Abuse and forgiveness

The way we talk about forgiveness leaves victims of abuse feeling like they have something to apologize for, even though it’s really the other way around.

The Christian community is particularly bad about this. I can’t count the number of stories I’ve read about people who were abused by religious authority figures or family members and were just told to “forgive” when they reported it.

I’ve had a former friend tell me I shouldn’t hold her actions against her, because at the time I was trying to be Christian and “Christianity is big on forgiveness.”

It’s true that ‘Christianity is big on forgiveness’ (like most religions are) but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Nor is it ever said that it’s easy. The whole point about Christianity is to try to master the bad traits that are part of human nature. Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins because, like the other six, it’s so common in human nature.

Just because you know what you should do doesn’t mean that most people are successful at it; you just have to keep trying. With practice and intentionality, you can get better at it, but it’s rarely instantaneous just because you’re trying.

And all too often, the urging toward forgiveness is used as a way to justify our own mistreatment by others.

I’ve also seen in a lot of places that you should forgive because it will bring you peace, not as an act of mercy towards others. And that’s true to an extent: we are often harmed by our lack of forgiveness more than the perpetrator is. They don’t really deserve our forgiveness either way but they are not usually hurt by our lack of it. A lot of times we are the ones hurt by holding on to pain.

But when the pain is caused by what someone did to you, you’re going to feel that pain until you work through it and there’s no timetable for when that should occur. You can’t “just get over it” and it’s inherently dismissive if someone says you should.

You can’t just will yourself into not feeling hurt anymore simply because you’re supposed to forgive. You are under no obligation to “be the bigger person” when someone repeatedly hurts you.

Even in cases where the perpetrator is hurt by our failure to forgive them (such as in the case of abusive families), they are rarely hurt enough to change their abusive behaviors. And that’s what’s really at the root of being unforgiving.

It’s human nature that forgiveness is hard. But I can say from experience that it’s a lot easier to forgive someone who actually gets it and knows what they’ve done wrong and is truly apologetic. Yet it requires more than just an acknowledgement and apology to be able to forgive. What’s really needed is action behind the apology in the form of truly changed behavior.

In my experience, people rarely change without pain. If people are pained enough by their own behavior and how it affects people, damn right they are going to be motivated enough to change. And once they have that realization and make those changes, it will be noticeable.

You have no obligation to forgive people who aren’t sorry, who keep doing the same things over and over to you even after you tell them how hurtful you find it. Sometimes the call to forgiveness is just used to justify abuse. The problem isn’t what I did but your reaction to it.

It’s a lot harder to forgive someone who doesn’t seem to be truly sorry. Qualified apologies, retracted apologies, half-assed apologies don’t count. If someone says “I’m truly sorry, I mean it” but a few minutes later says “you’re blessed if what I did was the worst thing anyone’s ever done to you,” that’s a half-assed apology that doesn’t sound like an apology. It sounds like you’re saying the words you’re supposed to say, then taking them back by minimizing what you did. Or “I’m sorry if you were hurt by what I said”–just stop after the first two words, because that if undoes the beginning.

It took me a really long time to realize that it was okay to be angry. Even if I can get to a point of genuine forgiveness without receiving a genuine apology, I don’t owe it to anybody.

Like the image I posted above, anger was waiting on the other side for me once I started to believe that I deserved better. I wouldn’t say that I hated the people who hurt me because that’s not who I am, but that doesn’t mean I could forgive just because I was supposed to. Once I truly believed that I was worthy of love and being treated well, I suddenly felt that I really didn’t deserve how badly I’d been treated.

Sometimes anger is a necessary stop on the way to forgiveness. Nobody talks about that part; they only talk about the virtues of forgiveness. Being angry at how you’ve allowed yourself to be treated is an important step in learning to love yourself and have healthy relationships.

The link between narcissists and empaths

I saw something today addressed to someone I know to be a textbook narcissist. It was a meme about what it’s like to be an empath, and it was heavily implying that this person–the known narcissist–was actually an empath.

