To err is human. To forgive is divine, but to repeat is stupid.
For those of us estranged from our families during the family fetishized holidays shoring up the end of the year, the pressure to forgive and forget can be especially pronounced. Society at large tells us that – to borrow a turn of phrase from the poet, Alexander Pope – to err is human; to forgive, divine. And that the victim is the perpetrator, the betrayer, the pariah should forgiveness be withheld — to be pitied, subjected to public scorn and, ironically, unforgiven for being unwilling to forgive. Rather than emphasis on understanding and compassion, this is institutionalized blaming of the victim that I think most of us were raised to believe, wrongly.
When forgiveness works to resolve conflict, it’s great. There was an event in which a neighbor offered me a small gift and, with company present, I sarcastically said, “What am I, a charity case?” The next day the neighbor confronted me to say that my statement had hurt her. I did not intent to hurt her but I understood that she was, I apologized, resolved to better think before I speak and worked it out. I remember thinking how great it’d be if Family and I could work through our problems so expeditiously — or at all.
But just because one is unforgiving does not necessarily mean that they’re seeking revenge, nursing a grudge or unable to move on with their life. Forgiveness is not an entitlement.
Circumstances wherein the perpetrator of a betrayal does not demonstrate remorse for their actions, an intention to make amends or gives assurances that they will not do it again is unhealthy for the victim to forgive. This is the doormat effect — the victim letting people “walk all over them” without consequence because they’re deluded into thinking they’re obligated to do so, that unconditional forgiveness makes them good people somehow or any number of other misguided reasons.
The narcissist lacks empathy and therefore does not experience much less appreciate remorse yet expects and demands forgiveness which they – having no means to understand what forgiveness actually means – conflate with tacit permission. According to studies, people who are compelled to defy their own instincts, principles and forgive without receiving amends or feeling safely assured that the perpetrator would not betray them again feel devalued in the relationship and suffer decreased self-respect and self-concept; devaluation being the other half of the idealization-devaluation relationship cycle with the narcissist after the victim has been successfully lured and secured in the idealization phase. Sam Vaknin refers to the narcissist as a human blender and the unconditional forgiveness they elicit from their victims via manipulation of this aforementioned axiomatic social pressure is one of the spinning blades cutting their victims down — and then remaking them into whatever their needs happen to dictate.
Non-Forgiveness and the Bolstering Effect
In my own experience, Family summarily dismisses any and all concerns I have and, in practice, what every member has. Except Mother. Her concerns are Family’s only concerns. This is as true for myself as any of my servile siblings who place her happiness above their own, her hatchet man husband who will do anything for her approval, her sister that she and their mother conspired to have institutionalize as teenager or anyone else who finds themselves in her social net. We’re not people. We’re functions. Her functions.
As the scapegoat function in this arrangement, I am tasked with the embodiment of everything Mother hates about herself. Weak, bitter and imminently self-destructive; all of it’s projected onto me as though it were me. Even now in absentia. Every time I felt that I was being treated unfairly and expressed it, I was met with anger and derision until I forgave them if only implicitly by ignoring my own concerns in favor of familial harmony and some sense of belonging at my expense; what I felt then was worth the hit I took to my self-esteem for it. They learned that I would tolerate any injustice no matter how they pushed the envelope and I learned to be helpless, selfless, voiceless.
This dysfunction went on for decades, culminating in several serious bouts of depression for me until, exasperated to the point of exhaustion, I decided to stop putting any additional effort into forgiving them and turned to saving myself. Family didn’t like that and, for the most part, have been giving me the silent treatment ever since. But through the work I’ve done and continue to do to define my own self-worth without their approval, I experience the bolstering effect (the self-esteem boost opposite the doormat effect predicted by the aforementioned studies) and care less about what people think who demonstrably do not value me — because, really, what good are they?
I would, of course, prefer to have a caring, supportive family and I do feel a tinge of loss ache. But I prefer a scar to an open wound. Forgiveness hinges on the actions of the perpetrator and unless and until Family provides some indication that they can appreciate me – maybe care enough to actually ask what’s wrong if there’s a problem which none of them, to date, have ever done – then they must remain an unforgiven relic of my past for my own well being — and, presumably, theirs as well if I’m half the horrible human being they paint me as.
To say one must either forgive or foster a vengeful grudge is a false choice. Forgiveness assumes there is some value to be had. Revenge assumes that there is some value to be retaken. Whether or not this value actually exists or that it passes cost-benefit muster is the real choice that is up to each of us to decide for ourselves.
Where there is determined to be no value, one can practice detachment and aspire to a greater, more nuanced and healthier perspective. Abandoning the narcissist – which they fear more than anything that can possibly shame them – is simply a passive consequence of detachment.