How to Forgive Yourself After Abuse

Masterclass with Insights from Holly K. Severson Herzog (Licensed Professional Counselor, LPC)

Self-forgiveness refers to the process of letting go of feelings of guilt or self-blame for past mistakes or wrongdoings.

It involves acknowledging these mistakes, learning from them, and moving forward without harboring negative feelings towards oneself. 

Before starting this class, please note that we recommend you watch our masterclasses about overcoming Guilt and Self-Blame.

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  • Warning: This content discusses narcissism and narcissistic abuse. This subject may be triggering for some people. If you find yourself feeling triggered, please click here to watch our Trigger/Flashback Protocol.

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Holly K. Severson Herzog’s Strategies

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First Strategy: Acknowledge and Accept What Actually Happened In the Relationship


We strongly recommend you visit [1:43] and rewatch Holly K Severson Herzog’s advice to get the information you need to implement this strategy effectively.

Deeper dive

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Second Strategy: Look At Your Past


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Part 1: Deep Dive (Roots in Personal History)

Prompt A: Family Dynamics

  • Describe your family’s emotional climate during your formative years. How did your parents or primary caregivers express love, disappointment, or anger?
  • Example: “My mother rarely showed emotion, while my father’s temper was unpredictable. I remember tiptoeing around him, never sure what might set him off.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there specific events that displayed these dynamics? Reflect on a particular memory that encapsulates your family’s emotional environment.

Prompt B: Childhood Reflection

  • Think back to your childhood self. What core beliefs did you form about love, trust, and worth based on your upbringing?
  • Example: “I believed that love had to be earned. I felt valued if I did well in school or behaved perfectly. Any misstep and I feared rejection.”
  • Follow-Up: When did you first notice these beliefs? Were there moments in your childhood when these beliefs were reinforced or challenged?

Prompt C: Parental Relationships

  • How did your parents or guardians relate to each other and to you? Were there any unhealthy patterns or dynamics you might have normalized?
  • Example: “I rarely saw my parents express genuine affection. They maintained a facade of unity in public, but at home, their interactions were cold and distant.”
  • Follow-Up: How do you feel these observed dynamics between your caregivers impacted your expectations and understanding of romantic relationships later in life?

Prompt D: Early Attachments

  • Reflect on your earliest friendships and close relationships. Were there patterns of one-sidedness, people-pleasing, or any other dynamics that might have set a precedent for future relationships?
  • Example: “My best friend in elementary school always decided our games and activities. I remember always trying to appease her, fearing that disagreements would end our friendship.”
  • Follow-Up: Can you identify moments in these early relationships that felt especially pivotal or defining for your understanding of friendship and connection?

Prompt E: Self-Perception

  • Dive into your teenage and young adult years. How did your self-worth and self-esteem evolve during these phases? Were there significant events that shaped your self-perception?
  • Example: “During high school, I was often overshadowed by my more extroverted peers. This made me feel invisible and question whether I was interesting or valuable.”
  • Follow-Up: Reflect on the coping mechanisms or behaviors you adopted during these years. How did these mechanisms serve you, and do you see their influence in your adult life?

Part 2: Deep Dive (Navigating the Initial Attraction)

Prompt A: Emotional Connection

  • Reflect on the emotional connection you felt with the person at the start of the relationship. Were there feelings of familiarity, and if so, can you link these to past experiences or relationships?
  • Example: “From our first date, something about Mark’s sense of humor felt familiar. It reminded me of how my uncle, whom I was close to, joked around when I was younger.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there moments when this connection felt particularly strong? Did this familiarity offer comfort, or did it sometimes become a cause for concern?

Prompt B: Unmet Needs

  • Think about any emotional needs you might have been seeking to fulfill in the relationship. Was there a void or unmet need from your past that this relationship seemed to fill, even if only momentarily?
  • Example: “Growing up, I often felt overshadowed by my siblings. I felt like the center of attention with Mark, something I had rarely experienced before.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these needs manifest in your day-to-day interactions? Were there specific gestures or behaviors from your partner that made these feelings more pronounced?

