Even though people may proclaim their forgiveness to you, be aware that not all verbal proclamations of forgiving are the real thing. Sometimes, when people are proclaiming their forgiving to you, they actually may be displaying a sense of narcissism or exaggerated self-interest.
It now is well known that narcissism consists of a host of related symptoms, which can vary in both intensity and duration, consisting, at least in part:
- an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance
- an exaggerated sense of entitlement
- a lack of empathy toward others as the person is more self-absorbed
- a sense of superiority with an exaggerated sense of one’s own potential for success or actual success.
There are at least four kinds of verbal proclamations that can masquerade as forgiveness but instead are false forms. R.C. Hunter as long ago as 1978 saw this in some of his clients. He stated then that false forms of forgiving have a certain “smug-like” quality to them that can be detected even by people who have not been trained in the mental health professions.
Let us examine four false forms of forgiveness. Your being aware of these might be a protection for you if you are a recipient of one or more of these from others.
1. Forgive to dominate.
James and Martha were not getting along lately. When James came to her and proclaimed that he forgives her for insensitivities, she, too, forgave him. Yet, over the coming weeks, James made subtle comments that he somehow is “better than you.” He explained to her that he would not have had to forgive her if she were behaving appropriately in the relationship. Slowly, Martha began to see that his “forgiveness” was not genuine. It was a way to continue domination in the relationship. As the philosopher North (1987) says, true forgiving occurs when the one who was hurt lowers the self in humility so that each one can meet person to person as equals.
2. Forgive to virtue signal to others.
Hunter (1978) describes a case study in which a client continually proclaimed her forgiveness for a wide variety of people. He eventually came to realize that such announcements were meant to draw attention to the client’s sense of high virtue. With such superficial forgiveness, she was not getting to the root of her anger and allowing herself to heal through genuine and effortful forgiveness. Also, in such cases, the one who keeps proclaiming continual forgiveness may be giving this message to unsuspecting others: “I am better than you because I forgive better than you.”
3. Forgive to blame even when the recipient did nothing wrong.
Sometimes people will state that they are forgiving you even when you know you did nothing wrong. If this is the result of a mistake on the “forgiver’s” part, then this can be somewhat easily corrected by your explanation of the truth. In other instances, you have to be on your guard against gaslighting, or the false blaming of you in the hope that you will come to believe the lie as true. Sometimes the other will receive your correction that you are being falsely accused. If the other refuses to consider your viewpoint, it is possible that the person’s narcissism may be blocking genuine and honest communication between you.
4. Forgive the self to keep doing what should not be done.
While genuine self-forgiveness can be helpful when people break their own moral standard, in the case of false self-forgiveness, the person may “self-forgive” as an excuse to remain in inappropriate and hurtful behavior. As an example, consider the person who excessively gambles, squanders the family’s money, and then says, “It’s okay. I forgive myself” with no purpose of amendment to the behavior. In such a case, the false forgiveness might reduce guilt, freeing the person to continue the gambling with the resultant wasting of the family’s funds.
What to Do in the Cases of False Forgiveness
At first, you could try gently pointing out the inconsistency between the proclamations of forgiveness (the language of forgiveness) and the person’s actions (which do not seem as if they are forgiving actions). If the person gets defensive, Plan B can be to point out any harm you see coming from the false forgiveness. Are others or you feeling devalued by the continued false-forgiveness? Are relationships being strained because of it? Pointing out the negative consequences of the false proclamations may aid the person in self-correction. If not, then maybe it is time to talk seriously with the person about dealing with the narcissism that may be fueling the actions. In the final analysis, it is a free choice of the one exhibiting the false-forgiveness to recognize it and to have a strong enough will and the goodwill to seek help in overcoming the pattern.