Note: This post does not address extreme abuse by parents.
So much of my work with clients, and in my own processing, deals with the effects of our parents’ failings. “Let’s talk about your childhood” is a common phrase in some counseling methods. It’s because our parents, imperfect people, raised us. This means they are part of who we are. We adopted beliefs about ourselves and the world around us through our parents’ words and actions. Some of those words and actions were demeaning, hurtful, perhaps even abusive. Our parents may have done the best they could considering their knowledge, ability, and circumstances at the time; however, it still wasn’t enough. So, yes, parents do get a bad rap.
When I work with a client who has deep or shallow wounds inflicted by her parents, I encourage the client to allow herself to get angry. Her parents let her down. Her mom or dad or both failed her in some way. That’s something to get angry about. But, I do not advocate staying in the angry place forever. The angry place serves a purpose for acknowledging what happened. It is a gateway to grieving which paves the road to healing. Some try to go straight to healing and by-pass the rest. That is a temporary fix. Temporary fixes are never meant to stand the test of time. They can be useful for a moment but not for life.
What does getting angry look like? It’s different for everyone. For me, it meant digging into deep primal anger and letting strings of expletives surge out a mouth once cleansed by soap. I did this in safe places: a counseling office, a process group, and Shadow Work. All three environments provided the space and security I needed to let the anger come to the surface, be released, and integrated. In a counselor’s office I did EMDR (emdria.org), the process groups were part of Cloud Townsend Leadership and Training programs I have attended over the last four years (cloudtownsend.com), and I worked with a Shadow Work facilitator in both individual and group settings (shadowwork.com). I also have a few super safe friends with whom I have shared my entire healing journey. We are raw and real with one another.
Some find it helpful to write letters to their parents, the kind of letters that are never sent. After writing everything he wants to say (which can take days, weeks, months…) the person then has some sort of ceremony to dispose of the letter. I have seen clients have burning ceremonies (being careful to obey any fire ban laws in effect), or send symbols of the anger down a river (eco-friendly symbols, of course). The idea is to symbolize one’s release from the anger. “I identified it, looked at it, felt it, then released it.” Without getting too complicated, we don’t ever really get rid of it entirely; we integrate it so that it is a part of us but not a cancer within us. We know it’s there, that it happened, but it is no longer an intrusive aspect of our being.
This process often allows us to be healthy in our relationship with our parents. We can see them as fellow flawed beings. They may or may not be aware of that, they don’t have to. Your journey of accepting them exactly where they are is just that, your journey. Your parents are on their own journey…whatever that looks like.
I have come to a place where I am incredibly thankful for my parents. I know they aren’t perfect and because I put my story into a published book, they know what I think. Despite the ways my parents failed me, I still see they are amazing people. My mom is 82. My dad is 87. They continue to model for me a powerful example of how to live life to the fullest, every day of my life. They do not sit around watching TV all day, nor are they sucked into the sedentary “I have no purpose anymore” lie. They are still active in their community, contributing their time and wisdom to various organizations. They are always on the go and they are plugged into the people around them. Are they also dysfunctional on some levels? Yes, and so am I and so are you and so is every other person on the planet. The point isn’t that they are imperfect; the point is that they are human, they are my parents, and I love them.
A few words of caution: If your parents continue to inflict emotional pain, it is advisable that you set boundaries with them. It sometimes helps to have an honest conversation with them. It might sound like this: “Mom, when you use harsh words and put me down, I feel sad. I want to have a relationship with you. In order for that to happen, I need you to stop putting me down. If you aren’t willing to work on this, then I will not visit you.” Your mom’s response and heart in the matter is key to having a good relationship. If she owns her part in the problem and changes her behavior, then there’s hope. This won’t happen all of the sudden. It will take some time. Your mom might be really hurt at first. She might say it’s your problem, not hers. Give her some time and she may come around. No matter what, honor yourself by honoring your boundary. If you truly mean your time with her will be limited, then follow through on that.
Think carefully about the kind of relationship you want with your parents. Parents are an important part of our life. Do what you can to create a relationship that works for you. It may be limited, but that may be better than no relationship at all. Unfortunately, some parents are so toxic and dangerous to us that we cannot have contact with them. If you are not sure how to handle your situation, talk with a counselor to help you in the process.