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Should We ‘Forgive’ Our Abusers?

DANIEL ROCAL VIA FLICKR. Creative Commons License.

“Forgiveness” is a bit of a controversial issue in the abuse survivor community. Some survivors feel that forgiveness is a necessary part of the healing journey, while others adamantly feel that forgiveness should remain a personal choice, not a necessity. By no means am I underplaying the potential benefits of forgiveness, which include health benefits. I am not minimizing or invalidating the fact that forgiveness may serve as a healing balm for some survivors.

What I am countering is this idea that forgiveness is the one and only route of healing for all survivors, in all circumstances. 

The traditional definition of forgiveness is “to give up resentment of,” to “cease to feel resentment against an offender,” or to “grant relief for a debt.” While it may not be healthy to hold onto resentment for long periods of time, it is just as, if not more unhealthy to repress feelings of anger, resentment and outrage – all emotions that arise naturally due to trauma – simply to please other people.

Trauma therapist Pete Walker says that acknowledging and confronting our feelings of anger is actually essential to the healing and grieving process. What complicates this scenario is that the survivor is often asked to “let it go” and “forgive and forget” prematurely – much earlier than they are ready or willing to do either.

Forgiveness – when it genuinely arises, not as a forced, premature act – can provide lovely, healing relief on one’s recovery journey. However, the type of forgiveness that benefits the survivor is usually granted by the survivor’s own free will and usually after processing much trauma. And we cannot deny the fact that some survivors are more empowered by their choice to not forgive, yet move forward regardless. Each journey is unique and different.

FOR SURVIVORS, FORGIVENESS IS OFTEN USED AS A WEAPON AGAINST THEM.

Spiritual philosophies often encourage forgiveness as an act of grace that promotes harmony, yet disregard that for some survivors, it can provide the abuser more relief than the abuse victim. While reconciliation is not a necessary part of forgiveness, there are survivors who do reconcile with their abusers after forgiving them in the abuse cycle. Yet a common refrain from those who push others to forgive prematurely is the idea that, “Forgiveness is not about the other person, it is about you.” If that is the case, survivors should be able to choose whether or not they want to forgive. After all, if it really is about the survivor, why police their journey or assume you know what is the best for them?

What those who preach “forgive and forget” often dismiss is how the concept of forgiveness has been used against abuse victims  throughout the abuse cycle as a weapon to manipulate them into staying in the abusive relationship. They have already been guilted into forgiving the abuser against their will time and time again as they became increasingly traumatized by their abuser. They are then retraumatized by a society that urges them to show “compassion” for their abusers with no acknowledgement of the damaging effects of abuse.

We have to remember that resentment that arises from being mistreated is a legitimate emotion and that emotional flashbacks can retrigger the victim back into the same sense of powerlessness and helplessness they felt from so long ago. Many survivors struggling with PTSD or Complex PTSD are not afforded the choice to simply “let go” of their trauma or genuinely forgive their abusers. For many survivors, “forgiving” their abuser feels wrong and ultimately retraumatizing.

Forgiveness towards a perpetrator who is not remorseful in any way for his or her actions, sometimes even sadistically happy because of them, can also be retraumatizing. People disregard the fact that for some survivors, forgiveness cannot be granted without the other person genuinely expressing remorse for their transgressions and taking actions to actively repair what has occurred, to ensure that this behavior does not occur again. Most abusers, especially those on the malignant end of the spectrum, are not capable of or unwilling to commit to such long-term change.

Some survivors of sexual abuse, for example, benefit from being permitted not to forgive. Forgiveness is the survivor’s choice and should be on their timeline – if and when the survivor chooses to forgive.

FORGIVENESS AND SPIRITUAL FRAMEWORKS

Abusers may use religion and spiritual frameworks against their victims to gaslight them into believing that the abuse needs to be forgiven and that not forgiving the abuser is evidence of the victim’s lack of compassion. Nothing could be further from the truth – in the words of domestic violence survivor Brooke Axtell, if your compassion does not include self-compassion, it is ultimately incomplete. Spiritual abuse can warp our ideas of forgiveness, and get us stuck in FOG (fear, obligation, guilt) about holding our abusers accountable or leaving them for the sake of our own self-care. Abusers learn quickly that if we do believe in forgiveness, we may be more susceptible to allowing them back into our lives after abusive incidents.

