One of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts is that of forgiveness.
The practice of forgiveness is an internal emotional and psychological journey that is fundamental to any sort of healing (whether spiritual or secular). It is something that you do for yourself, within yourself. In your own heart, so to speak. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person, and it does not mean reconciling, or “getting back together,” or having any sort of relationship with the other person.
People often hold on to their anger and pain saying “no, I will never forgive this. What he did is unforgiveable.” This mindset, although very common, is both faulty thinking and it stands in the way of the victim’s own peace and inner tranquility. In reality, the painful thing has already happened; it’s done and gone. But by holding on to the anger and the pain in this way, we re-hurt and re-traumatize ourselves every time we remember it.
This becomes somewhat self-harmful and self-abusive. The anger and pain eat at us from within, each time we think of that person or the experience. And we use that pain and anger to punish the other person in our minds and sometimes in reality. (There is a vague sort of feeling of “I need this anger to keep me safe, otherwise he will hurt me again;” which is a false belief masking fear and a lack of assertiveness). This is why the practice of forgiveness is so important. It untangles all of these false beliefs and fear-based mechanisms that keep us from love, compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships.
I’ve also often heard forgiveness being conflated with weakness; which is also inaccurate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or condoning any sort of hurtful behavior. Actually going through the process gives you incredible inner strength and courage to confront injustice in the right way, and hold people accountable.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean just turning the other cheek or just ignoring our feelings. Forgiveness means I love myself too much to continue carrying this awful painful burden. I will do the inner work to release myself, to release them, and I make a decision that is going to create more peace and less emotional pain in my life.
The process of forgiveness is about sorting out our own truth from the painful interpretations we make by default in our minds. It is an undoing of the self-judgments that lie at the root of most emotional pain. It is an investigation into the self-blame that the experience generated, and a transformation of that pain with love and compassion. It is then a turning to look at the other with the eyes of truth and compassion. Listening completely to our own anger and then transforming that anger with wisdom and understanding. It means making inquiries into the false motivations we have automatically assigned to them. And creating space for new loving interpretations.
By working on forgiveness we are releasing ourselves from the pain and suffering in our own mind, and coming to internal peace, as it relates to that person or experience. Also, in my view, learning how to forgive properly is the only way to build healthy relationships. Without a solid framework for forgiveness within, there can be no real repair after a conflict, and the relationship becomes a minefield of resentment.
There is an ocean of difference however between forgiving someone (inside our hearts), and allowing that person to remain a part of our lives. The former is healing and necessary, the latter is not.
Whether we allow someone to remain in our lives and hearts after a hurt has occurred, is a delicate consideration. It often will depend on the subjective magnitude of the pain we experienced and whether trust has been broken. Probably the most important factor is whether the other person has the capacity to genuinely apologize in a heartfelt way, giving some assurance that the hurt will not happen again. But this decision, whether to continue a relationship or not, has nothing to do with forgiveness. This is a question of boundary setting and self-respect.
The internal process of forgiveness comes first, and is independent of this second aspect.
Boundaries are incredibly important; and setting them is an area people struggle with a lot. Sometimes boundaries are simple “this hurt me. please don’t do this again.” And other times much more complex: “Out of self-love and self-respect, I cannot allow you to continue this sort of behavior as it relates to me. You are free to do what you please, but I don’t wish to continue interacting with you.” It takes an incredible amount of inter-personal courage and self-love to carry these out properly. It sounds really obvious and simple, and yet I have met very very few people who really possess these skills.
We all have different levels of tolerance for pain and different capacities for forgiveness. I’ve seen lots of situations where people (me included) continuously ignore hurtful words and actions of others, under the guise of forgiveness. The deeper truth is that they (we) are really just too afraid to stand up for ourselves. (It has taken me a lot of work and courage to really begin standing up for my vulnerable feelings… It gets easier with practice.)
