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Judith Acosta Headshot

Should You Forgive Narcissists Who've Hurt You?

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In our dialogue about narcissists and sociopaths, many of you have shared your own stories. The damage people do is sometimes beyond my ken. The wounds they inflict because of thoughtlessness or pure malice can last a lifetime. Some of you wrote about your pain. Some were enraged. Some longed for reconciliation, others for vindication. Some wanted revenge, plain and simple, while others talked about letting go.

How does one proceed after living with or being raised by a narcissist?

There are choices.

Some people opt for the courts and struggle for a sense of justice. This is a noble but arduous road. Ultimately it is a judicial crap shoot. You have one lawyer playing against another, unpredictable juries, and the participation of the original perpetrator, who is usually far from remorseful and to whom you are tied for the duration of the proceedings. Sometimes it is hugely successful. Other times, it is painful beyond words.

Some people take the road of least resistance: avoidance and amnesia. I can understand this. It can seem a very safe place to be. Unfortunately, it usually ends up quite the opposite because it is a trance of sorts. While some people call this letting go, it is not. It is a numbing. We ignore the wound, but it can fester, affecting how we receive and participate in all other relationships from the point of injury forward.

Some people refuse all of the above and instead rest in the familiarity of active anger and resentment. One woman I know said she wouldn't give up her anger if her life depended on it. I asked her why, and she said, "It fuels me."

Some people want to forgive -- not forget, not appease, not roll over, but forgive. But what does this mean, really?

Defining Forgiveness

The word "forgiveness" has been used interchangeably with the word "appeasement." For many reasons, the least of which is accuracy and the greatest of which is our spiritual survival, this is a grave mistake.

My observations may be of some service in understanding and clarifying the erroneous notion that forgiveness should ever be equated with appeasement or confused with unearned trust. They are not only unequal, they are opposites. How we forgive as well as when and why we ought to offer forgiveness are fundamentally important psychologically as well as spiritually.

Forgiveness and appeasement must both be very clearly defined. Forgiveness is the letting go of hatred, resentment and pointless, pervasive and paralyzing fear. It does not mean that we must be foolishly fearless or naive. It does not mean that we stop protecting ourselves or deny what is truly dangerous around us. It does not mean that we ignore the obvious or trust what is intrinsically untrustworthy. It does not mean that we relinquish our God-given capacities for discernment and good judgment. When evil comes knocking, we should lock the door. Forgiveness is not banal and is never another word for "niceness."

Appeasement, on the other hand, often parades as benevolence but is actually cowardice, a derivative of a particular form of fear that is so consuming, so pervasive and pathological that it is flatly denied. When we appease, we essentially give up rational fear even though we may truly need it. We think that by being "nice" or by giving the bully what he wants, he will stop being a bully. Appeasement doesn't prevent bad behavior; it perpetuates and encourages it. That is foolishness.

Forgiving Is Not Excusing or Denial

It is my personal belief that there are things that right-mindedness and spiritual maturity call us to do and not do. And I want to state up front that a great deal of my thinking on these matters has been influenced C.S. Lewis, who gave us quite a bit to digest on the issue of forgiveness:

I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often ... asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, "Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us will be exactly as it was before." But excusing says, "I see that you couldn't help it or didn't mean it; you weren't really to blame." If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive ... [I]f we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses ...

Real forgiveness between two persons, as Lewis so rightly points out, does not mean pretending the hurt has not occurred and does not require that we look away from the wrongdoing. Forgiveness -- even God's forgiveness, which is infinite -- starts with a steady gaze at the wrongdoing itself. To forgive entails an acknowledgment of the hurt and then, when there is contrition and repentance, a reconciliation.

As Lewis reminds us again and again, true forgiveness demands that we look at the deed squarely, "seeing it in all its horror," after which we are able to extend compassion and be reconciled with the person but not with the deed. The deed and all its underpinnings must be shed for good. It is this understanding of forgiveness that makes it possible to fight an enemy without hating him.

Forgiveness is Not Codependence

Many people who come into my office live with rather troubled people, some of them truly awful. Some of them are being abused, some are stuck in situations with alcoholic parents that are frighteningly chaotic, others in marriages with addicts or thieves who are stripping them of every reasonable creature comfort.

I know one woman whose addicted husband stole all her clothing to sell on the street so he could buy a night's worth of methamphetamine. By the time she was able to take her daughter and herself to a battered women's shelter, she had all their worldly goods contained in one paper shopping bag.

