For When You Can’t Forgive: The Power of Pity

Let’s say someone has wronged you grievously, possibly repeatedly over the course of your life. People keep telling you that you’re “only hurting yourself” by holding a grudge, that forgiveness will set you free, but… it just doesn’t sit right. It’s a square peg in a round hole. You try to forgive, but it chafes at you because it feels wrong.

Life is full of petty little tyrants, bullies with a hard-on for their own power. That boss who treated you like an insect because he had risen to the lofty position of “manager at a Starbucks.” The friend who manipulated you for years for seemingly no reason other than caprice. The abuser who controlled you because… why? They had a taste of power over someone else and their first impulse was to instill shame.

So, what can you do? Forgiveness doesn’t work, and holding that grudge does indeed hurt. It eats away at you, it consumes a precious percentage of your brain’s processing power, and it makes your life less livable. My friend, I would like to suggest one of our less-appreciated emotions: pity.

Why Pity?

Some people are broken. What I want you to realize is that people tend to break in very specific patterns: Things like Napoleon complex and Munchausen by proxy and sociopathy all have names because, if a human is going to be a vicious piece of shit, it’s going to be in predictable ways.

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It’s like how a defective hard drive will make a clicking sound, or how a twisted ankle will swell. Decent humans can display a huge variety of behaviors; horrible humans tend to be shitty in just a few ways.

Please note that this is not an excuse for their behavior. It’s an explanation. It can help you step back from your anger, and see them as the defective fuckwad they are. The person who hurt you isn’t unique, they’re not special, and you’re not the only one who has suffered from people like them. They’re just another in a line of broken brains.

An Instructive Example: The Narcissist

I might just be weird, but I was fascinated by personality disorders in grad school. These mental illnesses aren’t so much about dysfunction; these are problems with who you are as a person. In some cases, this is quite tragic: If you have avoidant personality disorder, you feel inadequate all the time, and you’re extremely sensitive to perceived social punishment. I’ve had tastes of that in my life. If you have paranoid personality disorder, you can’t trust anyone or anything to save your life. Sucks.

Then we get to cluster B personality disorders, the ones that have to do with emotions. You may have heard about antisocial personality disorder: We call these people sociopaths and psychopaths. While they’re usually not the monsters that we see in thrillers, they are characterized by a lack of empathy and the tendency to cause harm for no clear reason. I would talk more about this, but these individuals are exceedingly rare.

Borderline personality disorder is somewhat well-known (think Girl, Interrupted), and tends to manifest in an intense and unstable life. Explosive mood swings, love turning into hate in the span of a week, grandiose charisma veering into cruelty. This is no fun for anyone involved; the good part is that sometimes these individuals do seek treatment, and there are some medications that can help.

Histrionic personality disorder is probably somewhat common, but it almost never gets diagnosed. Why? Because the person in question treats their life as if it’s a grand play, and they’re the star. Everything is always about them, and when it’s not, they make sure that it winds up that way. Every party is their party, every conversation is their conversation, and they always have the best story (no matter how implausible). Yes, you will recognize this in some of your Facebook friends.

Finally, there’s narcissistic personality disorder. You know some narcissists, even if you don’t know it yet.

Once I learned about these… well, it just explained so much about the assholes in my life. My teacher would talk about how these disorders are described clinically, and then she’d tell us her experiences with individuals with these disorders. I’m not a huge fan of arm-chair diagnosis, but certain people just fit.

So let’s talk narcissists. Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by the knowledge that you’re an incredibly amazing and unique person, and that everyone is trying to take that away from you.  Your life is spent reinforcing your exceptional status, and doing whatever you must to suppress your paradoxical envy of others. No other human is as human as you are, and you’re going to see to it that it stays that way.

From the outside, this manifests as manipulation and wanton cruelty. Backhanded compliments, belittling your achievements, passive-aggressive insults. Only enough praise and kindness to keep you hooked and to maintain their following. They will relieve you of as much of your self-worth as possible while constantly making themselves look as good as possible.

True empathy doesn’t come easily to them. They’ll feel guilt… but only to make you feel bad. For the narcissist, others are just tools for self-aggrandizement and self-justification. Once someone stops being useful for these roles, they become an object of abuse.

Every bully you’ve ever known has some degree of narcissism. Think Regina George in Mean Girls. The boss in the Devil Wears Prada. Every character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

If you’ve got a narcissist in your family, I’m truly sorry. You’ve probably experienced years of manipulation, back-biting, and controlling. I don’t blame you if you can’t forgive.