Although people may say forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that we condone the abuser’s actions, that is how abusers will twist forgiveness to fit their agenda, so they will continue to perpetuate the falsehood that forgiving and forgetting is a sign of our character or morality to ensure that the victim is ensnared into the traumatic cycle of abuse once more.

Even if the forgiveness is simply for ourselves, not our abusers, it should still be the survivor’s choice – because that is the point of it, right? To make the journey more liberating for the survivor – yet this form of release and relief cannot come without processing the trauma and it certainly will feel like a prison if it is seen as an obligation, rather than an act of free will. There are some survivors who benefit from forgiving authentically after doing much needed healing work, while other survivors heal without the need to forgive their abusers. Every survivor’s journey is different and should be respected, not policed.

Ultimately what many survivors find is that processing the trauma, with all of its authentic emotions, is far more healing than a fabricated forgiveness that only serves to sweep the trauma under the rug. If a survivor does choose to forgive, it must be by his or her own choice – a choice that is made not due to the scrutiny of a society that prefers abuse victims to remain silent and dissociate from their trauma, but through their own free will, with an understanding of how to actively validate the pain suffered and its effects. 

OUR CHOICES SHOULD BE RESPECTED, NOT JUDGED.

Forgiveness can be a natural part of the healing process for a survivor after they’ve processed their emotions. But, it also doesn’t have to be, as each survivor is different, with different circumstances. And, it doesn’t make one a narcissist or lacking in compassion to not grant forgiveness – even those with great empathy, in horrific circumstances, may choose instead to not forgive, yet move forward peacefully with their lives. Constructive healing does not always have to include forgiveness.

IF WE DO CHOOSE TO FORGIVE, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

If you do choose to forgive, make sure your self-care is still a priority. Although the abuse cycle may have conditioned you to feel otherwise, forgiveness does not require reconciliation with our abusers. In fact, reconciliation along with forgiveness only serves to make survivors feel more powerless and anxious.

Forgiving someone also does not mean we cannot be proactive about gaining justice: it does not mean we cannot take legal action, stand up to our abusers or hold them accountable for their actions. We can’t allow perpetrators to get away with injustice because of a limited perspective of what forgiveness means or entails, as this limited point of view only serves to enable abusers and protect them from the legal consequences of their actions.

FORGIVENESS AND THERAPY

I have heard amazing stories from survivors who’ve had validating, trauma-informed therapists who informed them that forgiveness was their personal choice, not a necessity in the healing journey. However, you may have encountered a few professionals or so-called experts who think forgiveness is the only way to healing and may urge you to “let” your trauma go.

I think therapists who say these things verge on being unprofessional and unethical, as well as ill-informed on the effects of trauma. I find that there are unfortunately some therapists who simply do not get it and unintentionally retraumatize trauma victims in the process. There are even professionals who are narcissistic themselves or identify with the abuser in some way, so they will intentionally invalidate the victim to have more power and control over their clients. They may be projecting their own unprocessed trauma onto other victims, as a way to resolve their own internal chaos.

There are, however, thankfully many validating, trauma-informed professionals out there who do know not to ever compare one person’s journey to another and who know not to force forgiveness onto their clients…and every survivor deserves support such as this.

The bottom line? What is healing for one survivor may not be healing for another. It is everyone’s own journey to take and we should not micromanage another person’s journey. If forgiveness has helped you to move forward, all the more power to you. If forgiveness is not part of your healing journey, that is perfectly okay too. If you’re uncertain, embrace the uncertainty and know that what is important is learning to do what is best for you, while still validating your emotions and the trauma that you endured.

During the abuse cycle, your choices were taken away from you. This time, you get to make the choice – don’t let society, your abuser, or myths about what forgiveness means – take that away from you.


