It’s a fascinating question inspired by one woman’s experience in a cult-like university in South Carolina. At the end of her shocking tale of abuse she wrote, “I have since forgiven myself for allowing myself to stay there and be hurt for that long.”
Have you forgiven yourself for being with a narcissist? For staying with them for “that long.” To be frank, I haven’t. There’s always a lurking self-blame which inspired me to write I was Complicit in my Own Narcissistic Abuse in 2017. Two years on, I still blame myself for staying until they grudgingly allowed me to leave.
Why do we find it so hard to forgive ourselves? What is forgiveness? How does one do it? What does it look like, sound like, feel like? It’s not a subject I enjoy thinking about but here’s my flow-of-consciousness take on it today.
When I think of forgiving myself, all I hear are all my reasons/excuses for staying so long. “I didn’t know any better.” “That was my normal.” “I was brainwashed.” “I was scared.” “They had infected me with Stockholm Syndrome.” “I thought I was doing what God wanted me to do.” “I didn’t want to break my mother’s heart.”
But all that rings hollow because I learned from my narcissists that excuses are not tolerated. Not even entertained. While my narcissist was once labeled “He Who Can Rationalize Anything,” they never allow others to have excuses. To a narcissist, particularly a religious one, there is only right and wrong. Black-and-white. Never any shades of gray. If you weren’t doing right, a religious narcissist will tell you you’re sinning point-blank. I think they quite enjoy that.
But I can’t see staying with a narcissist as sin! Perhaps we were born to them and that’s not our fault. Perhaps we married “the most charming woman in the world” only for her to pull the old switcharoo after the vows were said. And that’s not our fault. Perhaps we befriended them because “they feel like home.” We were a good, faithful, loving child, wife, husband, friend. None of it is our fault. In fact, we’re a credit to ourselves.
God knows we tried to please them. To be everything and anything they wanted us to be just so the criticisms would stop. Just so we could achieve the I’ll-be-able-to-love-you-when-you’re-perfect carrot they dangled before our quivering nose. We did it for them. We did it for us. We did it for peace. We did it for love. We did it to become a better person. And there’s no shame in that.
How can you know about narcissism if you don’t know about narcissism. We’ve all heard the word, seen the ancient artwork and the flower…but all that is such a red herring. Hollywood narcissists may resemble that, but most of us had to deal with the more garden-variety vanilla narcissist, seeming more obsessed with us than with themselves. So how were we to know!?!
A few years ago, my narcissist diagnosed his coworker (who wouldn’t obey his little, brief authority) as a narcissist. That’s my introduction to the word. It never occurred to me that the pot was calling the kettle. It would take several more years to literally bumble across the concept online. What a blessing! I thank God for that blessed life-changing day. Cutting familial bonds was excruciating, the false guilt horrific and it took every bit of moral fiber and courage I could muster, plus quite a bit of money in legal fees, but it was good. It was all worth it!
For many years I’ve said, “You can only live as far as you can think.” We couldn’t know about narcissism before we, well, knew about narcissism. There’s no Tardis to whisk us forward in time so we can prematurely learn about narcissism (and memorize the winning lottery numbers), more’s the pity!
No, we have to plod through this life. Only living as far as we can think with the information currently at our disposal. It’s been a shock for me to learn that life is just something you bumble through, making wrong decisions based on limited data, with more regrets than not, because that damn self-congratulatory hindsight is always 20/20.
Yet, to this day, I harbor guilt for staying for so long. My self-blame is minuscule compared to the blame I hold against my narcissists, but yes, I still blame myself for staying…and staying…and staying. If you also blame yourself, and like good guilt-addicts we all do, at least we’re in good company with each other.
As I read further about the university-that-shall-be-nameless that inspired this article, I ran across this: “We were like refugees, huddled together around a New American Standard Bible translation, reading it by proverbial candlelight and discussing doctrines of grace….”
Grace. Maybe that’s what we need. Not forgiveness which implies sweeping-it-all-under-the-carpet, but grace. A knowing wink and nod that says, “It’s okay, Toots. Ease up on yourself there.”
Grace. That’s where it’s at. Earlier this week I caught myself saying, “Oh no. Those people are good enough to go to Heaven. I’m not!” Then I realized I’d missed the beauty of Grace. I thought you had to meet God halfway. That only the “good people” are given Golden Tickets. They’d be the narcissists, confidently self-righteous. So perfect in their own eyes that they don’t want or need Grace.
But I do. I crave Grace. Maybe “forgiveness” was the wrong word. Maybe I don’t understand forgiveness, because to me it implies letting someone off the hook for something heinous. Making excuses for criminals who knew damn well they were doing something horrible and planned it, chose it, did it and were only sorry for getting caught. When I think of the word “forgiveness,” I think of how the women in Amish communities are forced to speedily “forgive” their rapist, oftentimes a close family member, so he can be welcomed back into the bosom of the cult (after a sufficient period of shunning) and never be reported to the police. How is she supposed to forgive? Say “Oh, he didn’t know any better?” or “He slipped on a banana peel and fell into my lady parts.” If that’s forgiveness, then somebody goofed. (It’s also why there is so much anger, depression and suicide among Amish women.)
But grace makes no excuses. It sweeps nothing under the carpet. It lets reality be reality. It’s big enough and small enough to apply to everything from the most innocent of goofs to heinous crimes truly repented.
Somehow Grace takes away the need to constantly berate, shame, blame and guilt ourselves for playing the narcissist’s games for way too long. And, to the extent that our narcissist is blind to their own true motivations and the original wound that sparked their narcissism, perhaps we can extend that much Grace to them as well for they are truly pathetic people…whether they know it or not. I can’t forgive my narcissists. Can’t let them off the hook. Some of the things they did to me and said to me were unconscionable. But I can extend a soupçon of Grace, knowing how brainwashed, self-deluded and terrified-of-the-truth about themselves they truly are.
Yes, I prefer the baggageless word “Grace” to the word “forgiveness.” I give myself Grace for staying too long. Now it’s your turn. Can you give yourself Grace?