As a researcher specializing in narcissism and psychopathy, I’ve heard thousands of horror stories from survivors who’ve been in toxic relationships with narcissists and psychopaths. It’s become clear that the real reason narcissists and psychopaths want you to be the bigger person has nothing to do with them desiring the best for you or because they have an authentic concern for your morality and welfare. It’s because they want to engage in moral grandstanding while engaging in the exact transgressions they warn you against – while they escape accountability or consequences for their actions. The concept of being the “bigger person” is usually a control tactic as it is never issued to the perpetrators, only the victims. You are likely already a very mature, introspective, empathic, and compassionate person who thinks about how your actions affect others. Being the “bigger person” when used by bullies and enablers is code for: turn the other cheek, don’t speak out, and take this mistreatment passively. It only benefits the bully, not the victim – and places the burden on the victim to constantly “rise above” the harmful actions of others without addressing the harm. It shields the instigator from culpability. The problem with always feeling responsible for being the bigger person and “mature” in every situation and emotionally bypassing is that you never assign blame to the true perpetrator and end up punishing yourself due to misplaced self-blame. On your healing journey, it’s important to feel all your feelings – including healthy righteous anger toward those who violated you – and let it motivate you to know you’re not the one who deserves more suffering, self-punishment, or responsibility for the harmful actions of others.
The problem with always feeling responsible for being the bigger person and “mature” in every situation and emotionally bypassing is that you never assign blame to the true perpetrator and end up punishing yourself due to misplaced self-blame.
People who take on the responsibility of being “too” good and mature to the point where they no longer have a healthy righteous anger toward abusers and bullies can sometimes internalize that as self-flagellation and self-hatred. Studies show that PTSD symptoms can actually worsen when we avoid such authentic emotions. Suppressing how we really feel can actually harm rather than help on our healing journey. If we interrogate the concept of “real” maturity with any critical thought, we’d realize that people who engage in aggression are the immature ones. The ones who react to their immaturity are simply displaying a normal human reaction to abhorrent behavior. Even “taboo” and demonized emotions like anger, resentment, and even vengefulness have a place if they are honored and channeled in constructive ways. They all serve a useful purpose and deserve to be validated. They can motivate you through the hardest times in your life instead of making you look inward and burden yourself to be the bigger person to predators all the time. Too much emotional bypassing gets rid of your self-protection. Vulnerability without any attribution of blame to the true perpetrator leaves you more vulnerable. Anger reminds you that you are not the one who deserves to suffer after you’ve been harmed and allows you to stop punishing yourself for what you’re not responsible for. It reminds you that you have been violated and allows you to seek justice and appropriate consequences.
Too much emotional bypassing gets rid of your self-protection. Vulnerability without any attribution of blame to the true perpetrator leaves you more vulnerable.
The concept of the bigger person is akin to many of the other accusations and projections narcissists are prone to dishing out to police and micromanage their victims such as “get over it” and “let it go,” when you’ve barely had time to process the harm they’ve already done. Ever notice how narcissists and psychopaths call you “selfish” (a term that better describes them) when you stop centering their needs and desires? Ironic, no? It’s because they don’t want you to connect to the powerful boundaries that would enable you to free yourselves from them. Yet it doesn’t matter if you are the bigger person or not when it comes to your response to their behavior. When you do react to their behavior (which is completely human and valid), you are labeled as the bully yourself. If you don’t react and “rise above,” you are still punished with more abuse because the perpetrator sees you as a vulnerable target. You quickly learn the hard way that for psychopathic individuals, it doesn’t matter how “nice” or “kind” you are to them. They return your kindness and mercy with an escalation in cruelty. That’s why it may be time to stop turning the other cheek constantly to following through with healthier boundaries. Mercy rarely works with these toxic types and just gives them more chances to exploit us. Overexplaining ourselves in hopes that they will change gives us false hope. There are times when the “fawn” trauma response can be used to our advantage in situations of real physical danger or threat, or when you have to pretend to be kind to the abuser as you prepare to leave. But generally, giving limitless compassion and mercy to people seeking to manipulate us and repeat offenders opens us to more manipulation. Childhood abuse survivors who have been trained since they were young to please predators as a survival mechanism need to be able to explore the other end of the spectrum before they find a balance.
You quickly learn the hard way that for psychopathic individuals, it doesn’t matter how “nice” or “kind” you are to them. They return your kindness and mercy with an escalation in cruelty.
The Truth About Forgiveness
Rather than emotional bypassing and premature forgiveness, it can help when survivors allow themselves to feel even the “uncomfortable” emotions. They learn it is okay and even freeing to be justifiably angry toward people who violated them and work organically toward healing in their own way. This healthy anger also helps them steer away from the belief that it’s all their fault and that there’s something wrong with them or that they’re the ones who deserve to suffer. The former will ironically likely help survivors move forward in a genuine way whereas the latter can lead to self-destruction. As for forgiveness, self-forgiveness and self-compassion are more paramount, even though in reality, you don’t have anything you have to forgive yourself for. Remember that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation and that forgiveness for the perpetrator is your choice – and for survivors in an abusive relationship, this may be the first time in a long time they get to exercise their agency. You may feel like you have to forgive yourself for being in a toxic relationship with a narcissist at all – but showing yourself compassion for what you didn’t know about this person and how you were manipulated are important too. Emotional validation, self-compassion, honoring your anger – not emotional bypassing – are the first steps toward true healing. You were always the bigger person when you’ve been violated. There’s no need to “prove” yourself further by giving manipulators endless chances or forcing yourself to suppress your natural emotions.