Prompt C: Overlooking Red Flags

  • Look into the early warning signs. Were there specific behaviors or patterns that you rationalized or dismissed? Why did you feel the need to overlook them? What beliefs or desires influenced these decisions?
  • Example: “Mark would occasionally cancel plans last minute, and while it bothered me, I’d remind myself of his busy job and stress. I believed that I needed to be understanding and not ‘needy.’
  • Follow-Up: Reflect on moments when you felt doubt or hesitation. Were there internal or external factors that influenced your decision to continue the relationship despite these signs?

Prompt D: Idealization Phase

  • Reflect on the idealization phase (the beginning) of the relationship. How did this phase make you feel, and how did it align with your desires or dreams? How might your upbringing have made this phase particularly intoxicating or convincing?
  • Example: “The first few months with Mark were magical. The gifts, surprises, and constant messages made me feel cherished. It mirrored the romance I saw in movies but never believed I’d experience.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there times during this phase when the intensity felt overwhelming? How did you reconcile the highs and lows of this period?

Prompt E: Influence of External Opinions

  • Think about the opinions or insights of friends or family during the initial stages. Did they raise any warnings or concerns? How did you respond to these, and why?
  • Example: “My friend, Jenna, once remarked that Mark seemed ‘too good to be true.’ I felt defensive and believed she was overprotective, perhaps even jealous.”
  • Follow-Up: Looking back, how do you feel about the feedback you received? Were there truths in their observations? If so, why do you think you were resistant to seeing them at the time?

Part 3: Deep Dive (Probing External Influences)

Prompt A: Societal Pressures

  • Reflect on the societal or cultural expectations you felt during the relationship. Consider traditional views on relationships, gender roles, or relationship milestones (like marriage or children). How did these norms or expectations influence your perception of the relationship’s health or longevity?
  • Example: “Everyone around me seemed to be settling down, getting married, and starting families. There was an unspoken pressure to find ‘the one.’ I wondered if breaking up over issues would mean I was being too picky or unrealistic about relationships.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there specific comments or questions from others that highlighted these societal pressures? How did you internalize or react to them?

Prompt B: Isolation Dynamics

  • Explore the moments where you felt isolated from your support systems. This can be both physical isolation or emotional distance. Was this a direct result of the relationship, or were there other external factors at play? How did this isolation affect your perspective and decision-making?
  • Example: “After moving cities with Mark, I lost touch with many of my close friends. Mark often expressed disdain for them, making it hard to maintain those connections. The physical distance coupled with his comments made me feel more reliant on him for emotional support.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there times you felt the need to reach out but were held back? If so, reflect on what held you back and the emotions that arose from these moments of solitude.

Prompt C: Life Transitions

  • Examine any significant life changes you were undergoing around the relationship’s onset. Think about job changes, academic pressures, personal losses, or even changes in living situations. How might these transitions have made the relationship more appealing as a source of stability or, conversely, challenging to navigate amidst the changes?
  • Example: “When my father passed away, I was vulnerable. Mark’s presence felt like a beacon of stability during a tumultuous time. I perhaps overlooked certain red flags because I craved that sense of security.”
  • Follow-Up: Reflect on moments during these transitions when the relationship either amplified your stress or provided solace. Were there patterns in how the relationship interacted with these external pressures?

Prompt D: Comparative Relationships

  • Reflect on relationships around you during this period, be it those of friends, family, or colleagues. Were there specific relationships you admired, envied, or even pitied? If so, how might these comparisons have skewed your perception of what was ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ in your relationship?
  • Example: “My sister’s relationship seemed so perfect on the outside. They were always posting happy photos and traveling together. It made me wonder if I was expecting too much from Mark and if I should just focus on the good moments like they seemed to.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these observed relationships influence your tolerance for certain behaviors or your expectations in your relationship?

Prompt E: Reputation and Image

  • Look into the public image of the relationship. Were there pressures, either self-imposed or from external sources, to maintain a certain image or reputation? Reflect on instances where you might have suppressed concerns or doubts to uphold this image.
  • Example: “Many viewed us as the ‘power couple’ in our social circle. Admitting that things weren’t perfect felt like it would let me down and those who believed in ‘us.'”
  • Follow-Up: Were there moments when this external image felt at odds with the private reality? If so, how did you cope with this difference?