When Forgiveness Isn’t an Option

These people are broken in such a predictable way that there’s a name for it. Hell, there are support groups for their family members, and they all have extremely consistent horror stories to tell.

Narcissism is just a way that humans break. It’s not something that they chose, it’s how they’ve always been. Whether it was inherited genetically or conditioned from a young age (by their equally abusive family), this is who they are, and they’re incredibly difficult to treat. They don’t want to change because they can’t want to.

Do they get a pass because they’re mentally ill? Sure, if you’re superhuman enough to overlook all of the cruelty. If you’re able to ignore all of the times that they had power and abused it. If not…

The Power of Pity

“I pity you” is such an ugly sentence. It implies utter disdain of the subject, that they’re beneath your contempt.

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Again, consider the assholes in your life; the brutes, the backbiters, and the betrayers.  Summon any hatred you may have for them, any resentment that you’ve been building up over the years. Get it to a good rolling boil.

Now consider what a shitty life they lead. I don’t ask that you empathize, but I want you to imagine their history. Narcissists (and your run-of-the-mill bullies) are constantly consumed with fear, and they’re constantly fucking up their own relationships. They live these weird, perverse lives where they’re rarely truly happy, but rather find themselves clinging to a raft made of deception and coercion.

How tiring that must be. How unfortunate to never experience self-actualization or authenticity. How many little things must they have lost to their meanness and hatefulness?

See if you can pity this creature, this broken person. They’ve done you harm, they’ve harmed many others, and they’ve harmed themselves. They’re trapped in the vicious circle of damaged people, and their brokenness is so predictable that it has a name. See if you can let go of the anger, add a dash of disdain, and try pity on for size.

Why Pity?

Why pity? Because pity replaces fear. Pity replaces anger and lets you see the damaged thing in front of you. You can’t feel spite toward someone that you pity, and it’s hard to want revenge on them.

Is this just replacing one ugly set of emotions with another? Not really. You see, once you pity someone, you’re seeing a clearer picture of who they really are. You’re seeing their foibles and flaws, not just their misdeeds. This gives you the freedom to act in a way that’s healthy for you: Is it worth it to get mad every time you encounter this person? Is it necessary for you to fear them any more, or to allow them to make you feel shame?

Instead you can shake your head and heave a sigh of regret for this person. You can choose to engage with them, or you can dismiss them. You can choose to deal with them without feeling obligation or intimidation. You can free your mind from the grip that they held upon it.

Oh, and some day, pity can lead to empathy. Once you recognize someone as broken, you might be able to peel away the layers of what they present to the world, and you might see the person who was once a baby, sinless and whole. You may see the person who must come to terms with their mortality some day. A fellow traveler in this shit-show called life.

Or maybe not. But at least you don’t have to think about them any more.

What do you think? Is this worthwhile? Do you have any grudges that are unfairly eating up your brain’s clock cycles? Leave me comments below!

16 thoughts on “For When You Can’t Forgive: The Power of Pity

  1. Hmmm. That’s an interesting idea, actually – and something I think a lot of people do without analysing it enough to realise what they’re doing. I particularly like the “gateway drug to compassion”. It doesn’t always work in that direction, but I think that’s fairly accurate!

    I do advocate strongly that refusing to forgive (as opposed to holding a grudge) is not innately unhealthy. The main way this manifests of course is that people want you to forgive the unforgiveable in a way that is tangibly damaging to you, mostly because your lack of forgiveness makes them uncomfortable. Poor petals.

    Ie: family/friends/family friends trying to pressure you into keeping contact with your abuser/narcissistic family member. NOPE.

    Telling someone they need to forgive for their own good is often a slap to the face anyway. Just don’t tell people how they should feel, unless they’re actively harming others. Don’t do it.

    But also, anger isn’t innately unhealthy once it’s at a manageable level. Being angry is the best thing for some people – obviously being angry all the time is not.

    I do think it’s important to talk about personality disorders empathetically, also. The stigma behind personality disorders makes it very hard for people to seek help. Sure, it’s hard to help, but people do try. My friend’s wife was pretty picture perfect borderline, and oh god her life had been horrific, and as a healthcare assistant she had heard drs literally talk about people with borderline as “haha, oh well, they’re fucked.” No way was she going to ask for help. 🙁

    I’m glad you’re back!