But forgiveness cannot be used to justify silence in the face of a transgression. If the hurts continue to be inflicted, at some point forgiveness no longer works. One cannot withstand constant hurtful words or actions, without the dynamic becoming self-abusive. Forgiveness cannot be used (or misused rather) as an avoidance technique when confrontation is too scary.
Setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, and voicing hurt feelings honestly are all required acts of self-love. The complicated part is that they are to be done without anger or resentment. (If they are being done with anger, from a negative emotional state, it’s not boundary setting but rather a form of punishment. The distinction is very important).
We must first do the work to reach a state of peace (internally) and compassion for the other person, and then we set the boundary peacefully and with kindness. (This doesn’t apply of course in emergency situations when harm is imminent. I feel this is so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I suppose I do).
Setting boundaries also has nothing to do with the other person. You cannot change who they are, or what they do. But we must find the courage to see them with honest eyes. We must be willing to acknowledge how they make us feel, really and deeply. And if we don’t want to be treated a certain way, we are in control of your own lives, actions, and behavior. There is nothing wrong with removing ourselves from dynamics (whether temporarily or permanently) that we find hurtful.
Putting our own vulnerable feelings first is not selfishness; it is the ultimate self-love.
In recent years, narcissism has become a super hot topic of public conversation, especially where millennials and social media are concerned. From innocuous vanity and self-promotion, all the way to the pathological personality disorder, narcissism can take many different forms, along a wide spectrum. But somehow it feels like the more pathological aspects are suddenly everywhere; like some kind of social epidemic.
In spiritual circles, a traumatic story involving at least one vicious malignant narcissist is part of nearly everyone’s history of pain and awakening. There are tons and tons of articles, books, podcasts, and abuse recovery programs popping up all over the place. (In the event you’re not up on all the details, this is a great article on all the different aspects of the personality disorder. And this is a painfully accurate description of what happens to children who grow up with narcissistic parents/caretakers.).
I’ve been around narcissists my entire life. There was no name for it when I was growing up, so in my childhood mind these were just very dangerous people, people who would hurt me, destabilize me, ridicule me, etc. Some of the people I’ve know are severely pathological, so much so that it’s quite shocking what I consider to be normal. I know them as family members, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, and even clients. I know them so well, so strong is my visceral reaction to them, that I can pretty much pick them out across a room. If there is a malignant narcissist in a 5 mile radius, I am sure to find them. (It’s my special gift.). It appears that my lot in this life is learning how to love and forgive them (always at a safe distance), while learning how to love myself more. It’s really hard and not fun.
I always knew something was wrong, intuitively, but it took a long time for me to find the right resources and information. Once I did, I immediately recognized that I was a victim of their classic form of abuse. It’s like a lightbulb went off in my head, and suddenly everything made perfect sense. Unbeknownst to me, for years and years living in close relational proximity to really cruel and sadistic people, I became the perfect sort of co-dependent puzzle piece matching their horrendous behaviors. If you are powerless, there is no way to survive, other than to mold and contort oneself around them; it’s usually a matter of life and death, even if you are an adult. Those patterns then carry forward and make up the bulk of what’s known as co-dependent traits.
It takes a lot of courage and painful introspection to recognize what’s really happening when you are in a relationship with a narcissist. Their psychological patterning, and the insidious way they operate, can make anyone begin to question his/her own sanity.
Slowly and very slyly (such that you don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late) they manage to rob you of every shred of self-worth you may have ever had. They destroy everything – your sense of self, your sense of reality, your life, your work, your relationships, your finances, your basic human dignity. They are like a whirlwind tornado that blows into your life and wreaks absolute havoc, decimating everything in its wake.