Learn how to empower yourself after narcissistic abuse. Get my #1 Amazon bestselling book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, NOOK, iBooks and other major online retailers. It is available in paperback, as an e-book and as an Audible book.

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Healing Our Addiction to the Narcissist: My Interview on Mental Health News Radio

 LISTEN TO THE SHOW!

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 READ THE INTERVIEW!

I want to thank Mental Health News radio show host Kristin Sunanta Walker and therapist Melanie Vann for having me on their recent show to talk about my new book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself.

Mental Health News radio is an amazing platform that has reached so many people and has connected intriguing, diverse perspectives on important topics in the mental health community, including narcissistic abuse. It was an honor to be able to contribute to the dialogue on narcissism and narcissistic abuse and join their incredible line-up of speakers, psychologists, authors, survivors and advocates.

You can listen to the show here and read the entire associated blog entry of the interview on their website here.

“We’ve enjoyed reading the Kindle Best Seller, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care by author and advocate Shahida Arabi. Her social media presence and blogs are an informative tribute empowering women of all ages and stages of recovery. Join us for an in-depth conversation about healing our addiction to narcissists. ”

QUESTIONS COVERED IN THE INTERVIEW:

What is your second book on narcissistic abuse about? How will it help victims recognize the signs of narcissistic abuse and heal?

How does a person become narcissistic?

Why do we gravitate towards narcissists? Is there such a thing as chronic victimization – a person who can have relationships with multiple narcissists and be primed to get into yet another one? How do we prevent that pattern?

Why do people stay so long in abusive relationships with narcissistic or antisocial personalities? Are victims to blame for narcissistic abuse?

Is there a difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and another cluster B disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder?

What tools can I use to detach and heal from a narcissist?

Why do Narcissists come back and try to contact you even after the relationship has ended?

What if the narcissist is the one who is “addicted” to something – is there a difference between a substance abuser who is emotionally abusive when using and a narcissistic abuser?

What should survivors do with their experiences of narcissistic abuse?


Questions and answers written by our guest Shahida Arabi:

What is your second book on narcissistic abuse about? How will it help victims recognize the signs of narcissistic abuse and heal?

I am currently working on a second book called Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying YourselfThis book will cover the red flags of narcissistic behavior which can very covert and underhanded, our addiction to the narcissist as well as how to detach and heal from narcissistic abuse, especially if you’ve been involved with more than one narcissist or were raised by a narcissistic parent, which means you were primed for this type of abuse. Narcissistic abuse can be very difficult for people who have never been through it to understand, which is why it’s important to talk about the actual behaviors involved in this type of abuse as well as its effects on the victim.

Full-fledged narcissists, those who meet the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, display arrogant, haughty behaviors and a depraved sense of entitlement. They are highly inter-personally exploitative and manipulative, prone to using people for their own personal gain or agenda. Most importantly, they lack the ability to empathize with others – which make them toxic relationship partners in the long-run.
SelfCareHavenNarcissism-768x432While the DSM-5 has helpful information on the characteristics of a narcissist, it does not explore the actual behaviors that narcissists display within relationships – abusive behaviors such as: being overly critical towards their partners, covertly and overtly putting them down with different forms of verbal abuse, controlling every aspect of their partner’s life, stonewalling their victims into silence, triangulating them with other love interests, gas-lighting them into believing the abuse isn’t real, subjecting their victim to smear campaigns, projecting their malignant traits onto their partners and using a false charismatic self to make their victims look like the “crazy” ones.

This is what narcissistic abuse looks like – and unfortunately, the full extent of narcissistic abuse is not taught in any psychology class or diagnostic manual. I was actually taking a graduate-level Adult Personality and Psychopathology class when I first learned the DSM definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder – yet I still had no idea I was at the time with a narcissistic abuser. It was only by reading more about narcissistic abuse, the literature on it as well as accounts from survivors themselves, that I learned about the complex dynamics involved between abuser and victim.

