This is something that’s becoming gradually more known about in the toxic abuse recovery space – that forgiving oneself is ultimately more important than ever forgiving the narcissist or psychopath who was in your life.
But HOW do we get to this point? It’s one of the final, but most difficult hurdles to overcome when recovering from very toxic relationships where narcissistic/sociopathic abuse was going on.
It’s very hard mentally to get to that point where can forgive ourselves for all the mistakes (fawning, people pleasing, folding, tolerating their nonsense for so long, giving them second/third/fourth chances, not getting out sooner, giving away our time/resources/love to the wrong person, being too naive and trusting, not seeing through their front act, how we let them smear our reputation and isolate us from friends/family/colleagues, and so on).
It can feel that we literally can’t move and truly enjoy life again because these things happened to us, because we let these people do these things, because we didn’t stop it. We can understand intellectually that we need to forgive ourselves, but we can’t seem to quite get there emotionally and mentally. It can feel impossible because of how low they sent us, what they reduced us to, and how much we can see it’s affected and changed us for the worse.
The good news is that however hopeless it feels, self-forgiveness after a toxic relationship (narcissistic/psychopathic abuse) is difficult but still possible for anyone who’s been through it. I wanted to put together a guide with some suggestions and accounts of how people who successfully got to this point of forgiving themselves have got there themselves.
There isn’t one single answer and different people have gotten to the point of forgiving themselves in different ways. Let’s offer some different tips for this difficult step in recovery from abuse.
How To Arrive At A Point Of Self Forgiveness (Tips & Ideas)
This can be the most frustrating aspect of recovery from a relationship with a truly toxic, disordered person (narcissist/sociopath/psychopath). We may actually hear very early on our recovery process that we need to “forgive ourselves”, but it’s an easy thing to say, very hard thing to actually achieve. How can we actually get to this point of self forgiveness?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers as I’m still in this process myself, plus it will vary with each person. But here are some starting point suggestions as to different ways you can achieve self forgiveness after a toxic relationship:
Psychotherapy – Therapy and a good therapeutic relationship of course is one of the primary ways of helping you arrive at your own answers as to what will allow you to forgive yourself. However, when recovering from narcissistic/sociopathic abuse, you need to be very picky with your therapist, since many are not suitable for this kind of work. Make sure they’re good, with a broad and deep knowledge base and skills set including knowledge of Cluster B disorders and abuse. Try several therapists if you need to and don’t settle for a mediocre one.
Mindfulness & Meditation is one more common way people reach a point of self forgiveness and treating themselves more kindly. Daily practice – as much as you can manage – is always beneficial in recovery from toxic relationships. Jackson Mackenzie’s second book Whole Again provides a good roadmap for this. Meditation is crucial to pull yourself out of the protective self that’s keeping you in distraction mode and preventing true self-forgiveness. There are loads of resources for this online, but the problem with many of them is they fall into verbiage about forgiving others as well, which in the area of Cluster B abuse is not required nor even recommended (see further below). So be picky with resources you use, or develop your own meditative routine (see here for a starting set of meditations). To really push recovery along, it can also be good to spend one or two weeks at an actual meditation retreat, where all outside distractions are removed and you are meditating intensively for a longer period of time daily. Can help progress detachment from traumas and self forgiveness more quickly.
Prayer can help for more religious minded people (see towards the end of this seminar for an interesting discussion of prayer in relation to recovery – some people who counsel those in recovery do observe that prayer and a religious background seems to help people get over this final hurdle)
External to Internal Focus – Meditation and therapy may allow some people to see they are too externally focused and directed after toxic relationships, needing the external world of people and things to validate and turn them on. Moving away from this more towards the internal focus of being happy with yourself and by yourself is a good way to move on and become less co-dependent more self sufficient (for more isolated and avoidant people, it may be the opposite though, and you may need to start making more connections, so it does vary between people). But it’s fair to say a very common cornerstone in recovering from co-dependency is when people get to a place where they may want and enjoy being around (good) people, but they don’t need to be around people to feel happy and contented inside themselves.
Affirmations – Working self forgiveness mantras into daily affirmations and goal setting routines can also be helpful in building new neural paths and helping old ruminative ones die off. Richard Grannon’s new book “A Cult Of One” provides a good roadmap for rewiring yourself away from backward focus and towards forward focus and goal setting. You can work self forgiveness into your goals.
Travel & Adventure – For some people, just really upheaving their life, breaking monotonous routine and going on an 18 month trip around the world with just a backpack (or some similar kind of “out-of-your-comfort-zone” adventure), having no base but always having new and novel experiences and meeting new people, along with some plant medicine, was enough to rewire themselves enough to forgive themselves for past mistakes (see around the 11 minute mark of this video for an interesting account of this). This needs counter-balancing with the external vs internal focus point we make below, but the genera idea is that really pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone can be a good way to reinvent yourself and move on from the past, as long as real self-reflection and journaling is going on, and it’s not just more “distraction mode” stuff to avoid doing any inner work.
New Hobbies & Interests – Developing new interests, activities, friends etc. is one aspect of the more general idea of focusing forward instead of backwards and building new neural networks to replace old ones. After toxic relationships, we do have to rebuild ourselves to some degree, and putting new hobbies and people into our life is one example of this which can help move us on and not be so bothered about the past (as long as the new people we engage with are, unlike past abusers, kind and decent people who respect our boundaries. Going into new relationships with more toxic people is NOT a road to recovery, to state the obvious).
Plant medicine (such as ayahuasca) can’t cure disordered people, but can help their victims see their past traumas and mistakes in a more self-compassionate light (see here and here for some accounts of this, but plant medicine is definitely not for everyone and you need to reflect and research very carefully before doing a retreat).
