It’s hard to forgive other people, but it’s far more difficult to forgive ourselves. I know this is true, because I’ve struggled with it for years.
I listened to a podcast episode tonight about how victims of narcissists often lash out at other people in behavior that seems remarkably similar to the behavior that was done to them. I’ve known for years that this is true, but I prefer to avoid the subject.
Thinking about it makes me feel guilt and shame. I struggle to give myself the grace of self-compassion and forgiveness.
I’ve talked with you over and over about my struggles with coming to understand the narcissistic abuse I went through as a child. The thing I seem to have struggled with the most are my fears of having learned too many of my father’s dysfunctional ways. (Here‘s an example from about 18 months ago.)
As I listened to the podcast discussion tonight of how easy it is for victims to repeat some forms of what was done to them, I felt the shame return — and I was reminded that I still haven’t mastered how to give myself compassion and forgiveness.
Even in the days before I understood what had happened to me as a child — and before I understood what pathological narcissism is — I was never a bad person. I never intentionally hurt anyone. I tried to do what was right. And I believed with all my heart that I was “the good guy” in all my relationships.
When I was going through the counseling which taught me what had happened to me in childhood, I was forced to confront the ways in which some of my behaviors were influenced by the ugliness that was done to me.
I hated it. The process hurt. But I couldn’t look away from it.
During that period when a psychologist was teaching me how my childhood experiences shaped my current behavior, she gave me an exercise that led me to see that some of the things I had done in two recent relationships — and things I hadn’t done, at times — were selfish and hurtful.
Even though those relationships are long gone, I still struggle with guilt over the things I realized as I saw what I’d become.
I never cheated on anybody. I never physically hurt anybody. I never did any of the things that I would have considered — up until then — constituted abuse.
But I saw ways in which I unfairly exercised power over a woman in one relationship. Until then, I hadn’t thought anything of it. Even after I knew I didn’t want her, I kept her around as a “backup plan,” and because I didn’t really care whether she left or stayed in the relationship, I was able to exercise dominance in ways that weren’t loving or kind.
In another relationship — with someone I genuinely loved — I had the upper hand and selfishly used that advantage to feel better about myself. I wasn’t fair to her. I’ve talked about this relationship before, so it’s old ground. Even though I eventually went through a period of reconciliation — of a sort — with her, I don’t think I’ve ever really forgiven myself.
You’ve probably heard the old expression, “Hurt people hurt people.” The cliche is true. I’ve come to see my former self as something like a wounded elephant thrashing about in the emotional sense. I hadn’t learned enough — and I certainly hadn’t healed enough — to stop thrashing and to love someone in a responsible way. When someone loved me, she was likely to be hurt by some of my unconscious thrashing, as something inside me was reacting angrily to the abuse that had been done to me.
When you’ve been abused, you assume that you couldn’t possibly hurt anyone else. You understand what it feels like too much to let that happen — but abuse makes it more likely you’ll act that way, as you unconsciously lash out with behavior you’ve been taught, even if the behavior isn’t as severe as what was done to you.
Few people mean to hurt others. I know that I never did. I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned since then. I’m grateful for all the healing I’ve done through. I’m grateful for knowing that I’m healthy enough not to do those things to others anymore.
But all of that doesn’t stop me from being fearful. And it doesn’t stop me from feeling shame.
I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, but I know now that cutting off my relationship to my narcissistic father was partly about making sure I didn’t allow myself to continue thrashing about in the lives of women who loved me. I understand now that it wasn’t possible to have healthy relationships with others while I was still allowing myself to be the victim of a long-running dysfunction that continued until I cut him off for good.
This is another big reason to get away from someone in your life who has values and behavior that are radically different from what you want for yourself. If you remain tied to such people, you will slowly act the way you’re treated.
You will slowly become more like the person who you refuse to run away from.
I hope the day will come when I can completely put all of this in the past. Since my father’s death, it’s slowly become easier to let go of the things he did to me (and that he tried to continue doing). I hope that as the memories and pains of that dysfunction fade, I will be able to put my own shame and guilt into the same box and bury it.
I need to remember the lesson. I need to forever be vigilant to be the person I want to be — instead of the person I was trained to be — but I need to be able to set the shame aside.
I need compassion for myself. I need empathy for myself. And most of all, I need to forgive myself and let the past die.