It is truly a narcissist’s malignant behaviors and how they affect us that are the key to understanding if your partner is a narcissist. The narcissistic abuser can lead survivors to feel depressed, suicidal, anxious, constantly on edge and worthless. If your partner displays these types of toxic behaviors, at the very least, they are emotionally, verbally and psychologically abusive. While malignant narcissists are certainly very dangerous, partners who display even some of these behaviors and refuse to change do not need the diagnosis of NPD in order for victims to recognize they have a toxic relationship partner.

Currently, the best sources of rich information on narcissistic abuse are the voices of survivors as well as mental health professionals who have either experienced narcissistic abuse themselves or who have worked extensively with abuse victims or abusers as clients – these are the people who are on the front line and can better articulate the complex dynamics of this type of relationship as well as the motives of these disordered personalities.

This is why I am currently working on a second book that is specifically about the dynamics of narcissistic abuse that is not taught in classrooms – including the psychological trauma and biochemical bonds we develop with narcissistic abusers and the trauma reenactment that is involved if we grow up with a narcissistic abuser as a parent or family member, conditioned to accept this type of covert abuse.

This book will provide survivors an extensive look into narcissistic abuse, including our addiction to the narcissist and why it is so difficult to extricate yourself from an abusive partner whose methods are often covert and underhanded. It will offer tools to begin to detach and heal from the narcissist or the narcissists we’ve encountered throughout our lifetime, especially if we have a pattern of being with more than one narcissistic partner.

I wanted to write this book to bridge the gap between the scientific research on this disorder and survivor accounts by incorporating the work of psychologists, popular bloggers and authors on the topic of narcissism, my personal experiences as well as thousands of survivor accounts and feedback I’ve gotten from my coaching program, surveys, as well as on my blog and social media platforms. It is my hope that this book will help survivors transcend the abuse they’ve experienced, channel their experiences into the greater good and become advocates for their own self-care.

How does a person become narcissistic?

There are many different theories as to how a person develops this disorder. Some psychologists theorize that the narcissist suffered a severe trauma in childhood – what they call a “narcissistic wound.” This may have been caused by a cold, unempathic parent which caused the narcissist to associate his or her identity with an area of success his or her parents valued such as looks, intellectual ability or another talent, in place of healthy self-esteem and self-acceptance.

Other theories posit that a pattern of overvaluation by a parent leads to arrested emotional development, causing a child to develop a sense of grandiosity that vacillates between feelings of worthlessness and a hyperinflated ego – in other words, narcissism. This is because the narcissistic child is overvalued as “perfect” and this type of feedback is not balanced with realistic feedback.

There is also a biological and neurological standpoint that focuses mainly on how a narcissist’s brain has structural abnormalities related to compassion (Schulze et. al, 2013). Narcissists may have suffered something traumatic when they were a child – perhaps an over-idealization by an adult that made them want to remain like a child forever without any consequences, or devaluation and neglect. They may have even been raised by someone who was narcissistic. Or, they may be born with the disorder.

While each theory is compelling, clinicians are not absolutely certain as to what causes NPD. In my opinion, psychopathology is often caused by an interaction between biological predisposition and environment. There are also multicultural components which can make certain disorders more likely than others in certain countries or manifest differently across various contexts. The interactions between environment and biological predisposition can act as a protective factor orrisk factor to prevent or exacerbate certain disorders in individuals who do have a biological predisposition. Factors such as a strong support network, access to therapy/medication, upbringing, religious beliefs, media, as well as other exacerbating experiences outside of the family unit like bullying, sexual assault, witnessing violence, or other traumas can all interfere or strengthen that predisposition towards pathology.

What survivors can be certain of is that being with a partner with NPD can be extremely dangerous due to their lack of empathy and tendency to be exploitive. If you enter a relationship with a narcissist, beware: the false self is often so charming and so different from the true self that you may fall prey to a vicious cycle of narcissistic abuse that can be very difficult to extricate yourself from. A relationship with a narcissist often contains some degree of psychological, emotional and in some cases, physical and sexual violence depending on where the narcissistic person falls on the spectrum.