    1. “Just don’t tell people how they should feel, unless they’re actively harming others. Don’t do it.” That about sums it up. So much well-meaning advice, unsolicited advice, and nagging could be avoided by this simple axiom.

      And yeah, I feel a little bad about how I portrayed those cluster B disorders, because their lives are ruined as well. Borderline and histrionic PDs are a bit more benign than antisocial and narcissistic, and they are treatable to some extent. Heck, there are even some meds shown effective for borderline now. I think I’ll try to edit that paragraph a bit. Thanks Dana!

      1. Heck, there are even some meds shown effective for borderline now.

        Ooo, that’s interesting to know! It’s so shit when a majority of people with borderline are people who have been hideously abused and they end up with something much harder to grasp or change than a regular mental illness. :/

        1. the person in my family with borderline has not been abused and did not develop it until later in life..my problem is all I hear is it is her illness..You can only use that until the well dries up..my issue is that I have always been close with this person and then one day she felt as though I had betrayed her and has not talked to me in almost a month..This is the 2nd time in a month and a half and quite truthfully, I miss her but not all the drama that came along..I did nothing to her and she casted me out of her life as though was the weekend trash..She won’t tell anyone what she thinks I did..What do you do with that

  2. Ian, you are definitely on to something with this one. As a person who has only worked in customer service, I can tell you that empathy plays a huge role in how one interacts with another. I am lucky (occasionally cursed, when others decide to take advantage) to posses a natural ability for demonstrating empathy. I’ve found that asking patients about their day, sympathizing with them, or pretending I were in their shoes makes a huge difference in the mood they are in when they leave the office. If I decide to be a cold, emotionless shell that day, the reaction is not so nice. I get angrier when they are being assholes and vice versa. The skip is missing from our steps. The laughter once enjoyed becomes lost in the stagnancy of general uncaring-ness.

    Pity is empathy’s twice removed, backcountry cousin. They certainly are related, but are totally different animals. Many people dislike receiving pity because it is a sign of weakness. For this reason, I try to save it for more intense situations or people I know react to it well. In example, my ex-husband was a booze fiend. His actions brought a monsoon of tension upon our lives. For quite some time following our split, I held resentment and anger towards him. Then one day, I decided I needed to move on from those feelings. I began feeling pity for him because, while it doesn’t excuse his actions by any means, he grew up with everyone around him exhibiting the same drunken behavior he demonstrated to me. His environment played at least a small hand in how he decided to act. I felt sorry that he couldn’t have grown up differently, in a less combustible household. The pity I planted grew into acceptance and finally bloomed into personal advancement.

    Empathy makes the world go round. And conservation of angular momentum, but meh…apples to apples.

    1. Awesome reply. As a vet nurse you also have to do a certain amount of reception duties and I know what you describe re: dealing with patients. And I’m kind of burned out now so while I’m still good with people, inside I am not dealing so great.

  3. I have had three major affronts in my life (I’m 57) which I have been expected to forgive, though did not. One person, my grandfather, dead many years now, I never forgave for his transgression against me when I was still just a child (not that he ever asked forgiveness), nor DO I to this day; I HATE him, in fact, as I feel he ruined my life. Next, my Dad, now deceased as well. Nope, no true forgiveness on my part there either, while he was alive at least… NOW I wish I HAD forgiven him, because he WAS a wonderful Dad to my sister and me, and a fabulous Grandfather to our kids and all that – just a terrible husband, and in his later years, a terrible PERSON. I still wish I could have actually forgiven him before he was laying comatose in a hospital bed, though. I truly regret that it was then too late for him to hear me say,”I forgive you, Daddy, and I love you.” The very recent third is someone whom I had thought of as a good friend, but who barraged me with so many slights and insults over a 24-hour period (we had stayed all day and night at her beach condo), that after I finally got home, I banned her from my FB, removed her numbers from my phone and all that, feeling nothing but absolute betrayal! And from a “friend”? After snubbing her for a while, I DID deign to meet her for lunch one day at her request. After we arrived at the restaurant, she was so apologetic and just kept going on and on telling me how very sorry she was, and crying and whatnot, and asking me to please forgive her and all that, so, finally I hugged her and said not to worry about it anymore, and that of COURSE I forgave her. (though really it was only so SHE would feel better and STFU so we could just eat and go HOME already!!) Truth is though, I DIDN’T forgive her then, and I DON’T forgive her now! Not in the teensy tiniest bit! How on earth could she have treated me that way after all the kindnesses and considerations I have always shown HER? Not to mention certain behaviors I had chosen to overlook through the years. So now what? I suppose I could pity her, as she absolutely fits one of the examples, but I am still so upset by her incessant hurtful remarks, that I cannot forget, forgive, nor pity. Perhaps one day… but that day isn’t today… I wish it were. ~ Amy xo

