You may not get a heartfelt or authentic apology from a person with narcissism. Tips, like staying calm and maintaining boundaries, can help you respond in a healthy way and protect your well-being.

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or narcissistic traits have an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep need for admiration and attention. They often experience challenges with owning up to their mistakes due to reasons, such as feeling entitled to the belief that they do not make mistakes.

Apologies are not their strong suit.

An apology from a person living with NPD might lack genuine remorse and is often used as a way to save face, avoid responsibility, or as a means to an end. It’s essentially a fake apology that can leave you confused, doubting yourself, or feeling worse than you felt before the transgression.

Knowing what to expect when a person living with NPD or narcissistic traits apologizes and how to respond can help protect you from a cycle of abuse.

Language matters

“Narcissist” is an overused and often misused term that refers to people living with NPD. It’s also used to describe people who show high levels of narcissistic traits.

In this article, we use the term “narcissist” for readers who may be unfamiliar with the current terminology of narcissistic personality disorder.

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Narcissists may have a hard time apologizing. If they do apologize, it’s often insincere and accompanied by excuses or justifications for their behavior, says Dr. Michael Kane, chief medical officer at Indiana Center for Recovery.

“They may also shift the blame onto someone else or make empty promises to change in order to appease the situation,” Kane notes.

According to Michelle English, licensed clinical social worker and executive clinical manager at Healthy Life Recovery in San Diego, CA, narcissists often use fake apologies to regain control or maintain their self-image. This allows them to:

  • shift blame and avoid responsibility
  • disarm the other person and defuse criticism
  • preserve their sense of superiority
  • keep up appearances and manipulate the situation for their benefit

This differs from the average person’s apology, explains English, where the expectation is sincerity and mutual resolution.

“With a narcissist, there may be a demand for excessive affirmation of their perspective,” she says. “The apology might be framed in a way that avoids any threat to their ego.”

Narcissists also have difficulty understanding and empathizing with others. This is essential for a genuine apology, says Michelle Beaupre, PhD, LCSW, clinical director at Villa Oasis in Rancho Santa Fe, California.

“A narcissist’s apology may come off as cold or detached because they are unable to truly understand the impact of their actions on someone else,” she notes.

There are some common types of apologies narcissists use:

Vague apologyTheir apology will likely lack specifics and ownership of actions.• “I regret that you felt upset.”
• “I guess I should say I’m sorry.”
Conditional apologyThey will subtly shift the blame back to you.• “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt.”
• “I’m sorry you feel that way, but it’s not entirely my fault. You know how busy I am and how stressed I’ve been lately.”
Deflective apologyThe apology is deflected onto you or turns it into an opportunity for them to receive more attention. It’s often coupled with defensiveness or anger.• “I’ll apologize if you will.”
• “You should be sorry. You hurt me so much. How could you do this to me?!”

When dealing with an apology from someone with NPD, it’s important to remember that their primary goal is to maintain a sense of control and protect themselves.

Our experts provide tips for how to respond:

Stay calm

Those living with NPD or narcissistic traits may try to provoke you or turn the situation around on you when responding to an apology. Try to stay calm, firm, and assertive in communicating your boundaries and holding them accountable for their actions.

Be prepared for them to try and gaslight you or make you doubt yourself.

Don’t fight fire with fire

It can be tempting to retaliate or give in to their manipulative tactics, but this will only fuel their behavior.

You don’t need to stoop to their level or engage in any power struggles. Focus on protecting your peace and try to let go of any need to “win” the argument.

Consider their track record

If a person with NPD has a history of fake apologies and not following through on their promises, it’s best not to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Unless they show genuine efforts to change their behavior, their apologies are likely insincere. Don’t set your expectations too high for them, and just let it go.

Stick to your boundaries

Let them know what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. This will show that you won’t tolerate their manipulative or hurtful behavior.

Stay genuine

Even if the apology is insincere, you can still respond with genuine appreciation.

Don’t fuel their ego by giving them the reaction they desire, but also don’t dismiss their apology completely. Simply say thank you and move on.

When they see that their apology didn’t provoke the desired response, they may be less likely to use it on you in the future.

Keep communication to a minimum

It’s usually best to limit contact with narcissists, especially if they have repeatedly hurt or manipulated you. If necessary, keep a safe emotional or physical distance to protect yourself.

If you or someone you know are experiencing controlling behavior or domestic violence, you can:

Those living with NPD or narcissistic traits often use fake apologies to help protect themselves, maintain control, and avoid feelings of inferiority.

Tips, such as staying calm, asserting boundaries, and limiting communication, can help you protect yourself.

If you need additional support, consider speaking with a mental health professional to help you cope and develop skills for dealing with a narcissist.