Becoming the Narcissist's NightmareWhy do we gravitate towards narcissists? Is there such a thing as chronic victimization – a person who can have relationships with multiple narcissists and be primed to get into yet another one? How do we prevent that pattern?

We are drawn to narcissists because they tend to be charismatic and charming. Their false self is usually constructed of the very traits and characteristics we’ve been longing for – the love, validation and respect we may have longed for in our childhood but never received. A recent study by Haslam and Montrose (2015) showed that women who are looking for a marital partner, even if they had previous experience with narcissistic types, actually preferred narcissistic partners over non-narcissistic ones. Narcissists deliberately mirror and mimic our deepest desires and values, which makes them incredibly convincing and tempting to us. Narcissists also have a devil-may-care attitude that draws us in because they seem unfazed by anything – that’s because they aren’t.

It’s important to remember that their false self is often the self we fall for – the true self of a narcissist does not unravel until they have hooked us into the relationship, so it is very difficult to ascertain that there may be any pathology present until we’ve invested in the relationship. By that time, their hot and cold tactics (also known as intermittent reinforcement) begin to take hold of us, creating psychological and biochemical bonds that inevitably keep us attached.

Unfortunately, many of us can be “primed” for narcissistic abuse due to the subconscious programming instilled in us from childhood – this can cause victimization by multiple narcissists throughout our lifetime, starting with experiencing narcissistic abuse in childhood. Research shows that those who witness domestic violence are more likely to become victims or perpetrators themselves. Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about subconscious programming in his book The Biology of Belief (2007), in which he discusses an incredible study where a fetus on a sonogram began visibly responding to a fight between father and mother. Yes, programming can start as early as in the mother’s womb! Imagine how traumatizing it must be for a child, if the only models of love they receive in their childhood, are models based on codependency (or as Ross Rosenberg calls it, Self-Love Deficit Disorder), abuse and disrespect. Trauma can have a significant impact on early brain development, interpersonal effectiveness and emotional regulation.

A large majority of our behavior is subconsciously driven – which means we ourselves may not even know the reasons for why we’re addicted to the narcissist until we dig deeper into trauma from adolescence, childhood or even adulthood – trauma can happen at any time but most especially, it can rewire our brain significantly in childhood. If we’ve witnessed domestic violence or experienced any type of abuse or bullying that traumatized us, we are more susceptible to becoming attached to narcissistic partners in the attempt to resolve the trauma – this is what Dr. Gary Reece calls “trauma repetition” or “trauma reenactment.”
For those of us who have a pattern of being with multiple narcissistic partners throughout our lifetime, it’s important for us to look at the root of the original trauma – whether it was in childhood, adolescence or even young adulthood. There is something within us that needs to be healed in order to break this reenactment. Being with multiple narcissists is what I call “trauma upon trauma.” We hide one trauma with another – we go from one narcissist straight into the arms of another – which makes it very difficult to step back and break the pattern, because we don’t cease the pattern long enough to reevaluate and disrupt it.

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Why do people stay so long in abusive relationships with narcissistic or antisocial personalities? Are victims to blame for narcissistic abuse?

I talk about this topic at length in my upcoming book on narcissism. Victims are not to blame for staying in abusive relationships. There are many reasons why they stay longer than they should and each victim has his or her own unique circumstances. Contrary to the victim-blaming discourse that dominates our society, recovery from an abusive relationship can be very similar to withdrawal from drug addiction due to the biochemical and psychological bonds we develop with our abusers.

What many people don’t understand is that our own brain chemistry can lock us into this addiction to the narcissistic or sociopathic partner. Dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline and oxytocin are all implicated in what I like to call the “biochemical bond from hell.”

This biochemical bond is even stronger because of the traumatic highs and lows of the relationship. The same neurotransmitter that is responsible for cocaine addiction – dopamine – is the same one responsible for our addiction to dangerous romantic partners.