  4. Just wanted to say thank you for this extremely helpful post. I came across your blog after first happening upon your YouTube channel. I have a narcissist/BPD/dependswhoyouask in my family and spend way too much of my time either angry at her or angry that I let myself get angry at her. I’m going to try transforming at least some of that anger into pity. At the end of the day, I have endless possibilities for where I can take my life, while she’s stuck (or broken, as you say) in a seemingly endless cycle of destruction and misery that will take her very predictable, almost predetermined, places, and that’s something to pity.

  5. I have been divorced for many years from a borderline personality, but have maintained a relationship for the sake of our son. I even let BPD move in with me for a year and a half , which helped him but has been tough on me. I feel poisoned by him, and though he is moved out, I feel angrier with him than ever. I know that this is pointless and worse–destructive to me and to my son. I feel paralyzed by my inability to forgive, so pity sounds like a lifeline. Thanks.

    1. thanks for writing, sally. i feel for you, as only another (stuck in something similar) like myself, could. a bpd had me wrapped around her little finger throughout the ’90’s. love is blind. i lost everything and had the most traumatic experiences of my life. i am still plagued and damaged to this day. i could write a book. even came up with a title years ago: ‘MY LIFE WITH A BORDERLINE–CAUGHT UP IN THE CHAOS’. if you like, please write. thank you. …gary garybrown9 at gmail.

  6. i do feel a sense of peace when i see him as “broken” vs ” jerkoff that effed my and the kids over” however, i struggle because so much of my life has to change because he is broken. house/kids childhood/peace/happy life/happy marriage/marriage period/and did i say peace? 19 yrs of chaos.. F him. he is a POS.. a broken POS. i am still trying to untangle myself

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  8. My ex-boyfriend love-bombed me hard. I fell for him. We had everything in common. I have mental issues of my own; I experienced trauma in childhood, and have experienced a lot of sexual abuse and assault. I was in a very vulnerable place when I met him, and I opened up to him. We had everything in common, including our alma mater, people we knew, interests in common, etc. He opened up to me too. Then he began to want to go out drinking all the time. Then he began to be mean and sarcastic and belittling. Then he began to sexually abuse me.

    After we broke up, he raped me. I went through months of pain. I felt weirdly addicted to him, horrified by his behavior, but determined that it wasn’t “really” him…I lashed out at him in emails, calling him a narcissist. He was very cruel to me when he responded. I tricked him, a few times when he was feeling bad and drunk, into admitting what he had done. He said he felt “awful for how rough he got with me sexually” toward the end of our relationship (similarly, the first time he sexually assaulted me, still in the “love” phase, he was horrified with himself, but did not actually apologize; to him, “I felt bad” is enough). I was a mess over what happened. I didn’t just lash out at him, I also apologized to him continuously. I felt everything was my fault and I must have caused him to do that somehow. I stopped being in touch with him, and finally forgave him. I looked at his online dating profile, forgetting he would see it. He immediately contacted me, telling me he missed me, talking of “second chances” and “leaving all that nastiness behind.” He pressured me to go see him. I did, and he raped me again.

    He has since switched tactics. Instead of being mean, he realizes that he has accomplished his goal better than he ever could have by using sexual violence against me; he correctly identified it, after I opened up to him, as my weakness. Sleeping with other women right after we broke up and lying about it didn’t really hurt me (though I felt indignant on behalf of the women he had used). The way to hurt me was to rape me. At the same time, he could get back at me for sexually rejecting him for a particular act that I refused him as grew more and more sexually abusive and demanding. He could force it on me, and get back at me for that rejection, and also get back at me for hurting him (and telling him he was a narcissist) by preying on the fact that I wanted more than anything to see the good in him, to believe he could change, and to believe in the loving person he initially presented himself as. So since then he has been extraordinarily nice (only when he thinks I am manipulating him does that niceness slip and he will be nasty to me again). He preys on my desire for an apology by saying he wants to “meet with me and talk about it.” He wants to sleep with me; he wants to sleep with his victim. On Halloween night he dressed as a formal apology, in a suit and tie with a sticker that said “I’m sorry,” and got me to go home with him when I was drunk. He didn’t rape me, but he didn’t use a condom and he didn’t withdraw. In the morning he alleged that I had told him not to but was “too drunk to remember” (his excuse for risking impregnating me was that I wanted it but couldn’t remember because I had been too drunk, when he was sober enough to drive me to his apartment). I said no such thing and remember being confused when it happened (this was a new angle, risking impregnation; he had never done that before).