What’s even worse is if it’s a family member who participated in your upbringing; their warped values and consistent gaslighting can really screw up your sense of what’s real and true at a fundamental level. They get you to mistrust your own perceptions and authentic feelings so completely, that you end up putting all of yourself in their very sick hands. They whole-heartedly convince you that you only exist to serve them, to cater to their needs, and you are not allowed to have any needs or wants of your own. They make it so that there is no space for you to exist psychologically as a separate person, only as an extension of them, which severely damages the very fragile psyche of a child in unimaginable ways. It can takes years and years of difficult healing work to untangle that mess, even once you become aware of what’s happened.
So once you’ve figured out that you are in such a relationship, you are instructed to leave immediately and cut all ties with the abuser. (This categorical advice has softened somewhat over the years, to “get a safety plan, then leave immediately,” but still get out and away as quickly as possible). The standard instruction for victims of narcissistic abuse is “no contact,” no matter what you feel, no matter what they do or say, cut off all contact and do not engage ever again. They are toxic and evil, and you must extricate yourself completely.
In reality, it’s never that simple. More often than not, this person is a family member or a spouse, from whom you can’t just walk away. There may be children involved. There may be a business, or property, or a career at stake. And on an emotional level, the very thing that brought you into the dynamic with this person, can keep you deeply and inextricably connected to them. Intense feelings of fear, shame, guilt, and worthlessness can feel suffocating. Thinking about separation from them can feel excruciating, threatening your very sense of existence. Most victims are not empowered or strong enough to just up and leave, physically or emotionally. (Spiritually, these relationships operate on a much deeper and more significant level – particular energies bringing and holding these relationships in place, for the larger soul lessons they convey. Often times leaving and cutting ties doesn’t solve the problem, because there is another abuser just around the corner that ensnares you again.).
“So then what?” you think to yourself. “Let’s try taking them to therapy.” The problem is there doesn’t seem to be any treatment for the more severe forms of narcissism; not that you could ever convince a narcissist that s/he needs treatment anyway. If they agree to go with you to therapy, it will only be for the purpose of manipulating the therapist and causing you (potentially both you and the therapist) further harm. This is why many therapists refuse to work with narcissists, believing that the narcissist has no genuine intention to change or heal.
This picture looks really bleak. The truth is, it is. I don’t have any good news here. These situations are always very difficult, unique, and delicate. I think telling a victim to just up and leave, when they feel stuck and powerless, can be insensitive and ineffective. It takes a lot of self-love and therapeutic support to break that kind of relationship, and endure the pain of the separation process. There are tools and therapies that can help alleviate some of the damage in the interim (I especially like the work of Ross Rosenberg who has some great videos on youtube), but it’s a long and difficult road for victims no matter what.
In an ideal world, what narcissists really need is unconditional love. They need someone with tons and tons of fierce unconditional love, and super strong boundaries, to essentially re-parent them. Their armoring and weapons need to be made ineffective, and the inner child within them (the true self) needs to be healed and recalibrated back into the body. It’s a gruesome and very painful process for all involved, made more difficult by the fact that most of them don’t want to heal. They have no intrinsic desire to stop being as they are. (Frankly, why would they? They get away with nearly everything they do, everyone fears them and fears standing up to them, so what would be the incentive to change? They get to live life mostly on their terms, terrorizing and dominating nearly everyone they meet.)
So aside from the fact that they won’t ever seek help, and don’t really want to change, the next problem is that they can be so abusive, exploitative, and hurtful at times, that nearly everyone in their lives leaves them at some point. This doesn’t bother them very much. In truth, no self-loving person (those capable of the kind of unconditional love needed here) would ever stick around for any of their abusive behaviors. And trying to change or help someone who doesn’t recognize that they need help is a recipe for disaster. (The foolish martyrs among us try and try, only to get nowhere.).
It takes an almost impossible sort of inner courage, strength, and stamina to confront a narcissist, call out his/her behavior, and then withstand the barrage of denials, insults, and targeted destructive character attacks in response (sometimes it can escalate to serious retaliatory harm). Most people/therapists are not equipped to deal with that, or the liability or implications of that. And usually no benefit comes from confronting the narcissist anyway, as they don’t internalize nor learn anything from the experience.