And that’s the problem with labels.

There’s this other meme that goes around a lot that says the narcissist’s worst nightmare is an educated empath. I don’t think it’s really that simple. And I don’t think there’s as much difference between both narcissists and empaths.

But now that there’s so much discussion about narcissists and empaths, I know for sure that some narcissists actually see themselves as empaths. I know this at the very least because the person I stayed with the longest when I moved down here described herself as a highly sensitive person and an empath. But if you looked at her actual behavior, it was much more narcissistic in nature.

I have no doubt that she truly saw herself as an empath and a highly sensitive person. She saw herself as a victim of other people, her now ex-husband in particular. And she always talked about how much people sought her out because she was so empathic, and I saw no evidence of that at all. Just because someone sees themselves as a victim doesn’t mean they really are.

As I said recently, we all think we’re the heroes in our own narratives. Surely we would never have any bad traits. Us good, them bad. Except it’s never that black and white.

However, the above graphic shows that there is such a thing as a narcissist. I’m definitely not saying there isn’t. Just that even narcissists can see themselves as far more innocent and blameless than a lot of the memes say.

Note that I am in no way saying that I think there’s no such thing as an empath or highly sensitive person. Nor am I saying that all narcissists think of themselves as empaths.

The truth is that these labels are very non-specific and not that useful. I believe that some people, maybe a lot of people, are both narcissists and empaths. They are at the very least opposite sides of the same coin and neither one is healthy.

You can still deeply feel the pain of others but not let it affect your behavior. Or you can selectively feel the pain of only certain people (or animals) but be completely oblivious to how your actions make people feel.

I think a couple things are true about the whole topic of narcissists and empaths:

Yes, I think you can be both. But not everyone is both.

You can have some narcissistic traits and work to get better if you’re self-aware enough and committed to the effort.

A lot of people just have unhealthy relationship dynamics. Trying to paint a picture in which all your exceptionally good qualities make you the victim of someone evil and manipulative is missing the point entirely.

Any time you start saying, “I am good and so sensitive that evil people take advantage of me,” you need to step back and start working on yourself. In relationships, nothing is ever only one person’s fault. Even if one person is more selfish or more difficult than the other.

You have no obligation to stay with someone who mistreats you. That’s definitely not what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that if you’re in a screwed up relationship with someone who seems to have real problems, you have to ask yourself why you’re sticking around.

All relationships have dynamics. Unless at least one person makes an effort to change, you can reasonably expect that dynamic to continue.

When you change, the relationship will inevitably change, too. Sometimes it will get better. But sometimes it will also get worse.

There’s no point in getting hung up on labels. I do think narcissists and highly sensitive people tend to be attracted to each other, but I think narcissists have far less sinister intent than people say they do.

Does that mean we should feel sorry for narcissists or excuse what they do? No, definitely not. Boundaries are good. If someone makes you feel bad and makes no effort to change, you have no obligation to stay.

But sometimes these relationship dynamics are just the way two people connect. Some relationships are just unhealthy. We don’t have to pathologize one person while declaring the other the victim.

Self-awareness is the key here. If you think you’re highly sensitive but also suspect you have narcissistic traits, then work on overcoming the narcissism.

I’m pretty convinced that narcissists aren’t roaming our cities, looking for highly sensitive empaths to victimize and suck the life out of. They’re just people who don’t know how to have healthy relationships. And the people they’re in relationships with probably also don’t know how to have a healthy connection.

Neither one is off the hook. Neither one is doomed. All it takes is enough self-awareness and reflection to work on it. And honestly, I think that both “narcissists” and “empaths” need to work on themselves because neither one is a healthy way to live.

Christmas and thoughts of home

In many ways, I still feel like I just got back from my trip to Michigan. After all, since I moved away almost five years ago, being back from a week’s visit only six weeks ago doesn’t seem like long in comparison.

