It is probably our favourite fantasy: something happens that awakens our narcissistic parents to the reality of their treatment of us, they realize how much they have hurt us, and they feel remorse…and then they apologise.
What if that really happened?
We are all at different stages of recovery from growing up with a narcissistic parent. Some of us are just realizing that our peculiar parent is a narcissist, some of us are well beyond that gut-wrenching discovery and are busy learning how to perceive and react to the world from a place other than that of victim. But some of us get stuck in a particular place, a place borne of denial and futile hope: we somehow believe that if our narcissistic parent would just “wake up” and see how they hurt us and then make amends, all would be right with our worlds.
I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but if that is where you are, it is time to pull up those stakes and get unstuck because it ain’t gonna happen. Ever. No matter how long you wait, no matter how paralyzed you are, no matter what you say or do, your narcissistic parent/spouse/sibling/boss…whoever the chief narcissist in your life is…will never, ever accept responsibility, never, ever, feel bad for hurting you, and never, ever, give you a sincere, heartfelt apology. It just ain’t gonna happen.
How can I be so sure? Because if that person does accept responsibility, if s/he feels remorse and then is motivated to issue a true apology and undertake sincere efforts to make amends, that person is not—cannot be—a narcissist. Narcissists have no empathy, no capacity for remorse, and no motivation to humble themselves for the benefit of anyone save themselves. If the person is capable of compassion and empathy for the pain s/he inflicted on you, then that person simply is not a narcissist.
Assuming the narcissist in your life truly is a narcissist, then, you have to start examining your own expectations and why you have become stuck in this fantasy that “If she would just say she was sorry, things would be OK.”
Would they? Maybe in the beginning, while the euphoria lasted but eventually, you’re going to come back to earth and the resentment and questions will begin. “What took you so long?” “If you acknowledge now what you did was wrong, why did you do it in the first place?” “How is it even possible to make amends for decades of emotional abuse?” “What is in this for you?”
Do you expect that apology to be a magic balm that will cure all of your pain, your anxieties, insecurities and maladaptive behaviours and beliefs? What are you going to do when your narcissist apologizes…really, sincerely, apologizes…and after the initial elation wears off, you still feel suspicious, wary, guarded, and hurt by all of the past transgressions? What if your phobias and anxieties don’t melt away, what if your fears and pain stay right where they are? Then what?
Hopefully, enlightenment—and ultimately the realization that you just can’t sit by passively and wait for someone else to make it better because, no matter what your narcissist does or doesn’t do, nobody can make it better but you.
I know this isn’t the message most of us want to hear. We know we have been victimized and we look to the perpetrator to make it right. But can it ever be made right? There are no “do-overs” in real life and neither you nor your narcissist can turn back the clock and do it again. The point you are at today, the dysfunction, the pain, the anxiety—all are a product of what has gone before today. It has shaped you and conditioned you, given you your values and beliefs. No amount of apologies or “doing better” from your abuser can take that back or change what is inside you today. Just as you cannot change another person, nobody else can change you…only you can do that.
Some of us embrace the idea that we have control over our recovery, but I think most of us go through a period of believing that if our abuser(s) would just step up to the plate and acknowledge wrong doing and say they are sorry, everything would magically be all right. And some of us get stuck there, believing that they can go no further until that acknowledgement and apology are forthcoming. But we control what we believe and believing that it is someone else’s job to fix our hurts is not only untrue, it is self-defeating. The longer we cling to the belief that an apology will magically fix us, the longer we insist that it is the therapist’s job to make things better, the longer we will be stuck and miserable in the legacy of the narcissistic parent.
We have to take responsibility. Not for the acts that hurt us, of course, but for our recovery. It may feel wrong…after all, you didn’t create the situation so why should you have to fix it?...but in real life (not our perfect fantasies), we often get stuck cleaning up other people’s messes. To refuse to do it is to accept the mess as part of your life…and if you are choosing to accept it, then you really don’t have any business complaining and feeling ill-used about it. You have made the choice to tolerate the situation and do nothing to change it, and the consequence is that at some point, people you know will start rolling their eyes when you start to talk about it. If you don’t like something in your life, it is your life and therefore your responsibility to change it.
Narcissists abuse and they don’t take responsibility for the hurts they inflict. It is what they do and, just as you must accept that dogs bark and cats meow, you must accept that narcissists hurt people with no sense of guilt, remorse, or responsibility. Even if your narcissist did have a sudden flash of insight and conscience, what can s/he do? Drop a plate on the floor and break it…now say “Oh, I am so sorry!” to the plate. Is it fixed? Of course not…and getting an apology—even a sincere one—from your narcissist won’t fix what is wrong with you, won’t assuage your pain or feeling of emptiness, anymore than your apology to that plate made it whole again.
What I am saying here is that you don’t really need an apology or even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing from your narcissist because receiving one improves nothing. What you really need is to get up and take action: look at your beliefs, challenge and change the ones that are holding you back; change a pattern of behaviour that victimizes you, like calling your mother every day and letting her rant at you; stop thinking you are helpless or that someone else is going to rescue you from your unhappiness—only you can do that, and you can only do that when you take action.
Don’t worry about doing it wrong: as long as you are not hurting yourself or anyone else, you aren’t doing it wrong. The exception to that, of course, is the narcissist and her flying monkeys and other minions. Some narcissists will feel hurt (or enraged) that you are changing the balance of the relationship, that you are no longer playing the role of doormat, whipping post, scapegoat that was assigned to you. They will use anything to push you back into your role and restore the balance of their lives, regardless of the cost to you. Their feelings, their comfort zone is paramount. But the truth is, your feelings are no less important and deserve no less respect than theirs. And if they won’t take care not to hurt you, if they disrespect you as if it is their right, then you are absolved of the admonition to not hurt them. Oh, don’t go to an extreme and bully or physically assault them—of course that is out of bounds. But what is not out of bounds is for you to refuse to allow yourself to be manipulated by their rage or cries of distress. You are under no obligation to subordinate your feelings and well-being to theirs, especially when they have been sacrificing your feelings and well-being in order to make themselves feel good.
Would you feel remorse for smacking a blood sucking insect as it feasted on your flesh? Then don’t feel bad about disengaging from the soul-sucking leech that is your narcissist and put your respect and concern where it belongs: on you. Only by focussing on your own well-being can you escape, and they know this: if they can keep you focussed on them, their feelings and how you are hurting them, you’ll never be able to focus on yourself long enough to escape them. And that is just how they like it.