Part 4: Deep Dive (Unraveling Personal Beliefs and Boundaries)

Prompt A: Boundary Origins

  • Dive deeper into the roots of your boundaries. Think about your upbringing, relationships, and significant life events. Were there clear role models who demonstrated healthy boundaries, or did you witness boundary violations growing up?
  • Example: “Growing up, my mother often read my diary without asking. It felt like a violation, but she always said she did it out of concern. This blurred the lines of what was acceptable regarding my privacy.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these early experiences shape your definition of boundaries? Were there instances where you felt the need to guard them more fervently or where you were unsure of their importance?

Prompt B: Conflict Attitudes

  • Reflect on your history with conflict in various settings, be it family, friendships, or professional environments. Were there patterns in how you handled disagreements?
  • Example: “I’ve always been the peacemaker in my family, trying to avoid conflict and keeping everyone happy. This made it hard to stand up for myself in the relationship, as confrontation felt foreign and uncomfortable.”
  • Follow-Up: Can you recall a significant past event where your response to conflict (either avoidance or confrontation) had a notable impact? How do you think this shaped your approach to disagreements in your romantic relationship?

Prompt C: Internalized Beliefs

  • Look into the deeper beliefs about love, relationships, and self-worth that influenced your perceptions during the relationship. Try to trace the origins of these beliefs.
  • Example: “I always believed that ‘love conquers all’ and that you should stick by your partner no matter what. This belief, which I picked up from romantic movies and novels, made me more tolerant of the abuse, thinking it was a phase that love would eventually overcome.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there moments in the relationship where these beliefs were challenged? If so, how did you grapple with these conflicting emotions?

Prompt D: Self-Sacrifice

  • Reflect on instances where you have prioritized the other person’s needs, emotions, or desires above your own. Try to trace back to earlier relationships or experiences that set a precedent for such behavior.
  • Example: “As the eldest sibling, I was often responsible for taking care of my younger brothers. This created a tendency to prioritize others’ needs above mine, making it natural to do the same in my romantic relationship.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there specific instances in the relationship where this pattern of self-sacrifice felt rewarding or, conversely, extremely draining? How did these moments affect your sense of self-worth?

Prompt E: Recognition and Realization

  • Reflect on the turning points when you began to recognize the narcissistic abuse. Identify the internal beliefs or external influences that might have initially closed your eyes to reality.
  • Example: “I remember reading an article about emotional manipulation, and it was like a light bulb went off. Before this, I’d always believed that without physical harm, it wasn’t ‘real’ abuse. This belief and my friends always discussing the ‘ups and downs’ of relationships made it hard to acknowledge the toxic dynamics earlier.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there moments when you doubted your judgment or instincts? Reflect on what might have reinforced or challenged these doubts.

Part 1: Deep Dive (Familial Dynamics)

Prompt A: Family Roles and Hierarchy

  • Reflect on the roles that each family member played in your family structure. Were these roles assigned, assumed, or inherited? Did they come with certain expectations, responsibilities, or privileges?
  • Example: “In our family, my father was the authoritative figure, always having the final say, while my mother played the mediator role, constantly smoothing out tensions. As the youngest, I often felt overlooked and invisible.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these roles influence your interactions with the narcissistic family member? Did they make you more vulnerable or resistant to the abuse?

Prompt B: Family Narratives and Beliefs

  • Think about the stories, beliefs, and narratives that have been passed down or reinforced within your family. How have they shaped your understanding of relationships, self-worth, and loyalty?
  • Example: “Our family always emphasized sticking together no matter what, using phrases like ‘blood is thicker than water.’ This made it hard for me to distance myself from my elder sister, even when her behavior became manipulative and controlling.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there moments when you tried to challenge these narratives or carve out your beliefs? If so, how were these efforts received by your family?

Prompt C: Patterns of Communication

  • Think about how your family communicated emotions, needs, and conflicts. Were open conversations encouraged, or was there a culture of silence and avoidance?
  • Example: “Whenever there was a disagreement, it was common in our house to ‘sweep it under the rug’ rather than address it. This meant I often bottled up my feelings, especially when my brother’s narcissistic tendencies hurt me.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these communication patterns affect your ability to express your feelings or confront the abusive behavior?