You might think that with the sentimentality of the holidays, I’ve been missing home. But nope, it’s actually quite the opposite.

Believe it or not, I’m still processing the trip back home. And what I’ve come to feel even more strongly with every passing week since I left is that Michigan is not my home anymore. It’s a place that I’m from and the state itself has some beautiful places, but I can’t ever live in my hometown again.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if I could live in the state again. Not because the state itself is so awful, but because seeing my family on a regular basis is that bad for me. I know that if I lived there and I was just a couple hours away, I’d still be expected to visit on every holiday. (I know I’d have the option not to, but I don’t have good boundaries yet.)

The fact that I can’t see my family regularly and still be okay is a problem. After all, I’ve forgiven my parents. They are good people overall, just imperfect, like most people are. They don’t mean to hurt people. They would take me in if I were temporarily homeless, and sometimes not having that option here is a little scary.

So if they’re good people overall, why can’t I live by them and see them regularly? Why does it mess me up so much and cause me to regress in many ways when I’m around them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I’ve started to recognize my negative patterns that I learned from them. Seeing them again both causes me to lapse back into old behaviors I’ve worked hard to change, while also seeing theirs objectively makes me frustrated by them.

Maybe someday I’ll be at a point where the negative patterns I unlearned are more securely defeated and I’ll be able to see them without lapsing back into bad old habits. But I’m not there yet.

And I also realize that there’s a possibility that someday my kids could come to the same realization about me, that they love me and forgive me for my mistakes but have to limit time with me for their own good.

Hurt people, hurt people. I see that that’s what damaged me. Nobody is to blame and I am responsible for my own healing process. What my healing process needs at this point is limited contact with the source of those unhealthy learned behaviors. It’s hard to explain but there’s little bitterness involved. It’s not a lack of forgiveness. Instead, it’s having to put myself first. I can’t rescue them and I can’t change them; I love them for who they are. But that doesn’t mean that I am obligated to be around them more often than is healthy for me.

Similarly, I’ve been working to get better and I know I’ve made some improvements with my kids over the way my parents were with me, or that their parents were with them. But I don’t fool myself into thinking my kids will have nothing to recover from. They may be able to have contact with me and still work on healing themselves, though they may also need time and distance.

We all have this idea of the super-close family that loves to spend lots of time together all throughout their lives. The holidays make the ideal Hallmark-movie family seem more important. But in many ways, that’s sometimes an unrealistic fantasy. Not every family is healthy enough for that to be a good influence at every point in time.

If you recognize unhealthy patterns you’ve learned in your family of origin and you’re affected by anything from narcissism to alcoholism to gifts with strings attached, sometimes you have to step away to get better. It doesn’t mean you’re stepping away forever, though it might.

Ultimately, what matters most is that you value your own healing. That you don’t allow guilt and obligations to make you do things that are bad for you. It may feel selfish, but it’s actually not; you have to take care of yourself. And you have to be prepared that other people may have to do the same to you.

After all, you can’t get well in the same environment that made you sick. Whether the damage was intentional or not doesn’t matter. You have to love yourself enough to get healthy. And you have to love others enough to respect them if they tell you they need a break from you so they can get healthy, too. You can’t break generational chains by guilting everyone into doing the same unhealthy things over and over.

The truth about the terms “toxic” and “bullying”

I’ve noticed that along with the increased tendency to call things narcissistic, gaslighting, and bipolar when they’re actually not, many people are overusing and misusing the terms “toxic” and “bullying.”

Part of it is that our culture now is just mean. People say rude things to each other all the time (including our president, who is both reflective of this standard and further justifies it.) The things people say to each other are so far beyond what was acceptable when I was a kid that I am often just stunned by it. If you object, people tell you that you’re too sensitive and need to lighten up.

That said, though, I see a lot of people throwing around the words “toxic” and “bullying” in situations where they really don’t apply. I especially see this in the online support groups for victims of narcissists and in memes about mental health.

