One of the most important tasks of adulthood is forgiving your parents. Here’s why: your parents are the foundation for how you learned to be in relationship with other people. You will see parts of your parents in yourself, your partner, your friends, your coworkers, and your children.
The more you cling to blaming your parents for your shortcomings, the more harm (and less healing) you will inevitably bring upon yourself.
Forgiveness allows you to feel happy…to feel free. It’s a mature step toward self-acceptance and self-compassion. Here are some thoughts to help the healing begin.
What forgiveness really is…
It’s Wednesday night. So far, it’s been a hard week.
Everybody and everything seems to need you…all at once.
Your kids refusing to eat is the last straw you can take. They tell you your cooking is boring.
Other kids eat so much better. And so you snap.
Now you’re yelling at your kids. You scold them, and punish them.
“You hate my cooking? FINE! Go to bed now with no dinner!”
That night, you lay in bed, still stewing in anger and frustration. You ask yourself:
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
HOW DID I END UP ACTING EXACTLY LIKE MY PARENTS?
OOOF…parenting is humbling, isn’t it?
YES…You are committed to parenting your children differently, and yet you feel stuck…
Because the only way you really know how to parent is by how you were raised.
Here’s an idea: instead of guilt-tripping yourself for all the ways you act out your parent’s negative qualities, why don’t you shift your focus to…
This is not your grandma’s forgiveness ala ‘forgive and forget’ while continuing to engage in relationships with people who behave in harmful or toxic ways.
This is something totally different… and it requires a paradigm shift.
What if forgiving your parents was really for you?
What if forgiving isn’t about ‘absolving’ someone from the ‘sins’ they’ve committed against you…
But instead was about you learning how to radically accept circumstances without judgment
(but with boundaries, of course!)
Stay with me…
At the heart of forgiveness is: Acceptance.
- Accepting what was.
- Accepting what is.
- Accepting shortcomings.
- Accepting strengths.
- Radically accepting it all for what it is.
And keeping our expectations aligned with that reality.
Because when we can accept someone’s limitations - especially our parent’s missteps - then we can turn inward and accept our own limitations.
And when we can accept our own limitations, we can accept our children’s shortcomings.
And this is where healing truly begins.
Why it’s important to stop blaming your own parents for the way you parent your own children
My client Samantha* shared with me that she’s a hot mess and it’s all her mother’s fault.
“I wouldn’t be this messed up had my mother actually been there for me. I never doubted that she loved me, but most of the time she was so mean, so dysregulated, so disorganized… I felt like more of a burden than anything else.”
Like many parents, Samantha concluded that because she couldn't stop yelling and threatening her kids…that she was destined to be just like her mother.
In her mind, there was no hope for her. The family dynamics were already set… her own children had anxiety and behavioral issues…and re-parenting her inner child felt like a way too complicated process.
Like Samantha did, you can shift away from this belief system.
And it starts with ending the cycle of blame.
Blaming limits YOU.
YES, you hurt YOURSELF more every time you blame others for your problems.
Blame is one way we deflect personal responsibility.
Here’s a hard truth: it’s easier to point the finger at others as the reason for why you’re struggling so much. It’s much harder to actually commit to changing your own behavior.
This is where so many of my clients get stuck.
They want others to do the changing before they feel they can change.
Certainly, adversity, hardship, and challenges in childhood can absolutely impact your emotional and mental health in adulthood. I am not denying this important reality at all.
AAANNNDDD… it’s not a reason for us to continue to act out in ways we wish we wouldn’t, and then blame our childhood circumstances for our behavior.
It can explain our behavior… but it doesn’t excuse it.
At some point, you must take personal responsibility for how you behave.
You must recognize that blaming others actually holds YOU hostage to more resentment, pain, and inner chaos.
….This is truly the process of forgiving your parents – or anyone who hurt you. If you carry those hurts into parenthood, it’s your job to let go of those past hurts.
No one can do it for you, unfortunately.
Once you’re in your 20s (and beyond) and you embark upon parenting, your parent’s job as the parent has now ended.
Yes, they will always be your parents, but the role of mothering or fathering has now expired.
I know this is particularly difficult to hear if you never felt mothered or fathered growing up.
Personally, my mother struggled with mothering me. I challenged her. My mannerisms and innate temperament triggered her, and she struggled to control herself as a result. My father was a hard worker but didn’t really become emotionally involved in our lives until my mom died in 2015.
I share this to say: if you missed out on feeling mothered or fathered…I get it. You’re not alone.
I also understand why you feel the need to blame.
If you were blamed a lot as a kid, you might feel reactive to taking responsibility today.
If you experienced trauma as a child, blaming others may have been a survival tactic.
By blaming others, you take the spotlight off of yourself. As a child, it makes sense why you perhaps had to do this to feel safe.
Heck.. even now it makes sense…especially if you’re feeling burnt out, flooded, or overwhelmed. Often, blame is just a way you reenact these same survival patterns now.
And still…the blame-game no longer serves you. It doesn’t make things better with your parents. It doesn’t help you resolve your wounds and find a new way to parent.
And it only traps you in survival mode…
Here are some common blaming patterns that can actually keep you feeling WORSE about your parenting instead of feeling BETTER:
- Clinging to the belief that you are damaged or broken because of your past
- Staunchly believing there is no way to move forward
- Expressing continued rage and anger toward your parents
- Denying any possibility of good intentions
- Refusing to repair
- Staying committed to defensiveness
- Bottling up emotions
Remember: for every one finger you have pointing outward, be sure to examine the 3 that are pointing back at you.