Traumatized people (individuals, not collectives or organizations) -- immigrants from Cambodia, North Korea, parts of Africa, victims of abuse -- can't help but bristle at the mention of the word forgiveness. And I understand why they do. I also know that they will never recover without it. My task is to help them see that forgiveness does not mean they need to allow the behavior to continue or accept the next empty promise any more than acceptance means approval. In their lexicon, the term "forgiveness" implies that they have to pretend they were never abused or tortured or victimized. To forgive, in their minds, means a tacit cooperation in the codependency and abuse. When I say the word "acceptance", their hearts hear "denial," and their minds see a continuation of all that is wrong and truly morally and emotionally unacceptable.

It is imperative for there to be some contrition and an effort to change the negative behavior in order for forgiveness to be wholeheartedly given and for reconciliation (person-to-person or nation-to-nation) to take place. Father Russell Radoicich, an Orthodox Priest in Butte, Montana, clarifies the it this way, "Consider the difference between 'I'm sorry' and 'Please forgive me.' One is a proclamation and the other is a supplication. One involves 'I', one involves 'the other.' One is prideful and arrogant, almost a rant, the other is humble, contrite." There is no doubt that he is right and that we must be savvy enough and clear-minded enough to know the difference so that we are not manipulated into putting ourselves in harm's way. I have never heard a narcissist or sociopath sincerely say, "Forgive me."

However, while a full reconciliation may depend on repentance, our forgiveness does not. In fact, we can forgive a person who is quite ill and committed to a path of destruction using words we have heard before, "Forgive them for they know not what they do." Putting ourselves in harm's way is another matter.

Here's an example C.S. Lewis gives in his essay, "The Cardinal Virtues": "The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not."

One may forgive the thief but put locks on the door. One may forgive one's enemy but be prepared to do battle in the event of an attack. One may set firm limits with one's child and still provide unconditional love.

A Case in Point

Forgiveness is so hard for some people that it seems impossible. I had one client whose life revolved around her pain and all the love she was unable to get from the important men in her life. One of them, naturally, was her father, for whom she nurtured the most gruesome resentment. She hated him and said so in nearly every session. All her troubles were because of him, she believed. And to some degree that was true because her hatred tied her to him and his inadequacies as a parent harder and tighter than the original insults she suffered.

We talked about forgiveness more than a few times, and she said once, "It's like sand in my mouth. I can't swallow it." I tried to help her see that forgiveness was not for the forgiven in this case so much as it was for the forgiver, that it would set her free to find the love and acceptance she'd always wanted. But she was resolute. Unfortunately, that has kept her terribly unhappy and fearful. Her hatred was so great that she could no longer see what was blatantly true. With her vision distorted that way, her responses to life were equally distorted. As a result, not only did she not find the love and acceptance she longed for, but she fell into relationships that validated her worst thoughts about herself. This is how it works in the personal realm.

Finally Fighting the Enemy

We are asked to love our enemies. We don't hear much about this in the media, but it is what we are asked to do. Yet if we look at Biblical history, it is filled to the brim with some of the bloodiest battles in history. How is that possible? How can we be commanded to forgive, to love and to show mercy while being simultaneously called upon to protect oneself and one's family, to be intolerant of evil when it manifests before us -- even to the point of killing?

This is the crux of the matter, because if we can understand this, we can see deceptions where they exist and sidestep the inevitable disappointments of personal appeasement. The truth is that evil can never be appeased. Appeasement only postpones. The price we pay is not mitigated, it is multiplied.

I see a couple of steps to answering this, the first one being that while one belief system may in fact be better than another (e.g., honoring women as opposed to brutalizing them), ultimately we are no different from the enemies we are fighting. We are all human and imperfect. Accepting our humanity and our imperfect natures puts the conflict and the inevitable combat in an entirely different context. No one gets out of this sinless or alive. Forgiving is not only hard to do but impossible when we think of forgiveness as pardoning or forgetting or failing to correct. When we remember that we all need forgiveness, even if we believe we are fighting rightly, it is far easier to forgive those with whom we are engaged in battle.

The other point that Lewis makes, and I shall close with this, is that while we may kill to protect ourselves, we may not enjoy it. We may not hate, nor may we enjoy hating. We may pick up swords and fight evil, but we may not fight it by becoming evil ourselves. He covers this in his essay "Forgiveness": "In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must be simply killed." First things first. We must deal with the enemy in us before we can deal rightly with the enemy facing us.

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