Many people behave in ways that are sometimes toxic. Sadly, this sometimes includes me. But I think a lot of people don’t mean to do it; again, myself included. I don’t ever mean to hurt anybody. People who are suffering or struggling to get better sometimes say or do thoughtless things that can hurt others despite their intentions.

Sometimes two people have a tendency toward toxic interactions with each other but are normal with everybody else. It doesn’t mean either person is toxic in themselves, just that they have an unhealthy pattern that probably means they should limit their interactions.

But that’s different from being a toxic person overall. Occasional toxic behaviors don’t necessarily mean a person as a whole is toxic. I don’t know if you can tell yet from previous entries, but I really don’t like the idea of characterizing an entire person based on their worst traits (especially if they’re aware of them and are trying to get better.)

Similarly, “bullying” gets thrown around a lot. And bullying is definitely a very major problem that I believe is partly responsible for the increase in suicides, so I’m in no way trivializing how serious and devastating bullying can be.

But it weakens the meaning of true bullying when you say it refers to someone making fun of the way you look (which is just a rude one-time behavior) or someone telling you they have a problem with something you’re doing.

Bullying is “intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse — even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.” (That definition comes from this website, FYI.) It also says that the key aspect of bullying is the ongoing nature of the behavior, which leaves the victims feeling powerless and fearful.

Based on that definition, a one-time rude comment can’t be bullying. A disagreement with someone, even if it’s a recurring disagreement, probably isn’t bullying, either.

Having been bullied and having been in relationships with people that had unhealthy communication, you know the difference when you see it. In my experience, being bullied almost always involves fear of that person and it’s relentless. Poor communication or unhealthy relationship dynamics can certainly make you miserable and are usually a sign that you need to do something differently (if not outright get out of the situation), but it’s not bullying.

It’s not bullying any time someone says or does something that makes you feel kind of bad about yourself.

Often it’s a sign that you need to re-evaluate your relationship if it’s happening regularly. But sometimes it’s also a sign that you need to work on improving your self-esteem, learn how to take things less personally, and develop more confidence in yourself.

I say this because, in many ways, I have had to develop a lot of the same skills. I used to be really thin-skinned and take everything super personally. A rude comment from a stranger would send me into a tailspin for hours. I would second-guess myself and replay interactions over and over in my head, unable to let them go.

I still struggle with this, but less often than I used to. It’s something I’m in the process of changing; you can’t just snap your fingers and stop having a problem as soon as you acknowledge it. You have to retrain your thoughts and your initial reactions, and that takes time and practice. And I have experienced myself that when you work on it, it gets better.

But ultimately we’re buying into the larger social problem of people being unable to communicate with each other and assuming others are our enemies. We damage people when we pigeonhole them so much based on certain behaviors, rather than looking at the overall person.

Sometimes people behave badly because they’re assholes. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always assholes or that you deserve it or that you have to label them with some kind of psychological issue. It’s often just a snapshot of who the person is in that moment, that interaction. Maybe the best thing to do is just to try to forget it and move on…maybe permanently, if it’s someone you see frequently and they do it on a regular basis.

I think we’d all do better to give each other more grace, including ourselves, and stop looking for more offense than is intended.

Sometimes it’s not all my fault

You know what? I didn’t just grow apart from my former friend. I was trying to put a nice spin on it and to behave with more class than she did. I always look at my own role in conflicts and at what I could have done differently. But I have to stop accepting all the blame so readily, too.

I hoped it would be different this time. But seeing her in person after 16 years made me realize that there were many reasons we weren’t on speaking terms when I left this area 16 years ago either.

I knew better than to trust her based on a lot of past history. I let my guard down again around someone who repeatedly proved herself to be unsafe and unhealthy for me. She knew my vulnerabilities and of course, she used them all against me.

