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I recently read yet another statement by a well-known Christian leader confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. It was one of those apologies that leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. I would say that it was a narcissistic apology.
The difference between the narcissistic apology and a real apology is the center. In the center of the narcissistic apology is the offender saying, “I am hurting because of this.” The real apology sees the victim in the center and says, “You are hurting because of this.” The difference is empathy. Just like always, the narcissist doesn’t care about your pain, just his/her own.
The purpose of a narcissistic apology is to divert attention away from the offender. Your knowing and accusing gaze is extremely painful. You see too much and too well. Under that scrutiny, the abuser is laid bare and vulnerable.
Apologies aren’t always used. Some will attack in anger. Others will blame the accuser or a third party—anyone else. Some will admit to lesser evils, trying to keep your attention away from the truth. Some will claim that you simply don’t understand the truth. Some will create bold lies. Whatever it takes to get you to stop.
The narcissist needs you to turn the light somewhere else. The offender cries for relief, pushes for forgiveness, begs for mercy, bargains for reconciliation. Just, please, make it all stop.
If intimidation, negotiating, and pleading don’t work, then you might hear the narcissistic apology. The one that admits to nothing except those things that can be interpreted as positive for the offender. He was too dedicated, too focused, too strong a leader. His intention was always good. The hope is that your attention will center on the image of the offender, the one that is superior and righteous. The purpose is still to push the attention away from the offender’s heart.
A real apology, something seldom heard, admits the validity of the victim’s perspective. The repentant one doesn’t try to point the light away from the painful exposure because he trusts that his exposure will help the victim. Someone who offers a real apology also wants the pain to end, but not at the expense of the victim.
The narcissistic apology is part of our culture and certainly is not limited to narcissists. Many of us learned that type of apology from our families and friends. It offers little and solves nothing. We have become used to hearing it from politicians and public figures.
When we receive it, it does not satisfy our hearts and often leaves us feeling somehow guilty. A part of us knows that we have not been heard or valued. The burden on us has somehow become greater, rather than less. We experience confusion, even anger. Yet, we are not supposed to continue feeling anything negative because the offender has apologized.
The effective narcissistic apology moves your attention to your confusion or anger or pain or guilt . . . and away from the offender.
And let me add one more thing: the narcissistic apology almost always ask for forgiveness in some way. This puts the burden back on the victim. “Will you forgive me?”—sounds a lot like, “There, I said it, now can we be done with this?” If you say yes, then everything is supposed to be back the way it was. If you say no, you are the bad guy. Then you may hear, “Well what do you want? I apologized!”
Understand that the purpose of the narcissistic apology is not to admit the offense and lessen your pain. The purpose of the narcissistic apology is to get you to shut up.
Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of "Grace for the Heart," a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com.