Prompt D: External Influences on Family Dynamics

  • Reflect on how external factors, such as financial struggles, cultural pressures, or even friendships outside the family, influenced the family’s internal dynamics and potentially amplified the narcissistic behavior.
  • Example: “We come from a culture that deeply values respect for elders. So, even when my aunt’s behavior was clearly toxic, the rest of the family would often justify it by saying she was older and knew better.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there instances when these external factors made you feel trapped or isolated within the family?

Prompt E: Historical Familial Interactions

  • Think about the history of interactions within your family. Were there incidents, patterns, or behaviors that, in retrospect, were early signs of the narcissistic behavior you later recognized?
  • Example: “I remember instances from my childhood when my cousin would always take credit for my achievements. At the time, it seemed harmless, but as we grew older, her need for attention and validation became more evident and harmful.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there moments of realization or events that significantly shifted your perception of these interactions?

Part 2: Deep Dive (Recognizing and Navigating Narcissistic Behaviors)

Prompt A: Childhood Dynamics

  • Reflect upon your earliest memories of interactions with the narcissistic family member. Were there specific events or patterns that stand out as early indications of their behavior?
  • Example: “As a child, my uncle would always turn family events into a showcase for his achievements, overshadowing everyone else’s moments of joy. Even my birthdays felt like they were more about him than me.”
  • Follow-Up: How did you process these events as a child, and how do you interpret them now?

Prompt B: The Awakening

  • Look into the moments when you began to recognize the narcissistic behaviors consciously. Was there a specific event, series of events, or a gradual realization?
  • Example: “It was during my teenage years when I saw how differently my friends’ families interacted that I began questioning my mother’s constant need for validation and control.”
  • Follow-Up: What emotions or internal conflicts did this realization provoke? How did you cope?

Prompt C: Adaptation and Coping Mechanisms

  • Explore how you adapted to or coped with the narcissistic behaviors within your family. Did you develop specific strategies or behaviors to manage or mitigate the harm?
  • Example: “To avoid my father’s outbursts, I learned to become ‘invisible’ – agreeing with him even when I didn’t and avoiding topics that might trigger his anger.”
  • Follow-Up: How have these adaptations impacted other areas of your life, both positively and negatively?

Prompt D: External Perspectives

  • Reflect on the times when someone outside of your family commented on or reacted to the narcissistic family member’s behaviors. How did their perspective influence your understanding?
  • Example: “A close friend once pointed out how my older brother would belittle my achievements. It was surprising because I had always normalized his comments as ‘teasing’ until then.”
  • Follow-Up: Were you defensive, in denial, or receptive to these external observations? Why?

Prompt E: Seeking Validation

  • Contemplate the instances when you sought validation or understanding from other family members or friends regarding the narcissistic behaviors. How were your concerns received?
  • Example: “I once confided in my aunt about my grandmother’s manipulative tendencies, hoping for some understanding. Instead, she dismissed it as ‘just the way she is,’ making me feel even more isolated.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these responses shape your subsequent decisions to share or keep silent about the abuse?

Part 3: Deep Dive (Family and Societal Dynamics)

Prompt A: Societal Norms

  • Reflect on the societal or cultural values and norms around the family that you were brought up with. How might these have impacted or influenced your perceptions of the narcissistic family member’s behavior?
  • Example: “In our culture, there’s a strong emphasis on respecting elders, no matter what. This made it difficult for me to question or challenge my grandfather’s behavior, even when I felt it was wrong.”
  • Follow-Up: Were there specific societal messages or values that conflicted with your own experiences or feelings regarding the abuse?

Prompt B: Role of Extended Family

  • Explore the dynamics with extended family members. Were there any who enabled the narcissistic family member’s behavior or perhaps recognized it and offered support?
  • Example: “My cousins seemed to always brush off my aunt’s narcissistic tendencies as just her ‘quirks.’ It made me feel like I was overreacting or being too sensitive.”
  • Follow-Up: How did the reactions and attitudes of extended family members shape your understanding or feelings about the abuse?

Prompt C: Peer Comparisons

  • Examine any moments when you compared your family dynamics to those of your peers. How did these comparisons influence your perception of your own family situation?
  • Example: “Seeing how my best friend’s family interacted during their weekend get-togethers made me envious. Their family seemed so supportive and understanding compared to my own.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these comparisons impact your feelings of isolation or validation regarding the narcissistic abuse?

