The recognition that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). On this everyone agrees; secular and sacred. The difficulty is in discerning false repentance. Mature and discerning people can witness the same conversation and walk away with distinctly different impressions about whether a given expression of remorse represents genuine repentance, sorrow for being caught or a tactic to gain relational leverage.
Identifying Manipulation and False Repentance
In this post, I hope to accomplish two things. First, I will attempt to clarify two common misperceptions about manipulation. Second, I will discuss a series of phrases commonly used in repentance that can be red flags that the remorse being expressed will not lead to healthy relational restoration.
Manipulation is about motive (why or how something is done) more than method (what is said or done). There is no way to make a list of “manipulative phrases.” Every phrase listed below has a context in which it could be legitimate and appropriate. Manipulation is about motive (resisting change, minimizing responsibility, blame-shifting, etc…) and is most effective (in a negative sense of “effectiveness”) when that phrase/action used seems legitimate.
Implication – The explanation after each phrase below will be important to understand. If the description of how each phrase can be a part of false repentance does not fit a given use of that phrase, it should not be considered manipulative.
Manipulation does not require “malice aforethought” or intellectual cunning. From my experience in counseling, most people who are using remorse to gain an advantage or avoid responsibility are not aware, in the moment, of what they’re doing. They just want to escape the discomfort of the moment. This driving desire (i.e., to escape) shapes the way they define words and frame questions.
In reality, that is what manipulation is: Manipulation is defining words and framing questions (by verbiage or emotions) in such a way that makes a healthy response from the other person seem selfish, mean or unreasonable.
“I know I’m not perfect.”
Your expectations that I responded decently are unreasonable. You are holding me to a perfectionistic standard. In order to avoid being confronted by you, I would have to be perfect. You should feel bad for being judgmental and harsh instead of asking me to seek restoration for what I did.
“I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not.”
You knew who I was when we started this relationship so you are being unfair by expecting me to be decent. This confuses genuineness with righteousness; authenticity with holiness. By this standard, someone could be consistently hurtful and we would still be to blame for their sin because we chose to be in relationship with them.
“You are bringing up stuff from the past.”
We can only talk about events, not patterns of behaviors. Often this impasse is reached when the individual repenting is unwilling to see that the event (for instance, intoxication or belligerence) in question was part of a larger pattern (i.e., addiction or abusive speech). If there is a pattern of behavior and this pattern goes unacknowledged, then the level of efforts towards change will be inadequate to produce the necessary change.