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When Forgiveness Isn't A Good Idea: A Psychologist Explains

March 12, 2018

"I know I need to forgive him, but I can’t." That’s a statement I hear from every woman who's been abused. And they’re shocked when I say, "Maybe you’ll forgive him. Maybe you won’t. The truth is, it doesn’t matter."

In a world where spiritual circles preach about forgiving your perpetrator, or even about "turning the other cheek," here’s why I believe that forgiveness isn't always the way.

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1. You need to move on.

When you prioritize forgiving your narcissist, you get suckered back in. His potential is dangled in front of you, and suddenly you wonder if you're making the right choice—but a narcissist is incapable of real transformation. He or she cannot and will not change, so any changes are ephemeral.

Even then, you’ll see the goodness in him. And every time you place the burden of forgiveness on your own shoulders, you’re obligated to wipe the slate clean so as to give him a loving, supportive environment that he tells you is so crucial for his healing.

2. You get more drained by the second.

The fact is, narcissists will try to suck you back in long after the breakup. They’ll contact you, trying to get your pity or to arouse your anger. Anything to provoke a reaction. Then they may tell you they’ve changed, which may soften you, as evidenced by how many women go back to their abusers.

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3. It's time for you to come first.

As I tell my clients, self-love is the greatest narcissist repellent. You see, narcissists do not actually love themselves. Instead, they have to build a false mask in order to escape from how much they loathe themselves. When we are secure in who we are and can love ourselves deeply, narcissists have no way of wriggling into our lives and heart.

Narcissists love to prey on people with high levels of empathy. While empathy makes us human, the problem is that it has a downside, especially when we have more empathy for others than for ourselves. And when we keep choosing to forgive the narcissist by empathizing with his or her story, we put ourselves last. Without self-love, we will keep getting drawn back in by the narcissist.

4. You need to stop feeling bad for seeking justice.

When I finally disclosed the abuse to my friends and doctor after years, I felt guilty. Was I hurting him that way? After all, he’d warned me repeatedly that if I told someone else, he’d get paranoid. And when I finally filed a police case, I battled with myself for months afterward. Was I getting him into trouble? It took me some time to come to accept that being a good person doesn’t mean exonerating a person’s crimes.

And that seeking justice may save someone else’s life, because domestic violence tends to be downplayed by police forces around the world. Just like #MeToo took time to gain traction, so will domestic violence prevention. Besides, narcissists become more sophisticated over time. By seeking justice and telling my story, I now understand that I am potentially helping other women to become more cognizant of the narcissist’s modus operandi.

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5. Your top priority should be forgiving yourself.

I remember my spiritual mentor Val telling 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. And so I worked toward that. Today, I teach all of my clients that we need to forgive ourselves for being hoodwinked by the narcissist and staying in the relationship. We may berate ourselves for not recognizing the signs or listening to our guts.

For example, I often get letters from women saying, "I am an educated person, I’m a doctor/psychiatrist/lawyer who graduated summa cum laude, and I still feel so stupid for being fooled."

The truth is, your background makes you more attractive to the narcissist because he can parade you around as his trophy. He has spent his whole life conning people and has therefore perfected his art. You didn’t walk around looking out for people who would con you. You didn’t ask to be conned, either. So above all, the most important thing you can do is forgive yourself.

6. Not forgetting 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. Our bodies pair the food with "danger" after an illness in order to protect ourselves from being hurt again. It’s instinctual. 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 recognize the red flags that led you into that relationship in the first place. It also helps you to celebrate how far you’ve come. Not forgetting simply makes you a wiser person. In spiritual settings, too, sometimes we conflate discernment with being negative. But here's the truth: Discernment is wisdom, and wisdom makes us stronger, better people.

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7. You need to heal.

Healing is, in part, being able to accept what happened. I know this is easier said than done, so allow yourself to feel the full extent of your grief, sadness, rage, and any other emotions we often malign as "negative."

I held on to the pain for far too long, thinking, "Why me? Why did I need this baptism of fire?" I soon realized that I didn’t need that poison in my life any longer. It wasn’t my cross to bear. So I resolved to set it down, burn it, and fertilize my metaphorical garden with its ashes. We accept by making sense of things. Because when our minds have closure, we have a sense of control, knowing that we did our best.

We understand why the narcissist did what they did and why that happened to us. We can also choose to understand that we took care of ourselves the best that we could and to commit to becoming the champions that our younger selves never had.

Perhaps forgiveness may come to you, and perhaps it won't. But I hope that you will, first and foremost, take care of yourself.

This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Marshall, executive coach and psychologist, and Shannon Thomas, LCSW. To understand more about how narcissism works, read up on 14 signs that someone is a narcissist.

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Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology

Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.

She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.