    In any case, I know I must not meet with him again. As much as I WANT to believe he wants to apologize, and feels remorse for what he did (I know he feels shame, as he has trouble looking me in the eye), I also know that he literally can’t help himself. He can’t stop himself from hurting me. Even when he’s not raping me, he’s still hurting me (he wants sex, and to feel powerful and in control, and having sex with his victim accomplishes that; he doesn’t care about how bad it is for me). If feeling a bit angry or insecure, sure, he’d do it again. He can’t help manipulating, either (acting loving and kind to get me to go home with him, getting me drunk or encouraging me to drink). He can’t help himself, it’s who he is. He may actually believe he wants to be better (he knows why sexual abuse is bad). He may believe he loves me. Maybe in some sick way he does, and more than anything he wants to be loved, and he knows that I loved him, even the vulnerable part of him that he despises; not the cruel, horrible part of him that he calls “the monster,” but he vulnerable part. I did love him. I think he craves that, even though he must devalue me because I’m not shiny and new and I know how he is. He preys on my desire for his remorse and on my desire to believe people can be better. There is an aspect of it for me, “if he had been kind and treated me well, I would have stayed with him…we would have been good together. I would have loved him.” I don’t understand the point of any of this. The point of this is that he BELIEVES he is unworthy, he is terribly insecure, he believes he is bad, and that I would eventually find out and leave him, and I would not stay with him, so he cannot be vulnerable to me; he must be the one to break up with me (but then not leave me alone). And by abusing me, he is controlling me; his abuse leaves me so devastated, so shattered, I will go back to him to try to make sense of it; and that is the only way he can have something that lasts with me, in his mind.

    I think he is a narcissist because of his feelings of entitlement (he raped me because I had rejected him, for a particular sexual act), his grandiosity (he spends a lot of time publishing his writing and trying to get publicity for his writing and his literary magazine), and the way he gaslights and deflects blame onto everyone else, and the way he manipulates, sometimes knowing what he does and sometimes seemingly not knowing (that is, sometimes the malevolent operator is in charge and sometimes he’s working behind the scenes).

    The rape and abuse have devastated me. I have PTSD, nightmares, anxiety, social withdrawal, crying. I feel obsessed with the idea that there can and should be some form of redemption. It is horrible for me to imagine that he feels nothing.

    I don’t think that’s the case, though. I think he feels something, I just think that his selfishness supersedes any remorse. He may desire to do the right thing and do the wrong thing, again and again.

    I do pity him. I think he must live in a kind of hellish state, except for moments when he has a new target or makes a new conquest and feels a temporary high, and temporary happiness by suspending his disbelief and seeing the “mirror” of the self he can’t maintain in another’s eyes. I think all he wants is love, but all he does is hurt people.

    There were a lot of red flags. A LOT. The way he talked about his exes was one. I have since become friends with an ex-girlfriend of his, and found out what he did to her (not sexual but emotional abuse, of her, but using sex to do it, by seducing her best friend immediately and alienating her from her friend group after they broke up). It seems clear he is escalating. He KNOWS what he does, too (he has, at points, chillingly described to me his seduction techniques and how he fools women); he knows he hurts people. Sometimes he feels bad, but the feeling bad is always self-pity rather than empathy (it’s always about how it makes him feel bad, for hurting others, rather than understanding what their pain must be after what he does to them).

    He is seriously disturbed, with the EQ of a child. It’s hard for him to see others as people, but he can feel empathy if asked to imagine something has happened to him.

    Yet, he hates himself, I think, and all he wants is love. I DO feel pity for him. He hurt me tremendously. I don’t what he has done to other women, but unless he is a serial rapist he has hurt me perhaps most of all. But I feel sorry for him. I can heal. I hope to heal. I am not sure if he can.

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