I reread all the messages we exchanged before and during the blowup and it’s pretty clear that while I mentioned a few things I was upset about, I did so calmly, owned them as my own issues to deal with and I did not attack her. The worst thing I called her was snobby. (And since her reaction when she borrowed my diamond earrings for her recent wedding was “oh they’re so tiny!” I think the snob classification definitely still fits.)

We’ve had a long and contentious history and I’ve never had that kind of relationship with anyone else before. Anyone in my life who ever met her, from my husband to my brother-in-law, disliked her from the first meeting. In fact, my brother-in-law just mentioned her a couple years ago, like “whatever happened to…” because her rude and obnoxious attack on him for eating meat at my oldest child’s birthday party made such a memorably negative impression.

Keep in mind that neither my mom nor the maid of honor from my wedding automatically take my side when I talk about conflicts with others. And over the years, when I would I talk to them about the latest drama with this friend, they would always encourage me to stay away from her and not go back. They would ask me why I put up with someone so destructive in my life. And I honestly don’t know why I did for so long.

But ever since I moved back here, things seemed to get rapidly worse. There’s no point to rehashing any of the finer points because my goal is not to draw anyone else into the drama. I just realized that seeing her in person was actually much worse and more unpleasant than the years of communicating strictly by email.

In our last argument, by text, we agreed to take a break from the friendship. Naively, I thought it was over. I didn’t send her any more messages.

The next day, she unleashed a torrent of abuse on me, swearing at me and attacking every aspect of my character. I ignored all the messages and tried to take the high road. I didn’t even read most of the messages she sent at that time. I just skimmed and saw things like her calling me “high and mighty bitch” and that I was a “hateful and judgy Christian”, so I figured I got the gist. I sent a couple brief replies saying basically “yeah, I think this is over and I hope you get help” and she still kept sending more abusive messages.

I wrote a blog post after that, saying I was trying to be calm and to move on in a more positive direction and that we just grew apart. In response to my effort to take the high road, she sent yet another message saying I was “so fake” and “in denial” for not putting all my problems out there and lobbed a few more personal insults at me. I didn’t respond to it at all.

Trying to put a more positive spin on a difficult situation is a healthy thing, not a form of denial or fakery. Saying you grew apart from someone is a lot more mature than putting them on blast on social media.

Yet she managed to convince her acquaintances that I was the one who attacked her in all this. She’s still playing the victim role.

It’s so hard to be on the receiving end of this, to know that I can’t clear my name. But she is completely unable to see reality because she is so intent on seeing herself as the victim.

To be clear, I’m not saying that “seeing reality” means that I’m the victim either. We both said some things that weren’t helpful or kind. I think for either of us to paint ourselves as the victim is both ridiculous and inaccurate. Even if one person is attacking the other, it still takes two people to fight.

I’m not going into detail trashing her to my friends the way she did to me. Nobody’s reading this anyway so I’m just trying to process some of the high-level points.

Trying to turn people against the person you’re mad at when they don’t even know them, just to make yourself feel more justified, is manipulative and kinda sad. Especially because it’s seeking sympathy for what is essentially a lie.

I’m still trying to take the high road and saying we just shouldn’t be friends anymore. That the friendship was realistically over many years ago. I’ll even say that I have my own issues to work on, just as she does.

But I am not accepting 100 percent of the blame anymore. That’s not honest or fair and I finally at least have enough self-respect to walk away from her. She is essentially a high school mean girl who never outgrew it.

I’m also dealing with the fact that my MS has turned progressive and I’m not getting better, and the last thing I need in my life is that kind of drama. It takes real effort to stay positive with this illness, and I can’t risk being around someone who consistently makes me feel worse. I can’t be friends with someone who likes to talk about our illnesses all the time because that makes it harder to stay well.

My other friendships are calm. We don’t spend all our time discussing every problem we face. And I need that calmness so I can try to stay healthy.

But make no mistake: it was completely my fault that I went back for more. Some people don’t change and I had every reason to know better. Some people create too much drama and it’s not only okay but good to walk away. Sometimes the past just needs to stay in the past.