What I’d like to add to this discussion however, is something that isn’t often advocated – that is compassion. First, of course, for the victims of narcissistic abuse who may not be able to leave (especially for the children of narcissistic parents), but then also for the narcissists themselves.
Part of what I was intuitively given in my training, is a deep understanding of how narcissism operates. I was shown where it comes from and why. I was shown the structure of the ego that manifests as narcissistic personality disorder. But most importantly, for a few minutes, through an energetic connection, I was given the unbelievable somatic experience of the intense shame that narcissists feel inside when triggered.
It is the worst (the worst!) feeling in the world. Believe me, I’ve felt some pretty awful things, and this caliber of shame is unbearable. I felt it in every bone, in every limb, in every cell of my body. In those few minutes, it hurt so much that I wanted only to die.
This experience was given to me as part of my own healing work; so that I could really have compassion for their lot in life. The truth is, if I carried this kind of shame, and if I believed (like they often do) that other people are to blame for triggering it, I would be just as abusive, just as violent, just as dominating and exploitative. I would do anything possible to avoid feeling that horrendous emotional pain ever again. I think anyone would.
It is easy these days to label someone a narcissist, blame them for everything, and push them away. It’s much harder to reckon with our own pain, find the aspects of ourselves that allowed this person into our lives, learn how to set strong boundaries, do our own healing work, and then look upon them with compassion.
While on the outside they appear terribly selfish, haughty, arrogant, and unfeeling. Inside, they are like terrified little children, trapped in tremendous inescapable suffering. Labeling them as bad or evil, and leaving it there, only exacerbates the problem. Discernment is very very important, but we have to use it as part of our work, not use it as a tool of division, and then vengeance. That gets us nowhere.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that we keep abusive people in our lives. Nor am I suggesting that we allow ourselves to be mistreated, excuse horrific trauma, or that we fail to hold others accountable for their actions. I’m only inviting you to include compassion and understanding of their suffering, as part of your own healing, forgiveness, and self-love practice. These are things we must do for ourselves, not for them.
From a spiritual perspective, narcissists come into our lives for a reason. They aren’t an accident. They aren’t a random evil misfortune; or a bad judgment call on our part. They come to awaken us. They are the shadow, the contrast, the catalysts for transformation, the bearers of darkness, and the greatest teachers life can possibly offer.
Holding them merely as bad, evil, or scary in our minds creates internal fear and negative energies. We end up falsely holding ourselves as good and totally innocent victims, and them as the wholly bad “other” over there. They become a threat that you need protection from; an enemy that you need to be vigilant about. This is not a healthy mindset; it doesn’t promote healing, it promotes grudge-holding and stewing in the past, feeding our own victim stories.
Instead, moving through the pain they caused, using it for healing and growth, then holding them in compassion, and arriving at forgiveness, understanding that despite their external appearance they are in fact suffering, allows us come to a place of peace within. This isn’t easy. It’s not about bypassing our pain or jumping prematurely to forgiveness. It is a slow and difficult practice.
But then, when we have done our own healing work, from a place of peace, we can make whatever decisions, or carry out whatever actions, are necessary in a given situation. We can hold them accountable in a way that is just and fair, and rooted in wisdom, rather than driven by our own hatred and vengeance. This is of course important for ourselves, for our own souls, regardless of whether they experience remorse or not.
A portion of this quote was making its way around the internet for a while. It seems appropriate to close this post with it here. It’s from Common Prayers: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.
Peace is not just about the absence of conflict; it’s also about the presence of justice. … A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
I’ve been working my way through the Five Levels of Attachment by don Miguel Ruiz Jr. Although you can probably get through the book in one sitting, I’m taking my time with it. I will read a few pages, and then take some time to digest what it means. Then I go back and re-read a few pages, and find a new deeper understanding. The words resonate in very interesting ways.