Nature – Spending more time with nature (long walks) and animals and removing oneself from the digital/online world (digital detox) can also help with reconnecting and being gentler with oneself. It can also give you the quiet time needed to self reflect and work through issues (why are I not happy with myself? why I am bored being in my own skin? why do I need distractions? why do I need external validation? why do I need to be in relationship to have a sense of self? etc etc.)
Structure/Routine – Having a structured and disciplined daily routine with enough positive influences (exercise, rest, meditation, good diet, journaling etc) will also help even if it doesn’t get you there by itself. This does somewhat contradict the “getting out of comfort zone” and “shaking things up” point above, everyone’s recovery path is different so try whatever resonates. If you’ve become too stuck in routine, mix it up; if you need more routine, add it to your life. Talking through what your needs are with a good therapist can help you identify the best direction for you.
Patience – Finally, with some people, it’s possibly just time and patience that’s needed – you’ll forgive yourself when you’re ready type of thing. It can’t always be forced, it just needs patience and time and self-compassion. As we grow older and mature, we will gradually tend to forgive ourselves and slowly let go of past hurts. We can’t sit back and do nothing and expect self-forgiveness to happen, but we also probably need to see that patience with ourselves is part of the self-compassion required to let go.
While these are decent option to explore, I really wanted to emphasize being stuck in external distraction mode as being a key factor that prevents people from doing the necessary inner work to reach a point of self forgiveness.
Here’s a good quote I found on this from someone’s own experience in recovery from narcissistic abuse and betrayal:
“I don’t know what the answer is (to full recovery and self forgiveness), because I think that answer is different for everybody. But what I can tell is once I realized that it wasn’t other people that would make me happy, it was myself, and that I needed to wrestle with and come to terms with all the demons I had crawling around inside my head.
Once I got past that, I realized that all (external) things I was doing was an external stimulus, almost like ‘white noise’. Something to keep my brain distracted from working out it’s own things….. I didn’t like myself, so I always wanted external stimulus, to keep me distracted from not liking myself…..
And in the end after spending this time alone, learning to like myself and forgive myself for all my past mistakes. Learning from it and not repeating the same mistakes any more, and changing my life, I learnt that I actually really liked being by myself”
Whilst everyone’s path is different, I put in this quote because it really encapsulates the general point of needing to remove external distractions and really focusing and reflecting internally to really give yourself the space and quietness needed to arrive at self forgiveness, as being important for most people in recovery.
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Do We Need To Forgive a Toxic Abuser? (Narcissist/Psychopath)
This is another important thing to clarify, since some people can get stuck in a belief that they “must” or “should” even get to a point of forgiving a toxic abuser in order to fully heal or “let go” of the relationship.
Let’s clarify this right away by saying it is NOT true. You do NOT need to forgive a toxic, unrepentant abuser to make peace with an abusive relationship you had with them. Self forgiveness is all that is required to truly move on, not forgiveness of the other person.
Whilst the extent to which an abuser is “forgiven” is down to the individual (some people still choose to do this in recovery and have the perfect right to), here’s some important things to consider when considering forgiving not just a dysfunctional but still good-at-heart person, but a truly toxic, malignant, personality disordered individual:
- Narcissists/psychopaths are never truly sorry and whatever hurtful things they did (including cheating), and they’re likely to do it again. They can insincerely pretend to be sorry (“hoovering”), but this is never genuine.
- Ask yourself if you are ready to interpersonally “forgive” the narcissist/psychopath to the extent you’d be happy with them doing the same thing(s) all over again (cheating, abuse, boundary violations etc). Because they will.
- If we extend forgiveness to someone for wrongdoing, despite us being the one that was wronged, it’s reasonable to expect that the other person would cherish this gesture, this olive branch we extend. That it would lift a burden of guilt they’d been carrying about wrongdoings. Narcissists/psychopaths would NEVER cherish this gesture, and would likely throw it back in your face with scorn and contempt. They don’t do humble and contrite; in their mind, they’re always the victim.
- Perhaps there’s a bit more a spectrum with some narcissists regarding the ability to feel guilt in a fleeting way (more so than for psychopaths), but it’s quite clear these people do not lie awake at night thinking about what they’ve done and how they’ve treated others. They’re happy to treat people as objects and sources of supply, not as human beings. Does this mindset deserve forgiveness?
We have separate articles on forgiveness for both narcissists and psychopaths/sociopaths if you want to explore these issues further (plus the related issues of acceptance and detachment), but in bottom line terms, forgiveness of them is NOT necessary to recover and move on.
Moreover, I’m personally much more aligned with those that strongly state it is philosophically wrong and even a sin against one’s own self respect and dignity to extend “love” and forgiveness to someone who feels no remorse about what they did to you, and would do the same things again:
“Above all, do not send “love” to your (attacker/abusive psychopath or narc ex). Do not forgive or forget their abuses. To forgive a single instance of evil is, philosophically-speaking, to forgive all evil through time, which is a right you have not been given....
….The healing process concludes once you make a distinct point of forgiving yourself for past foolishness and lack of boundary. Focus on the lessons learned and wisdom received from your experience of evil. Betrayal of Self eventually resulted in the strengthening of Selfhood, so take a deep breath, forgive yourself and move on.”
Michael, Psychic Vampirism blog
Whilst the extent of interpersonal forgiveness extended to pathological abusers is down to the choice of each person, I would strongly reflect on the above quote before considering this, as it really struck home with me (in fact, the entire article it comes from is highly recommended reading).
It’s arguably much more important to focus on the self forgiveness we covered above than on the other person, to truly recover.