Imagine this: the intense pleasurable moments of the honeymoon period of a relationship release dopamine and create reward circuits in the brain, essentially telling us to go back to our toxic partners and relive the pleasurable memories. Intermittent reinforcement of positive behaviors dispersed throughout the abuse cycle (e.g. gifts, flowers, compliments, sex) only strengthens this bond. In fact, in “Bad Boys, Bad Brains,” Dr. Susan Carnell notes that intermittent reinforcement of rewards actually enables dopamine to flow more readily, which strengthens the reward circuit associated with this toxic relationship in our brain.

Then we have our sexual relationship with the narcissistic partner, often described by survivors as one of the most intense and sexually charged experiences of their lives. Narcissists mirror our deepest sexual and emotional desires, which makes for an electrifying sexual chemistry with them. Oxytocin is released whenever we physically interact with our abuser, promoting attachment and trust. This is the same “love” hormone that bonds mother and child at birth, ensuring that we “bond” with the abuser even after experiencing incidents of abuse. In fact, narcissistic abusers tend to merge abusive incidents with displays of affection and seduction precisely to create this sort of chaos in our bodies and minds.

At this time, the cortisol levels in our body are going haywire due to the stress from the abuse, trapping chronic stress within our bodies. Yet they are lowered once we are comforted and soothed by our narcissistic partner’s apologies and sweet-talking – which conditions us to go back to our narcissistic partners as a source of healing, even if they are simultaneously the source of the abuse.

Then there’s the adrenaline rush we get from the unpredictability of the narcissist’s intermittent reinforcement and reckless behavior – the positive reinforcement they sneak in periodically throughout the abuse cycle to make us long for the nice, caring person they pretended to be during the idealization phase of the relationship.

In addition, being with any type of abuser creates what Dr. Patrick Carnes (2010) calls “trauma bonds,” a form of Stockholm syndrome in which intense, shared experiences with the predator compel us to bond with them in order to survive. Trauma bonding is a psychological defense mechanism that allows us to withstand severe abuse and reconcile our cognitive dissonance about who the abuser pretended to be in the beginning of the relationship versus who he or she really is.

Furthermore, there are also practical reasons why victims do not leave abusive relationships. Some victims may have a fear of retaliation or harm depending on how malignant and physically or sexually abusive their abuser is; they may be financially dependent on their partners; they may have children or share a business with the narcissist; they may be isolated from their support network by their abuser.

They may also have a poor support network that does not validate the abuse they’ve suffered, including an invalidating psychologist who may not have been trained in treating clients suffering from this type of covert abuse. Insensitive friends and family members may shame abuse victims, asking them why they didn’t leave sooner and inquiring what they did to provoke the abuse.

Those closest to abuse survivors may question the abuse victim’s accounts of the abuse because they only see the false, charming self of the abuser, not realizing that abuse often takes place behind closed doors so that the abuser can escape accountability. This type of emotional invalidation leads the victim to doubt his or her perceptions of the abuse and stay within the relationship to try to make it work. Victims feel so alienated from those who supposedly love and care for them that their sense of learned helplessness is reinforced – they feel as if they are unable to escape the abusive relationship and rebuild a better life because there is no one who understand their situation. This sense of powerlessness and learned helplessness is at the core of all abusive relationships and the way abusers make us feel.

Understanding why we are addicted permits us recognize that our addiction is not about the merits of the narcissist, but rather the nature and severity of the trauma we’ve experienced, as well as the lack of invalidation and support victims are likely to encounter from society, and even those closest to them.

This challenges the victim-blaming discourse in society that prevents many abuse survivors from gaining support and validation for the traumas they’ve experienced – validation that would actually help, not hinder, these survivors from leaving their abusive relationships. That’s why it’s my mission to challenge this victim-blaming discourse in society so we can continue to dismantle the stereotypes and myths about abuse survivors and support them in their journey to healing.

You can listen to the show here and read the entire associated blog entry of the interview on their website here.

Continue reading Healing Our Addiction to the Narcissist: My Interview on Mental Health News Radio