I came upon an exercise in the book that I find very profound – The Labyrinth in the Toltec Tradition.
The instructions are pretty simple. The focus of the exercise is a taking of responsibility for our own lives, a letting go of egoic conditioning and limiting beliefs, and a healing method of forgiveness. We are telling ourselves the truth of how we created our own emotional pain, and we are creating the internal space for forgiveness. The results are very powerful.
And so without further ado, imagine yourself standing at the entrance to a large life-size labyrinth…
(I have condensed the excerpt for our purposes, but I encourage you to get a copy of the book. It’s excellent. Miguel’s words are in italics below).
As you enter the labyrinth, imagine it is a road map of your past that leads to your present moment in life. With every turn, envision a person, a moment, or a belief that you have used in some way to [limit] yourself. What or whom have you used to subjugate your own will in order to be accepted by yourself or others? When you hold that vision in your mind – a person for example – stop, envision him or her, and become aware of how their words have contributed to your [limiting beliefs] and say, “Forgive me. I have used your words to go against myself.” Although that person might have used his or her words and actions to [limit] you, or to cause you harm or pain, you are the one who ultimately said yes to the belief and allowed it to blossom in your mind.
Following the idea that we explored in the previous post about releasing the victim stories, it is important to recognize that you have caused yourself pain, by absorbing and believing the words and actions of others. Their intentions don’t really matter in this moment. This exercise is for you to see how you have contributed to your own pain, and how you can reclaim your power over your life and beliefs.
Forgiveness happens the moment you say no to carrying this pain, this weight, this hurt, and let go of it all…Forgiveness is the action that allows us to move forward in the labyrinth.
Continue through the labyrinth, repeating the same action of forgiveness as new people and situations come to mind – whatever person or wound hooks your attention at that moment. That is the next one you are ready to face and forgive.
As you reach the end… you will find yourself at the entrance to the center of the labyrinth. Stop here. Look at the entrance to the center point and envision a mirror. Walk up to that mirror and see your own reflection. When you are ready, repeat these words: “Forgive me, I have used your words most of all to go against myself, and I will no longer use them to hurt myself again.” The action of entering the center point of the labyrinth represents the moment you forgive yourself. This is the action of your own forgiveness and of reclaiming the power, or the impeccability, of your own word – of your own intent. You are worthy of your own forgiveness, as much as you are worthy of your own love.
At this point in the exercise, you have let go of the past by recognizing that the only thing that exists is this present moment. The labyrinth itself is now the past, and you can let it go as you forgive yourself. With awareness, you can now draw the knowledge from your past to make choices in the present moment. The labyrinth expands as you live your life, but the only truth is in that center, that present moment where you are alive. The labyrinth ceremony ends when you recognize that you are worthy of your own love because you are alive in this very moment.
This is one of the most beautiful exercises in forgiveness I’ve seen in a long time. I hope you try it.
There is life. And then there is the story you tell about it.
One of the most important steps in the shamanic tradition of the Toltecs is a taking of responsibility. While I’ve always considered myself a very responsible person, this is a different kind of responsibility. The tradition teaches that we must take ownership of our lives, of all the bad things that happened to us, of the stories we tell ourselves about those things, of the pain, and of the emotional wounds. This is the only path to true freedom and happiness.
After studying the basic tenets of the tradition, and learning the Toltec psychology, I embarked on the long, and sometimes scary, process of reframing my stories. As I looked at each painful experience of my past, examining my thoughts, feeling, and actions, I began dismantling the victim perspective. When I was done, I realized that I am no longer the victim of any of my stories.
I want to be clear that this isn’t about denying the truth of what happened, but it’s about finding the core negative beliefs that create the victim story. By removing the pity party dialogue, the right versus wrong dichotomy, and the negative judgments against ourselves and others, we are unshackled from the victim mind-frame and all the pain that comes with it. (If you’re familiar with Buddhist lingo, this is the second arrow of suffering).