How to Recognise a Toxic Apology

28 Oct 2020

As someone who has been abused by loved ones who should have known better – and cared more – apologies are probably deeply important to you, as they are to me. Being ill-treated is already bad enough. But being ill-treated and then, effectively, abused all over again by the absence of a sincere apology is the ultimate offence.

Toxic people know that and use it to their advantage.

Today, I want to look at how toxic people use one specific kind of toxic apology, strategically, to further wound and disempower you, together with what you can do to take back control. This particular type of toxic apology is less well-know, but no less pernicious, than the stereotypical, “I’m sorry I… but if you hadn’t…., then I wouldn’t have…”

Just when the great meme battle ended, The Great British Neighbor Dispute reared its nasty head again. As predicted, Mr and Mrs Parking Priority Neighbor (PPN) could not let the matter rest.

The experience of abuse has taught us all that being conciliatory with abusive/entitled/narcissistic people does NOT work well. Sometimes, you have to make it clear to them that you will not tolerate or excuse unacceptable behaviour.

So it was that, last week, I waited for Mrs (PPN) in my back garden, for a socially distanced “conversation” about her obsession with where my partner and I occasionally park our cars.

The moment I really missed my narcissistic ex

That morning, I did something that I don’t believe that I have ever seriously done before – I wished that I could turn the whole silly business over to my ex-husband.

That man loved conflict; it was his preferred contact sport. He never, ever lost a fight. Like a bull terrier, he would just keep going and going until he won. He would have cut these silly, entitled people to ribbons with his tongue and enjoyed every moment of it.

I don’t enjoy conflict. Conflict doesn’t suit my nervous system – or belief system – at all. But needs must…

Define your terms

Mrs PPN started, in true narcissistic mode by saying how pleased she was that we had finally “opened up a dialogue”.

NOTE: Toxic people love to define their behaviour in a way that denies your truth. If you accept this initial statement, it will be even harder to get your point across.

I therefore replied, in a very gentle tone, that putting notes on the windscreen of someone that you have never even met to “Please refrain from parking your car where I don’t want you to park it” and stating a wish for “the matter to be resolved amicably”, is not opening up a dialogue but opening up a conflict.

Then followed 20 minutes of Mrs PPN trying to tell me how they really didn’t mind if we parked our car where we chose for a couple of hours, occasionally, at times that met with their approval.

Eventually, after 20 minutes, the woman could no longer fail to notice that I was peeved with her modus operandi.  I think I may have told her in so many words.

When they play the toxic apology card

That was the moment when she momentarily abandoned her best customer relations approach, “I take your point. I take your point” and dug deep into her threadbare little bag of tricks,

“I’m sorry if you feel that we were communicating in an unfriendly way” she said, “That was not our intention.”

The perfect toxic apology!

The toxic apology decoded

Mrs PPN was saying – albeit in code: “Please refrain from telling me about your feelings. Why do you think that I should even care about your feelings?  I have just stripped you of your right to feel that way by lying about my intention. So, what are you even going on about? You say that you felt that way. That was an overreaction on your part, of course – especially as I am now saying that that was never my intention. But now that I have apologised for the fact that you have overreacted, I have thrown you a sop. I’ve told you that I hear you. So, shut up talking about you and let’s get back to my agenda.”

A long, pregnant pause followed as I felt my face go through a series of pouts and sulky expressions from childhood.

I felt profoundly affronted by her apology.

I also had to think what to do next. *

First off, I let the silence get very long indeed while I thought it through.

That kind of apology didn’t even deserve any acknowledgement.

A valid response to the toxic apology

Eventually, I came up with a valid response to the toxic apology along the lines of,

“Okay, since you realise that that behaviour was not okay, what are you going to do different in the future.”

She would, she said, cease to put notes on our windscreens and through the door.  Now, after all, she had opened up a dialogue. Allegedly.

I pointed out, again, that she had done no such thing. Rather, she had created a conflict that she had yet to resolve.

The toxic apology part 2

At that point she resorted to the second part of the toxic apology – the faux righteous indignation stage.

“I have apologised, what more do you want me to do?”

This sounds almost reasonable but is, in fact, anything but reasonable. It is a form of words designed to make you look like the bad guy by suggesting that you have been ungracious and unbending, as well as having unrealistic expectations.

My ex-husband used this ploy, constantly, to good effect.  He didn’t ask it so much as screech it, to underline the injustice of my excessive demands.

Smiling, I replied that I had no idea what she would do next but that her feelings about where we park were not my problem.

The “conversation” petered out soon after.

The learnings

First, after she left, I didn’t initially feel too great. When that old, sulky, defiant expression had crept across my face, in response to the Toxic Apology Two-Step, I had felt horribly disempowered. However, when I replayed the recording (made for “staff training” purposes) to my partner, I was STUNNED by just how forceful and ferocious – albeit in a most agreeable tone of voice – I had been.

In that instance, and many others, my old beliefs about powerlessness had kicked in. Replaying the whole thing was gold for me. How I had felt bore no resemblance to how I came across. I was too quick to fall into old beliefs that don’t serve me well. Because I felt, momentarily, like the bullied and gaslighted child I once was, I thought that was how I had shown up.  I really had not.

Maybe you fall into the same trap, too.

You are likely far more effective than you believe you are.

Give yourself credit, already, for what you achieve, instead of smashing yourself down for where you believe you fail.

Second Don’t ever treat a faux apology with the respect that it doesn’t deserve. Apologies are important when they are a serious attempt to own the damage that has been done and make amends in a way that is meaningful to the person wronged.

If neither of those conditions has been met, then what you have is NOT an apology but a ploy.

As for the second part of the toxic apology, “I’ve said I’m sorry, haven’t I?” you need to remember that this is abusive haggling. What they are offering you is a few empty words intended to shame you into caving in and giving them something of value.

You are well within your rights to point out to them that words, without changed behaviour, are worthless. So, you need to know what changes they are prepared to commit to going forward.

Some relationships are just impossible

Chances are, they will just put on a show of righteous indignation and possibly tell you, as “my” ex did me,

“It’s impossible. There is no talking to you.”

If so, be grateful for that little nugget of truth; it is impossible. It is impossible for you to have a dialogue and a relationship with someone who is so disrespectful.

Some people just do not deserve to have a place in your life – let alone a place at the heart of your life.

Part of being a grown up is to stop trying to have impossible relationships with toxic people.

A toxic apology provided you with precious information – and an opportunity for you to uplevel  emotionally.

As regards The Great British Neighbor Dispute, I don’t expect it to be over yet. My guess is that they will probably keep worrying away at it.

It is over when you say it is

However, from my point of view, it is over. Having processed my regret that it is not possible to have a civilised relationship with an uncivilised neighbour, my conclusion is that the discussion is well and truly over. They don’t have a leg to stand on legally or morally. So, I refused to play any further part in their low level lunacy.

Toxic people don’t earn a right to control you by bullying, making false apologies or any other ploy that they bring into play.  Don’t reward people with toxic, attention-seeking behaviors by wasting your time on them. When you decide that the relationship is over, it is. They may not suddenly disappear, but you can cease to engage with them.


* After I finished writing this, talking about it with my lovely partner, I suddenly realised what would be the ideal response to the “I’m-sorry-if…” apology .

The ideal response is, “So, what part of what I have said to you about my feelings are you not hearing that you feel justified in saying, “I’m sorry if…”

My guess is that that won’t leave too many places for the “dialogue” to go from there but then… a dialogue that is not a dialogue is not worth having.


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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