When "Being the Bigger Person" Makes You Feel Smaller

I wanted to write a post about the problematic concept of and pressure to be "the bigger person," but writer Kaitlin Tremblay already wrote it for me for Harlot Magazine's website, Harlot Media. The article is called "When Being the Bigger Person Affords You Very Little" (click that title for the original article), and it says everything I want to say on the subject, and more.

Here's the full text:

I try really hard to be the bigger person in situations that feel crappy.

I try because I know there are always a hundred and one variables affecting people that make actions and interactions complex and difficult. I know negativity can come from having a bad day; I know distance can come from getting over a deep hurt. I’ve been the person who has lashed out because something innocent from an acquaintance hit too close to home to an unfair statement a shitty ex has said. I’ve been the person who has shut people out because I wasn’t in a good place with my own self-esteem, and being around people who had their shit together reminded me of all my perceived failures.

And I’ve been the person who has been hurt by someone who was also hurting.

Hurt people hurt people. I get it. But sometimes I'm not in a position where seeing things this way is a viable healthy solution for me. Forgiveness and compassion can fetch you the moral high ground, but it requires labor; being a woman means I expend so much labor just surviving. \

In those situations, it’s healthier for me to not beat myself up over trying to be the bigger person and failing. Being the bigger person means not letting things get to you. It means taking another person’s perspective, understanding it, and using that to let go of your own hurt, anger, or frustration.

It encourages a “turn the other cheek” ideal, a sacrifice in the name of civility and friendship. It puts people who are recovering, surviving, or just trying to be okay, at a disadvantage. It can cause fear that you'll be penalized or scolded if you feel how you feel—and for people who have been gaslit, or otherwise told their feelings, experiences, and thoughts are invalid, being told how you feel is unacceptable is highly frustrating and damaging.

As women, being forced to be the bigger person puts us back into the position of caretaker. It forces us to continue sacrificing our own well-being for the well-being of others. It enables a mentality that makes it difficult to navigate between "I should stay" and "I should go".

At times it's absolutely necessary to acknowledge when you are in a place where you need to let yourself work through something. This can appear to others as bitterness, avoidance, or refusing to let go of the situation—choosing when and how you deal with a painful situation is only ever up to you.

I’ve felt—I feel—a lot of guilt for not getting over the way somebody hurt me years ago.

“Let go, get over it, forgive and forget and you’ll be happier.”

This narrative of “forgiving and forgetting will make you feel better” doesn’t really account account for my ex spending five years gaslighting me. No, I can’t be the bigger person and forgive him, and I’m not going to make myself feel worse for not being able to forgive him. Forgiving him led me to getting back together with him after breaking up with him, and putting myself deeper into his web of manipulation, gaslighting, and general destroying of my sanity and self-esteem.

Being the bigger person left me feeling invalidated–like I somehow deserved the damage he did to me.

He’s already destroyed most of my self-esteem and sanity. "Forgiving and forgetting" suggests he left me with enough emotional and mental resources to be able to pick myself back up.

His emotional abuse and sheer destruction of my identity and self left me with barely enough to be able to get up in the morning. And maybe I shouldn’t wish for a comet to come raining down to Earth at his exact location, but I’m stronger and healthier because I let myself feel the anger and hurt I was feeling and not dismissing it by telling myself to be the bigger person than he was.

I’m not going to let not being able to forgive that just yet continue to destroy me. Because here’s the radical thing: I can finally accept that how I feel about myself and my health matters more than how we’re taught to forgive, forget, and be perfect examples of health and level-headedness.

Something I’ve come to learn, a bit of the hard way, is how to decide who I can trust.

Trust is a weird thing; it’s inherently personal and based on social factors. What makes me decide to trust someone is different from what makes others trust someone. I trusted my ex because he gave the pretense of being a good feminist ally, and, at least in the beginning, seemed to respect my intelligence and boundaries. Others may have taken his constant referring to his exes as “crazy” and the way he pit me and an ex of his against each other from the very start as a warning sign. The thing is, I really didn’t know he wasn’t somebody to trust on a deep, personal level, and can maybe see how—for women he’s not romantically involved in, say—he could be a person to trust, especially if he’s grown and matured at all. And there was a period of time, albeit brief and at the beginning, where he was a place of safety for me.

That he then turned that safety into his main method of manipulating and gaslighting me just goes to show that trust and safety are dynamic things, that can and will evolve and adapt as situations change.

While spaces can be safe in that they have rules in place to create an environment that discourages toxic and abusive and oppressive behaviours, it’s impossible to account for the fact that some people who are safe to one person are toxic for another. Safety is personal, it has to be decided by the individual.

This is what makes online communities difficult to manage and participate in. One person’s toxic trigger is another person’s safe space.

When these situations arise that, it’s okay to not be the bigger person. You don’t have to forgive and forget or make amends or pretend. Don’t be an asshole, but protect yourself how you can. You can choose your boundaries and decide who you let in and when and how.

Just because a person co-exists in the same space as you do doesn’t mean you’re owed anything to them. The “forgive and forget” mentality can also be used to dismiss concerns about safety so spaces can operate on the path of least resistance.

There isn’t a way for dealing that will work one hundred percent of the time for people or spaces—knowing your boundaries and what you need for safety are paramount.

Self honesty means respecting what you need from a situation. If a person is abusive, absolutely do what you can to protect others. But when the dust settles, if you’re not able to be around this person, or forgive them, don’t force yourself. Don’t “be the bigger person,” whatever that actually means anyways, if takes too much out of you.

Forcing yourself to fit these narratives can veer dangerously close to forms of emotional self-harm. Me trying to be the bigger person and forgive my ex led me down a destructive path of not trusting my feelings—this led me to feelings of inadequacy and back to physical self-harm. Respect what you need from a situation; don’t let positive platitudes get in the way of your own healing and growth.

Safety needs to come from trust, and trusting other peoples’ feelings and boundaries can be so much more difficult when you don’t trust your own.

Be it from a colleague who has hurt you, or an ex who destroyed you, knowing what you need to heal is paramount. Sometimes being the bigger person does feel good and helps you get out of a bad place. A lot of time, when I’ve been hurt or frustrated by a colleague or friend, taking a step back, assessing the situation, and deciding I can be the bigger person and letting it go is the only way to get out of a bad situation. But this comes from a place of knowing my feelings and trusting myself.

When I give myself time and space to process and actually heal from my deep hurt, I have more emotional and mental reserves to deal with everything else.

Healing takes time. And I don’t just mean a few therapy sessions or nights drinking wine on the kitchen floor with your roommate/best friend/confidante. It can take years. Many of them. Tens of them, even. Healing is a special process that is unique to a person—there’s no “normal” way to do it. Don’t let thinking you need to “forgive and forget” and not being able to get in the way of your own healing process.

Nobody gets to dictate what your healing and safety looks like. If it means cutting out someone who bullied you, or who triggered you, or makes you feel unsafe, then do it.

Don’t worry about wanting to be the “bigger person.” Just worry about feeling safe, and healing.

And I know one day I’ll move on, when the scars have healed and I’ve rebuilt the damage done from five years of gaslighting, I won’t wish a for a comet.

But for now, I’m okay not being the bigger person.

Thanks Kaitlin, for writing the words I desperately needed to read today!

Kaitlin Tremblay is a writer, editor, and gamemaker living in Toronto, Ontario. Her work focuses on horror, feminism, mental illness, and video games. She is the co-author of the book Escape to Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal (Five Out of Ten, 2014). Her writing has been featured on Playboy, Vice, and The Toast.