Prompt D: School or Community Observations

  • Reflect on any comments or observations teachers, school counselors, or community members made regarding your family dynamics. Were these observations supportive, dismissive, or something else entirely?
  • Example: “My school teacher once noticed my hesitance during a family-themed activity. She gently asked if everything was okay at home, which was the first time I felt someone might understand.”
  • Follow-Up: Did these observations encourage you to seek help or further isolate you? Why?

Prompt E: Media Influences

  • Think about the portrayal of family dynamics in media (TV shows, movies, books) you consumed during your formative years. Did any of these resonate with or contrast with your experiences?
  • Example: “Watching movies where parents were portrayed as always loving and understanding made me question if I was exaggerating the issues with my father.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these media portrayals influence your perceptions of ‘normal’ family behavior?

Part 4: Deep Dive (Familial Beliefs and Boundaries)

Prompt A: Origin of Boundaries

  • Reflect on how your understanding of personal boundaries developed. Considering the influence of your family, were there explicit or implicit messages about what boundaries were acceptable?
  • Example: “In our household, personal space was not a thing. My parents would go through my belongings without asking, making me feel like I had no privacy.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these early experiences shape your understanding and establishment of boundaries later in life?

Prompt B: Conflict within the Family

  • Look into your historical approach to conflict within the family setting. Were confrontations avoided, or was there a direct approach? How were disagreements or conflicts resolved?
  • Example: “Whenever I tried to voice my concerns, they were dismissed as teenage angst or over-sensitivity. Over time, I learned to keep my feelings to myself.”
  • Follow-Up: How has your family’s approach to conflict influenced your handling of disagreements outside of the family setting?

Prompt C: Inherited Beliefs

  • Examine the beliefs about respect, love, loyalty, and self-worth that were instilled in you by your family. Were there any that justified or minimized the narcissistic behavior?
  • Example: “I was always told that ‘blood is thicker than water’ and that family always sticks together, no matter what. This made me feel like I had to tolerate the abusive behavior because they were family.”
  • Follow-Up: How have these beliefs influenced your interactions with the narcissistic family member and other relationships?

Prompt D: Role of Loyalty and Sacrifice

  • Consider moments where you felt obligated to prioritize family loyalty or unity above your well-being. Were there instances where you felt the need to protect the family image or reputation?
  • Example: “Even when my sibling’s comments hurt me deeply, I never spoke out against them at family gatherings. I didn’t want to be the one causing a scene.”
  • Follow-Up: Reflect on the emotional toll of consistently placing family loyalty above personal well-being. How has this impacted your sense of self-worth?

Prompt E: Moments of Clarity

  • Reflect on when you began recognizing the narcissistic abuse within the family dynamics. Were internal barriers or external pressures initially preventing you from acknowledging the abuse?
  • Example: “When I went to college and met diverse individuals, I realized that how my aunt treated me wasn’t just strict discipline; it was abusive. Still, it was hard to accept because admitting it felt like betraying my family.”
  • Follow-Up: How did these moments of clarity influence your subsequent decisions, interactions, or coping mechanisms within the family setting?

Get Support

If you need help with this strategy, click here to join our community discussion. You don’t have to go through this alone; we’re here to support you.

Third Strategy: Be Patient with Yourself


We strongly recommend you visit [7:32] and rewatch Holly K Severson Herzog’s advice to get the information you need to implement this strategy effectively.

Get Support

If you need help with this strategy, click here to join our community discussion. You don’t have to go through this alone; we’re here to support you.

Fourth Strategy: Release the Emotions


We strongly recommend you visit [10:46] and rewatch Holly K Severson Herzog’s advice to get the information you need to implement this strategy effectively.

Get Support

If you need help with this strategy, click here to join our community discussion. You don’t have to go through this alone; we’re here to support you.

Fifth Strategy: Learn What Secure Attachment Looks Like


We strongly recommend you visit [16:40] and rewatch Holly K Severson Herzog’s advice to get the information you need to implement this strategy effectively.

Get Support

If you need help with this strategy, click here to join our community discussion. You don’t have to go through this alone; we’re here to support you.

Closing Remarks

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