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.
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.
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.
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? 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.