Three experts explain why forgiving a narcissist shouldn’t be your top priority
“You need to forgive him first and foremost”, someone told me, “otherwise that makes you unspiritual”.
“To hell with being spiritual then”, I thought.
You see, I understood that it was prioritising forgiveness that kept me hooked onto my narcissistic ex— I had to see the goodness in him, even if it was ephemeral and piecemeal. But the moment I realised that, I was no longer beholden to a responsibility that wasn’t mine in the first place. This gave me space to heal.
Today, I tell my clients that forgiving their narcissist shouldn’t be their first priority, if they want to truly heal. I spoke to three experts on this, to explain the why behind that seemingly-selfish proposition.
1. The most important thing is to forgive yourself.
When I left my ex, my spiritual mentor Val told me, “In the end, it all comes back to forgiving yourself”.
That was a knee-jerk moment that encapsulated everything I’d suspected. I needed to take care of myself first-and-foremost.
Val says, “Nothing matters until you forgive yourself in the first place. In a toxic relationship, we are harshest with ourselves. We blame ourselves for getting into the relationship, and if we keep repeating this, we blame ourselves even more. The one true person we need to forgive is ourselves. Think about it this way, when we forgive, we are not releasing the burden upon the other person, but which we put upon ourselves.”
Indeed, narcissistic relationships are a house of mirrors. If you’ve run into one, chances you’ve run into more in your workplace, friendships and family. And when we berate ourselves for being involved with narcissists repeatedly, we do not have the capacity to love ourselves.
As I tell my clients, self-love is the ultimate narcissist repellant.
2. Toxic people get off scot-free
My friend Shannon Thomas (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), an expert in spiritual abuse, explains that when victims release the abuser too soon from accountability, the entire healing process is derailed.
She says, “When the topic of forgiveness arises, many emotions are triggered for survivors of abuse. This is especially true within a religious or spiritual setting. The traditional definition of forgiveness involves telling the abuser he or she is released from the responsibility for the damage they have caused. This action is absolutely not helpful within an abusive environment. Toxic people must hold and address the responsibility for their actions.”
Shannon advocates that a healthier alternative is for survivors to move forward into their recovery, allowing the responsibility for the harm done to remain firmly planted with the abuser”.
“Toxic people must hold and address the responsibility for their actions.” – Shannon Thomas
3. Forgiveness isn’t the same as not seeking justice
I battled an internal tussle when it came to reporting my case to the police.
It was the same struggle as when I first disclosed his abuse to my friends and doctor. I wondered if I was harming him by doing that— as he’d warned me repeatedly, if I told someone else he’d get more paranoid. And a part of me didn’t want to get him into trouble.
You see, I was busy prioritising his interests over mine, characteristic of victims of narcissistic abuse who overgive. So for months after I reported my case, I berated myself for being selfish, even if I knew I had to keep myself safe.
My friend Dr Jonathan Marshall (Psychologist & Executive Coach) comments that when it comes to the relationship between forgiveness and justice, “That’s not relevant. Just because you have found a way of metabolising what they’ve done to you doesn’t mean you should exonerate them from punishment. Don’t forget, ever”.
Besides, seeking justice may save the life of someone else, because narcissists get more sophisticated with time.
“DON’T FORGET, EVER”- DR JONATHAN MARSHALL
4. Just because you don’t forget doesn’t make you a bad person
Do you remember the last time you fell sick after eating something? Chances are, you’ve become averse to that type of food, and feel queasy at the very thought of it.
Our bodies associate the food with “danger” after an illness, in order to protect ourselves from being hurt again. It’s instinctive.
So even if you’ve healed from your trauma, and even if you’ve forgiven your abuser, it doesn’t mean you should forget.
Remembering helps you recognise the red flags that led you down the rabbit hole of that relationship. It also helps you to celebrate how far you’ve come.
Not forgetting makes you a wiser person.
In spiritual settings, too, sometimes we are afraid of discernment, because we think it makes us negative. Consider platitudes like “Don’t judge” and “We are all reflections of each other”.
Discernment is wisdom.
And wisdom makes us stronger, better people.
5. The most important thing is to heal
Jonathan says, most people cling to the abuse and generate paranoia for themselves. He calls this the second wound. The first wound, the abuse, is something we cannot help.
But the second one is one that we can cure.
He advocates getting to a profound acceptance for what has occurred, to have an understanding of why the narcissist did what they did.
When our minds have a narrative, we make meaning of things, and it is easier to attain closure.
A narrative that can give us a sense of control, that we did our best, is key. If we can acknowledge that what happened was a bad thing, but it has happened, it helps us to move on.
But what about if we feel we didn’t do our best?
Jonathan explains that the fact that you’ve survived this long shows that there’s something inside you that’s protected you. Therefore, find that inner protector inside yourself, so you can get past the shame and heal from the abuse you’ve experienced.
“THE SECOND WOUND IS ONE WE CAN CURE”– DR JONATHAN MARSHALL