How to Understand and Forgive a Narcissist

If you’ve suffered with a narcissistic spouse (or ex-spouse), forgiveness may not be uppermost on your mind. You may feel as though you’ve been through hell and back with their narcissism. Why would you want to take more precious time out of your life to understand and forgive them?

Here’s the thing. Your feelings of anger and blame may be harming the most important person in this equation: you. 

Forgiveness isn’t a waste of time when you do it for yourself. In fact, it may be key to letting go, moving on, and healing. When you forgive someone, it’s like saying, “You no longer take up residence in my heart, mind, and soul. You’re free. I’m free. We can both move on now.” 

But how do you do this? 

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand why they feel and do what they do. In this case, you are trying to find empathy for someone who seemingly lacks empathy.

Understanding a narcissist

The human brain has evolved such that we have important emotional and social connections with each other. Empathy is essential for us to care about others, work together effectively, and operate as a society. 

However, the feelings of empathy that have evolved in us as humans can be overridden, in some cases, by difficult environmental experiences and emotionally unhealthy childhoods. In other words, a narcissist’s lack of empathy may be attributable to something they couldn’t control. This knowledge can help you understand how the narcissistic person in your life got to be who they are in the first place. 

While narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a formal clinical diagnosis, people who grew up in unhealthy childhood homes can exhibit some of these narcissistic tendencies:

  • They have an inflated sense of self-importance or sense of entitlement. 
  • They exaggerate their achievements.
  • They look for constant admiration.
  • They have no problem taking advantage of others.
  • They manipulate and gaslight people around them like pawns.
  • They are self-centered and believe that others envy them.
  • They’re unable to feel what others are feeling.

People with narcissistic tendencies tend to look accomplished and may even be charming at first. But behind all their success and bluster is often someone who grew up needing constant approval and attention in order to feel worthy. Many times, their constant need for attention is just a mask for the small, unloved child inside who is still seeking worthiness.

Conditional love

Narcissists are often brought up by caretakers who are conditional in their love. For them, it was not enough to be a child worthy of love. They had to earn it. If they weren’t exceptional or “the best,” they were devalued or ignored. 

Sometimes, parents who inflict this type of treatment were children of narcissists themselves. In other words, the narcissist may have suffered narcissistic abuse in childhood.

Finding forgiveness for one who hurt you

Maybe you have divorced a narcissist. If so, you have been through a difficult time and are likely dealing with myriad emotions. You are finally free of this person, but you may still have a well of residual anger and hurt to overcome. 

Forgiveness can be part of that.

Why is forgiveness important?

Forgiveness doesn’t mean your narcissistic ex’s behaviors were okay. It certainly doesn’t mean you want to continue a relationship with them. But it can help you reclaim your self-esteem and self-worth so you feel ready to move on after your divorce proceedings, unencumbered by the narcissist and their actions.

The purpose of forgiveness is your own well-being and mental health. It has nothing to do with them and everything to do with you. You can acknowledge the hurt and pain you suffered, but what you truly want is freedom from it … and you can’t be free if you continuously carry the baggage of your ex-spouse with you.

Whether you can find empathy for your ex or just chalk it up to an unfortunate life lesson, the key is to drop the bag of anger and blame that’s toxic to you. They don’t need to – and probably shouldn’t – know anything about our choice to forgive. This forgiveness is for you and you alone. 

Treat yourself better than the narcissist treated you

Narcissists are masters at finding targets for their manipulation. They excel at keeping their targets feeling insecure and confused. Often, they find partners who are unsure of themselves or who they think need “saving.” 

You might have unknowingly slipped into someone else’s narcissistic grip, but the last thing you need in the wake of this emotional abuse is defeating self-blame. After years of living with negative narcissistic behaviors, you may have lost trust in yourself and your own judgment. You deserve more. 

It’s time to treat yourself better than your ex-spouse treated you.

Make peace with your past

You are strong and resilient, and you deserve to be respected and loved for who you are. Prioritize yourself. Shower yourself with love. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. 

After suffering from being with a narcissist, it may be helpful to get the assistance of a therapist or join a support group that can help you recognize your own worth and keep you focused in the right direction. 

Divorce turns life upside down, and it can take a long time and lots of personal work to recover and heal from it. If you’re in the midst of a divorce and need a caring, supportive team on your side, we can help. At Hello Divorce, we are here with a customizable set of divorce plans, professional services, and a library of resources that can help you navigate legal and practical solutions so you can recover and move on. 

Schedule a free 15-minute call to see how we may be able to help you. 



Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.