The adage "be the bigger person" is a familiar phrase heard during one's upbringing and adulthood, suggesting that when faced with others' wrongdoings, the onus of forgiveness should fall upon the more mature or experienced individual. The underlying rationale behind this counsel is often the anticipation that the wrongdoer will neither assume responsibility nor extend an apology, thus making it suitable for the offended party to bear the responsibility of forgiveness. While this counsel is widely perceived as virtuous and generous, it necessitates an examination of its implications, mainly concerning personal boundaries, emotional well-being, and relationship dynamics. The complexity of forgiveness lies in its intricate interplay between the moral imperative to grant clemency and the challenge of reconciling the desire for justice and accountability with the innate human capacity for empathy and compassion. It encapsulates the multifaceted nature of human relationships and the delicate balance required to navigate the intricate terrain of reconciliation.
The Psychological Impact of "Being the Bigger Person"
The conditioning to consistently "be the bigger person" can have profound psychological implications. The advice to forgive and forget without expecting accountability can erode one's ability to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. According to psychologists such as Nina W. Brown (2007), personal boundaries are crucial for preserving one's sense of self and well-being. When constantly urged to forgive without apologies, individuals may feel invisible and question the validity of their thoughts and emotions. The belief that their feelings are not necessary or relevant can lead to a sense of disempowerment and reduced self-esteem (Burkard & Knox, 2004).
The Mother Archetype
One of Carl Jung's archetypes that can be closely related to the theme of "being the bigger person" is the Caregiver or Mother figure archetype. The Mother archetype embodies a nurturing and compassionate persona, often associated with the maternal instinct. Individuals embodying this archetype tend to prioritise the well-being and emotional needs of others, sometimes at the expense of their own. They take on the role of forgiving and accommodating, aligning with their desire to provide comfort and support. However, if overemphasised, the Mother archetype can reinforce the notion of always forgiving without expecting accountability, which may contribute to the challenges discussed earlier, such as suppressed emotions, boundary erosion, and a potential cycle of transgressions. Recognising and balancing this archetype with other aspects of one's personality is essential for maintaining healthy relationships and personal well-being.
The Burden of Suppressed Emotions
Implicit in the directive to "be the bigger person" is the expectation that, even when rightfully aggrieved, one should suppress their own emotions to maintain harmony. This emotional suppression can be detrimental as it fosters an environment where an individual's emotional needs and boundaries are frequently overlooked. It compels individuals to accommodate the feelings and sensitivities of others at the cost of their emotional well-being. The psychological toll of this continuous emotional subjugation can manifest as stress, anxiety, and a heightened risk of burnout (Gross, 2002). Over time, this can lead to strained relationships and a diminished sense of self-worth (Thompson, 2019).
Testing Boundaries and the Unintended Consequences
"Being the bigger person" is often invoked when one party is aware of their innocence and hopes to reconcile with the wrongdoer. While this gesture may be perceived as a demonstration of maturity, it can also serve as an opportunity for others to test an individual's boundaries. When an individual consistently forgives without expecting accountability or change, they may inadvertently communicate that certain behaviours are tolerable, encouraging their repetition. This can lead to a cycle of transgressions and forgiveness that ultimately erodes trust and respect in the relationship (Waldron, 2016). The person repeatedly forgiving may become increasingly alienated, feeling their willingness to forgive is taken for granted.
The Power of Choice
Ultimately, the decision to "be the bigger person" remains a personal choice. While it can be empowering to stand up for oneself and assert boundaries, recognising that forgiveness does not necessitate an ongoing relationship with someone who has caused harm or distress is essential. The commendability of overlooking another person's poor behaviour is subjective, and it is crucial for individuals to acknowledge their right to determine the course of their relationships (Freedman, 2007). This perspective empowers individuals to make decisions that are aligned with their well-being and values.
The famous adage "Be the bigger person" underscores the societal expectation of forgiveness in the face of wrongdoings, especially when an apology is unlikely. While this advice may appear virtuous, it can have unintended consequences. Continuous forgiveness without accountability can undermine personal boundaries, lead to the suppression of one's emotions, and inadvertently encourage the violation of boundaries. In the pursuit of harmonious relationships, individuals should recognise their agency to choose whether to forgive or maintain relationships with those who have caused harm. Being the bigger person is a choice, and its commendability varies depending on the context and the individual's well-being.
Brown, N. W. (2007). Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up's Guide to Getting over Narcissistic Parents. New Harbinger Publications.
Burkard, A. W., & Knox, S. (2004). Effects of Differentiation of Self on College Students' Relationship Boundaries. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 32(5), 373-388.
Freedman, S. R. (2007). The Morality of Forgiveness. Philosophy, 82(4), 499-527.
Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion Regulation: Affective, Cognitive, and Social Consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281-291.
Shoemaker, L. (2019). Jungian Psychology and Its Significance in the Modern World. Routledge.
Thompson, R. A. (2019). Emotion Regulation: A Theme in Search of Definition. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 84(2), 73-90.
Waldron, M. A. (2016). The Concept of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy: Clinical Applications. Taylor & Francis.