Each finger represents something different: self-reflection, self-compassion, and self-acceptance.
Self-reflection means you take the time to understand what you experienced then and how it impacts you today. This is a daily, lifelong practice. The capacity for reflection is one of the strongest indicators of secure attachment in children, according to research.
Self-compassion means you learn to acknowledge that sometimes things feel hard and you’re not expected to be perfect by any means. You’re allowed to hurt. You don’t need to compare your hurt to others’ hurt to justify if you’re worthy of the hurt you feel. (AKA comparative suffering, coined by Brene Brown).
Self-acceptance means you come to a place of maturity where you acknowledge the strengths and skills you possess. You nurture these qualities and honor them within yourself. You also appreciate your shortcomings, because we’re not meant to be amazingly talented at everything. We’re meant to have our unique gifts and share them with others. Others’ gifts will often complement whatever shortcomings you have.
Learning how to forgive and heal is a journey. Here’s some encouragement for that process.
How to forgive your parents to heal yourself
1) Feel your feelings.
When we learn to hold space for our true feelings - without judging them as good/bad, right/wrong - we make tremendous progress toward forgiveness and acceptance.
The next time you feel upset with your parents for their behavior - whether it was for something they did in the past or something they did today - start by powering down any unnecessary distractions and giving yourself some time to pause.
Notice if you want to resist the pause. Sometimes feelings are so uncomfortable we’ll do anything to actually feel them.
Notice if you want to distract yourself with your phone, a drink, a cigarette, or something else.
The more you notice how you’re reacting to your emotions, the better you get at ‘minding the mind’.
Minding the mind is an excellent practice for learning how to be with our emotions without rushing to fix or change them.
2) 3Cs: Context, Compassion, Curiosity
It’s really healing to bring context to your parent’s behaviors: what happened in their lives that perhaps influenced their behaviors toward you? In your childhood, did your parents lack support? Have mental health problems? Were they emotionally immature? Narcissistic?
When you can understand (not excuse) their behaviors by giving it meaning and context, it’s easier to let go and not take their behavior so personally.
(Even when it may truly have felt so personal for you).
It helps you have compassion for the circumstances of their lives that led them to make the choices they did.
I often think about the missteps I’ve made - and will continue to make - with my own kids…and I see compassion as the child’s way of honoring the parent’s humanity.
What a beautiful and important gift you can give your children…the gift of modeling how to honor our fallible humanity.
And through this context and compassion, you can stay curious about how these issues continue to arise for you on a daily basis. When we lead with curiosity, it helps to keep us out of judgment.
Judgment sounds like: “I can’t believe I’m still bothered by this! What’s wrong with me?”
Curiosity sounds like: “I can sense that I’m feeling bothered right now. I wonder what triggered this?”
3) Respectful Boundaries
You will probably have to establish some boundaries for your psychological and emotional wellness. The people in your life may not be too pleased about it. Still, part of your healing journey is learning that it’s okay to disappoint others.
But never go out of your way to disappoint yourself just to please others.
This will keep you in survival mode… when healing is what your heart seeks.
Boundaries take practice. You want to be clear with your words, warm with your tone, and confident in your position.
“I’m not okay with you yelling at me. Let’s please change the tone of this conversation, or else I’ll have to leave.”
Try not to get hung up on others’ impressions of your boundaries. Most family systems that lack healthy boundaries will find boundaries offensive and will try to mock you.
You are not responsible for how someone responds to your boundary.
You are simply responsible for how you set it and how you hold it.
How to forgive a parent who does not respect your boundaries:
One of the hardest things to face is a parent who refuses to change their behavior when it outwardly harms you.
It’s like being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Do you continue to set the boundaries, knowing you’ll get push-back and have to deal with the headache of a boundary pusher?
Or do you cut-off the toxic family member, knowing you’ll probably be misunderstood by family members and blamed for “breaking the family apart”.
So here’s my rule of thumb:
If someone is actively abusing you - meaning they’re ridiculing you, emotionally manipulating you, dismissing your lived experiences, or attacking your character - and you’ve tried to make amends and find a way forward…
…AND this pattern repeats itself multiple times with no respect for your personal integrity or needs…
…then distance yourself from the relationship.
That might be the lesson from all the chaos: move away from it.
Sometimes we are called to sit in chaos and make sense of it.
Other times, we are called to move away from it and make room for something new.
If removing someone from your life is not something you wish to pursue, invite your parent to family therapy. Have an unbiased support person help you with your communication and healing hurts together. Give them a chance to repair with you.
If they refuse to go to therapy, then… there’s your answer.
If they say I’m not the one with the problem, everyone else has the problem….again, there’s your answer.
But, if they agree to therapy….
And you both make a sincere effort to work together, honor your differences, and find a safer way to be in relationship together…
And it still feels problematic for you…
Then distancing yourself may be the answer.
Sometimes, we have to love someone from a distance.
Sometimes, despite all the effort to work together, we still find ourselves stuck in harmful relationships.
It’s okay if forgiveness looks like no-contact for you. Just do it with love in your heart. From a place of peace.
That way the cut-off doesn’t hurt you.
While we cannot control how they will feel, you can at least be responsible for your own intentions and behaviors.