Do you need to forgive yourself first and foremost?

20 Apr 2021

Do You Need To Forgive Yourself

Do you ever feel anger and disappointment towards yourself for both the relationship and the way it has turned out?

Do you struggle with the issue of forgiveness?   Do you feel you should forgive the abusive partner who has behaved so badly towards you? Have you been told that it is something that you have to do – whether or not you feel able and ready to do so?

If that sounds at all like you, then perhaps the time has come to rethink the whole forgiveness question. You see, an awful lot of us – including me, at times – have a very prescriptive, un-forgiving approach to forgiveness.

The prescriptive approach can easily become just another stick to beat yourself with – if you end up blaming yourself because it just doesn’t sit right with you to forgive someone who has wronged you deliberately and repeatedly.

And then there is the question of reactive abuse.

Reactive abuse

Briefly, reactive abuse is what happens when you have been goaded for so long and so mercilessly by an abusive partner that you end up acting uncharacteristically.  You end up acting out of your own character and in theirs.

In the most extreme cases, reactive abuse is what eventually leads a victim of abuse to launch a violent, even fatal attack on their long-term abuser.

Most commonly, it is a temporary lapse that is actually grist to the abuser’s mill. It becomes something that they can throw in your face forever after.

They will use it to “prove” that you are no better than they are.


Are you really on the same level as an abusive partner

A client asked me, “How do you forgive yourself, when you’ve said things, or done things, that put you on the same level as your emotionally abusive partner?”

That sounds like a good question, doesn’t it?

The less saintly among us – among whom I number myself – have, on occasion, responded to an abuser in ways that we are not entirely proud of.

However, I believe that my client’s question is fatally flawed.

Obviously, she is terrified of behaving like an abuser, and turning into an abuser. Hence the issue around forgiving herself.

What she was really saying was,

“How can I be sure that I am not a monster when I have not always behaved like the angel I think I should be? How can I believe that I am a half-way decent person when I have stooped to my abusive (ex-)partner’s level?”

Judgment and forgiveness do NOT go hand in hand

Both questions imply that there is an awful lot of judgement going on.  Judgement and forgiveness do NOT go hand in hand.  Ever.

So, let’s look at the facts. Anyone who has ever behaved less than optimally with an abusive partner does so for one simple reason.  They have undergone all the mental torture that they can take, and   reached the end of their emotional resources.

Still, there are significant differences between the abuse victim’s outburst and her abusive partner’s way of doing things.

You can bet that the habitual victim of emotional abuse has not carefully staged her explosion with a view to reasserting her power and control over the situation. (She already knows she doesn’t have any).  Nor does the victim explode to cause maximum damage to her partner.  She just wants to be heard for once.

My client’s emotional state was one of utter desperation. Exploding was NOT something she did very often.

When you take a leaf out of The Nasty Handbook, you do so purely because you are at your wits’ end.

That’s not why Mr Nasty does it.  Contrast the feeling of sincere, lasting shame that you feel, if and when you explode, with the  insincere, short term apologies that Mr Nasty offers, at best.

If you end up behaving badly by your own standards, you aren’t going to turn around 3 hours, or 3 days, or 3 weeks later, and say:

“I only behaved that badly because you did X … Besides, it wasn’t really that bad, anyway. It’s just that you’re hypersensitive, and you’re getting things out of perspective…”

You are much more likely to admit to yourself, and him, that you were totally out of order.

Crazy behavior is a wake-up call

When you live with a Crazy-maker, you may just end up doing the odd crazy thing. That doesn’t make it right, that’s for sure. But crazy things serve a purpose.  Crazy things should serve as a very big wake-up call.

Crazy behaviors serve as a sign that your mental health and well-being are seriously under attack. Which means it’s time to call time on the toxic relationship.

It’s also time to get to grips with the whole notion of forgiveness. Because, chances are, you really do need to forgive yourself.

However, before you can do that, you need to have a good working understanding of forgiveness.

Understanding forgiveness

I’ll admit that I have struggled with forgiveness in my time.

I come from a very Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye family. They believed in wrongdoing – or, at least, they believed that we children did an awful lot wrong. Plus, they believed in punishing/avenging wrongdoing.  I don’t remember hearing the word “forgiveness” being bandied around our family.

So, I really struggled with the concept of turning the other cheek. Now, with the benefit of a fair few years on the planet, I don’t honestly think that turning the other cheek is a great starting point for someone who is struggling with a mountain of hurt and injustice, together with two badly bruised cheeks.

Instead, let’s go back to basics. An online dictionary offers these two definitions of forgiveness,

  • Stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offence, mistake or flaw.
  • Not wish to punish someone.

There can be no doubt that an emotional abuser has done you wrong. Massively wrong. If that abuser ever gets their comeuppance, I for one would not be sorry.

However, when you carry that anger and that urge to punish another person, that really is like you drinking poison and hoping that they will die. The only person whose environment gets poisoned is you.

When forgiveness becomes the logical option

So, forgiveness becomes the logical option.

But, once again, forgiveness comes back to you. You need to forgive yourself both for having those angry feelings and struggling to let go of those feelings.

Who are you to judge yourself so harshly because you could not be a saintly being in hellish circumstances? You turned out to be humanly frail. That really should not come as much of a surprise to you. You didn’t actually sign up for a toxic relationship, remember?

Unless you’re totally different from every woman I have worked with over the last 17+ years, I don’t believe that you saw your abusive partner coming and said:

“Hooray!! I’ve finally found someone mean and horrible who will humiliate me so that I can practise saintliness. And when that fails, I can humiliate myself because I occasionally snap and behave badly in return.”

That was NOT what you had in mind, right?

What really happened was that your abusive partner sold you the proverbial “pup”. He totally misrepresented what he was selling. You responded by adjusting, as best you could, to the laws of his jungle.

Would you like to forgive him for being who he is, and doing what he does?

Feel free – if that’s what you want to do.

Your emotional resources are not infinite

But  please remember that your emotional resources are not infinite.

Living with Mr Nasty has done a lot to drain your resources for the time being. (Think of him as the holes in your bath tub – or the puncture in your tires, or the moths in your woolly sweater drawer! Your resources can ONLY be replenished when you dispense with what is destroying them.)

Forgiving your emotionally abusive partner is an ambitious enterprise – and a fairly pointless one. Bearing in mind that you do have the rest of your life in which to do that – should you so desire – there’s no earthly need to make forgiving him a top priority. (Whether you do, or whether you don’t, he’s not bothered. It’s not going to make him better – or stop him being bitter.)

Forgiving yourself – first –  is a far more logical, and useful thing to do. Especially given the fact that your emotional resources are finite and grossly overstretched.

Chances are, you did the best you could most of the time. You tried your socks off.

So, let yourself off the hook. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. You really don’t want to be stuck with the poison of his awfulness running through your veins.  Forgive yourself – and stop taking the blame for his awfulness.  You have so much more to do with your life.

Do you struggle with the issue of forgiveness?   Do you feel you should forgive the abusive partner who has behaved so badly towards you? Have you been told that it is something that you have to do – whether or not you feel able and ready to do so?


Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.

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