invalidate, confuse, or move on prematurely.
While many of us occasionally miss the mark in apologizing, a telling characteristic of narcissists is their tendency to refuse to apologize or to issue apologies that leave others underwhelmed, confused, or feeling even worse.
Here are 13 common fake apologies used by narcissists, along with examples of each:
The Minimizing Apology: "I was just..."
“I was just kidding.”
“I was just trying to help.”
“I was just playing devil’s advocate.”
Minimizing apologies pretend that hurtful behavior is harmless or done for a good cause.
The Shift-the-Blame Apology: "I am sorry that you..."
“I am sorry that you think I did something wrong.”
“I am sorry that you feel I am a bad person.”
“I am sorry, but maybe you’re just too sensitive.”
These empty apologies put the onus on the person who was hurt as the problem.
The Conditional Apology: "I'm sorry if..."
"I am sorry if something I said offended you.”
“I am sorry if your feelings were hurt.”
"I am sorry if I may have done anything wrong."
Conditional apologies fall short of a full apology, suggesting only that something may have been hurtful.
The Deja-Vu Apology: "I've already..."
“I already said I was sorry.”
“I have apologized for that a dozen times.”
Such statements do not contain an actual apology. They imply that the case is closed.
The Phantom Apology: "I regret..."
“I regret that you felt upset.”
“I regret that mistakes were made.”
Regret is a feeling. Apologizing is an action. Telling someone you regret what happened takes no ownership of hurtful behavior.
The Whitewashing Apology: "I probably..."
“I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
“Maybe I should have asked you first.”
Whitewashing apologies minimize any harm done by offering a self-effacing posture without owning up to the consequences.
The Nothing-to-Apologize-for Apology: "You know I..."
“You know I'd never hurt you.”
“You know I am sorry.”
“You know I didn’t mean that.”
These imply that you shouldn't be upset or try to talk you out of your feelings.
The Invisible Apology: "I guess I..."
“I guess I owe you an apology.”
“I guess I should say I am sorry.”
These hint at the need for an apology but don't actually offer one.
The Pay-to-Play Apology: "I'll apologize if..."
“I’ll apologize if you will.”
“I will apologize if you agree never to bring it up again.”
“I will apologize, but you have to forgive me.”
Narcissists are transactional. These are not clean, freely offered apologies; they are attempts at a quid pro quo.
The Not-My-Apology Apology: "I was told to..."
“Your mother told me to apologize to you.”
“My friend thinks I should tell you I am sorry.”
Such apologies suggest the person is apologizing only because someone else suggested it. You’re left wondering if the narcissist even believes they did something wrong.
The Takeaway Apology: "I am sorry but..."
“I am sorry, but other people thought what I said was funny.”
“I’m sorry, but you started it.”
“I am sorry but I just couldn’t help it.”
“I am sorry, but I was just speaking the truth.”
Takeaway apologies can be worse than no apology at all, as they add insult to the original injury.
The One-Size-Fits-All Apology: "All those times..."
“I am sorry for all the things I have done that upset you.”
“I apologize for every bad thing I’ve done.”
Blanket apologies such as these seek to wipe the slate clean but may offer no indication a narcissist has any idea what he or she said or did that was hurtful.
The Get-Off-My-Back Apology: "Enough already..."
“Fine! I’m sorry, okay!”
“Okay, I am sorry, for chrissakes.”
“Give me a break, I am sorry, alright?”
“What do you want me to do, climb up on the cross?”
Either in words or tone, such grudging apologies don’t offer healing. They may even feel like threats.
In narcissists' efforts to avoid blame, they often combine several fake apologies at once, such as in, “I am sorry if I said anything to offend you, but I have strong opinions. Maybe you’re too sensitive” or, “I guess I should tell you I am sorry. But you know I would never deliberately hurt you. I was just trying to help.”
A true apology, by contrast, has most or all of the following characteristics:
- Doesn't contain conditions or minimize what was done.
- Shows that the person apologizing understands and has empathy for the offended person’s experience and feelings.
- Shows remorse.
- Offers a commitment to avoid repeating the hurtful behavior in the future.
- Offers to make amends or provide restitution where appropriate.
To apologize, one needs to honestly hear what happened from the other person’s point of view and how it affected them. But narcissists tend not to be interested in listening to others, particularly if the topic is something the narcissists may have done wrong.
As therapist and author Harriet Lerner wrote, “More than anything, the hurt party needs to know that we really ‘get it,’ that our empathy and remorse are genuine, that the feelings make sense, that we will carry some of the pain we’ve caused, and that we will do our best to make sure there’s no repeat performance.”
Unfortunately, expressing empathy and remorse is often a bridge too far for most narcissists.
Copyright 2020 Dan Neuharth Ph.D., MFT
A version of this post also appears on PsychCentral.
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