I seem to have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to the notion that one must forgive to heal. There’s something about this idea that, ironically, feels deeply uncaring toward the person who’s been wronged.
I once heard a family friend remark how important it is to get to a place where we can forgive those who’ve harmed us. I asked why, and her response was less than satisfactory. She said, “Because if you don’t, you’ll never heal.”
Bleh. That just couldn’t be further from the truth.
For those impacted by toxic forgiveness, the practice is often painted as a heroic, final move that “releases everything” and promises to relieve you of suffering, as you just saw in the example above.
I recognize that not all people who strive for forgiveness do so in a toxic way. However, there are a lot who do. And when it comes to forgiving an abuser, I have a huge problem.
I want to recognize for a moment that there are practices that have honorable approaches toward forgiveness and can be healing in their own right, but they should not be solely relied upon for healing. In the world of healing from psychological and physical abuse, I like to forgive the victim exclusively. Meaning, I believe more in self-forgiveness than forgiveness of the narcissist. Here’s why:
The Impact of Self-Forgiveness
In narcissistic abuse, the victim is almost always blamed, scapegoated, or ridiculed in some form. Narcissists rely on the defense mechanism of projection to rid themselves of unwanted aspects of their psyches and their vulnerable feelings. Through that lens, they will never take accountability or responsibility for their actions in a true sense.
Narcissists may give lip service to accountability, but it falls extremely short.
They may say things like, “Well, I did the best that I could. Now it’s time for us to move on”, which only feels like a slap in the face, followed by a suggestion to sweep it away. This is not at all accountability or even close to an apology.
article continues after advertisement
Given that victims of narcissistic abuse are often blamed and projected upon, forgiving the person who did this can feel deeply wounding and even re-traumatizing. I’m not saying one should never pursue this if they choose to, but I strongly caution against it, especially if outsiders suggest it.
If the drive to forgive comes from a deep need within yourself, and you are not in conflict with it, that’s a different matter. For the purpose of this post, we’ll stick to my main thesis, which is: You don’t have to forgive (the narcissist) to heal. Forgiveness is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
I advocate for self-forgiveness because adult children of narcissists have taken on many false beliefs about themselves that reinforce the notion that they are bad, undeserving of love or success, and downright wrong in who they are.
These beliefs, formed through early life experiences with a narcissistic parent (and likely co-dependent counter-parent), must be healed. They must be recontextualized as beliefs given to you rather than beliefs about you. These beliefs had nothing to do with you as a human being but had everything to do with a narcissist who could not face their own sense of unworthiness.
Self-forgiveness requires that you look at the heavy burden you’ve been carrying, one that has made you feel shameful and inappropriately guilty (for crimes you didn’t commit), and release it. Of course, the natural question becomes, “How do I do that?”.
I always like to start with accessing the will to do it. You’ve already started if you have the will or drive to release this burden. And that looks like learning (and wanting) to treat yourself differently. It’s about changing the narrative inside of your mind so that you can receive a new message.
article continues after advertisement
Change the Belief System
We need to update the belief system so that it reflects the truth. Instead of, “I am bad because that’s what my mom told me,” it needs to look more like, “My mom told me I was bad, but I now know that was based on her own projections. No child is bad or unworthy”.
Changing our minds is not as easy as simply replacing an old belief with a new one. It requires that we also change our connection with ourselves.
If you tend to dismiss, ignore, or shame yourself for having certain feelings and needs, you cannot dismantle the oppressive beliefs learned from your parents.
The connection, or relationship, you have with yourself now requires you to be caring, attentive, and accepting of all parts of you, feelings and needs included. We have to start by recognizing that our underlying beliefs have a direct cost to our well-being.
If you can see the cost, I hope you start to feel some compassion for yourself and stir your will to override these toxic forces. Are you willing to show yourself mercy? To forgive yourself by accepting all that you are and making room for the parts of you that had to be shut out for you to survive?
Instead of directing your energy toward forgiving your narcissistic parent, direct it toward yourself. Not that you have anything to be forgiven for (which, ironically, is part of self-forgiveness), but the energy of that forgiveness (which is more like self-compassion) can be extremely potent in your healing. It can reach inside yourself and help you see that you are a human being who has suffered immensely, and you want to alleviate that pain by fully accepting yourself. Through full-on appreciation and acceptance of the self, we can move the needle in recovery.
This Practice Is About Holding up the Reality
For those of you who might be taking in my suggestion of not forgiving the narcissist as a suggestion that you walk around hating and blaming the narcissist forever, that is not the case. Let me clarify. This process should not be either/or. Either I forgive them, or I hate them. It is neither.
I find it’s better to face the reality of what you feel toward your narcissistic parent. What comes up in that space? Is it anger? Pity? Sadness? Allow the reality of what you feel to exist. You needn’t cover it up or turn away from it. What you feel is enough.
You’ll find the most relief by allowing yourself to have feelings toward someone who has impacted you while protecting yourself from any internal force attempting to shame, blame, or judge you for those feelings. And last, this is not to discourage you from ever engaging in forgiveness practice.
article continues after advertisement
I’ve seen many individuals go this route prematurely to stop their painful feelings from arising. In some circles, forgiveness may serve as a spiritual bypass, meaning it becomes a practice to bypass your emotions in the name of spiritual healing.
As a principle, I think it’s much more valuable and important to build a practice of self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance because that is where healing is needed. Directing healing energy toward the self is the surest way to increase one’s sense of healthy entitlement to their selfhood.
Most survivors of narcissistic abuse were deprived of building their selfhood, as they tended to serve as mirrors or scapegoats for their parents. I hope this feels more like an invitation to begin treating and responding to yourself with the care and healing you are so entitled to have.
A wonderful book I recommend to those interested in this practice is Radical Self-Forgiveness by Colin Tipping.