- Some people can’t move on unless their parent sees their childhood wound and acknowledges responsibility.
- Not receiving an apology from one's parent for hurt they caused can leave a person stuck in anger.
- Finding peace within oneself without an apology can begin with acknowledging one's own feelings as they are.
Forgiveness is often the key to finding peace with a situation—forgiving a friend or a co-worker, for example, for doing something that caused you pain. It’s often easiest to forgive someone with whom you don’t really have a strong relationship, like someone who cuts you off in traffic or who is short with you at work.
But when it comes to forgiving a parent for all the things you experienced in your childhood, it can feel downright impossible, especially when you subconsciously believe that a shared bloodline automatically grants you the gift of time.
What can complicate it further is when you have a parent who takes the credit for all of your accomplishments but never accepts responsibility for the challenges you now face as an adult. After all, perhaps they were never physically abusive toward you, you never lacked for anything, and they believe they did the best they could.
And all of that may be true, but it still doesn’t cancel out all the other stuff you remember, like how your parent was often stressed out and angry, or how both your parents were verbally and physically abusive towards each other. Maybe they used you as a pawn during their divorce, or one parent openly criticized the other and vice versa.
Perhaps one of your parents had unpredictable and scary mood swings that terrified you, or they constantly yelled at you for crying. Maybe you were compared to your siblings a great deal or felt like nothing you did was ever good enough. You may have felt alone and neglected many times, but you were told repeatedly to be grateful for your life. “I do everything for you, and I’ve made many sacrifices so that you can have a better life.”
You may have grown up thinking your childhood was totally normal, and that all families looked like yours, and as an adult, you’ve given little thought to your past because you believe you had a “normal” childhood. But nothing about what you feel is “normal." In fact, it’s far from it.
Anxiety overwhelms you for no apparent reason, and sometimes you can’t turn off your thoughts, which seem to be all over the place. There is no consistency in your moods: One day you feel good, the next you feel irritable and frustrated, and everyone annoys you.
Intimate relationships don’t work out because you’re accused of being too needy, too controlling, too insecure, “too much,” or you’re told that you are emotionally unavailable. Nothing you do seems to make you happy, and you struggle to maintain a positive outlook on your life.
You’re not 100 percent certain where it all comes from, but you’re mildly aware of the connection between your childhood experiences and your present-day challenges because whenever you spend time with your parent, emotions are triggered. Namely anger.
You have tried to talk to your parent, and it always goes horribly wrong.
They boldly deny any wrongdoing and turn the conversation around, which makes you feel guilty. “Fine, so I was a horrible mom. I get it. I didn’t do anything right.”
They dismiss your perspective and deny what you’re saying. “Oh, it wasn’t that bad, stop exaggerating.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I never said those things.” “Don’t be ridiculous, I never did that, that never happened.”
They judge you for bringing it up. “For the love of God, that was so long ago. Can’t you just get over it? What’s wrong with you?”
They apologize but then take it back. “Fine, I’m sorry, but you were no angel either.”
They compete with your experiences. “You shouldn’t complain, my life was much worse.”
You’ve tried several times to have a conversation, but the outcome remains the same. Everyone tells you that you need to forgive them, that you need to let go of anger and resentment, but you can’t. You need an apology.
Why Is It So Hard to Forgive?
I’ve worked with many clients who’ve found themselves in this very situation, and we explore the many reasons why forgiveness feels so impossible. Sometimes it has to do with a sense of justice and winning the battle. “If I forgive them without getting an apology, it’s like they got away with it.”
Some clients feel they won’t be able to move on unless their parent sees the wound and acknowledges that they might have caused it. “They like to think I’m this perfect child who had an amazing childhood. They don’t realize how much I suffered as a kid. They need to see how much it hurt me and take some responsibility.”
In all cases, clients report that their parents disagreeing with how things happened or denying the past is what they find most infuriating and a primary reason why they cannot forgive them. “They say it didn’t happen the way I remember it, or they deny it ever happened at all. It’s so annoying.”
The apology never comes, and the relationship remains strained and filled with conflict and arguments. Life goes on for your parent, but you find yourself in a prison of anger and unforgiveness, hoping they will eventually break you free.
What Can You Do?
You might go to therapy hoping to find a way to get an apology from your parent, and it will be hard to accept that therapy will not change your family member. Realizing that you have to work on yourself, you will likely feel angry and frustrated. I once had a client say to me, “It’s so unfair that I now have to do the work when they’re the ones who messed me up.”
But like most things, finding peace for yourself is a process that takes time, and there are steps you can follow if you are currently in this kind of situation.
Step 1. Identify all of your emotions and give them all the space they need. If you were told repeatedly that your parents did the best they could, recognizing that what you feel is anger towards them may be uncomfortable, and you may feel ungrateful. Don’t judge your emotions—just let them be.
Step 2. Dig a little bit. How well do you know your parents? What do you know about who they were before you came along? In some cases, finding out that your parent had their own fair share of adverse childhood experiences may help you better understand why they raised you a certain kind of way. Maybe your parent wasn’t equipped to have children, and they really did do the best they could with what they had at the time. Knowing your parent suffered a great deal may make it very difficult for you to remain angry, especially if you can see that your experiences are part of a dysfunctional relational pattern that has been handed down from one generation to the next.
Keep in mind that knowing what your parents went through doesn’t mean your own experiences and emotions aren't valid. You can have understanding and compassion for them and also feel anger, resentment, and hurt for your own experiences. This is an important part of the healing process.
Step 3. Most of us have done something in our lives for which we feel ashamed and/or embarrassed. Fully accepting who we are and recognizing the mistakes we’ve made is a process that takes time, patience, and courage, all of which your parent may not have, which can explain why they get so defensive and deny everything.
If you can understand that each person has their own process, it may be easier for you to see them as human beings, and not as parents for whom you have certain expectations.
Step 4. It feels like you need them to agree with you on the what, where, how, and when you were hurt, but maybe you just need them to see your wounds and acknowledge that regardless of how things happened, you were hurt. Having this goal in mind can help guide your conversation and help you reframe your approach.
“I don’t need you to agree with how I remember things; I just want you to acknowledge that regardless of how things happened, I felt hurt, sad, and abandoned. I know that you had a rough childhood too, and I’m wondering if maybe you’ve felt the same way in your life.”
Acknowledging your parents' experiences rather than competing with them may help you form a stronger bond because you’re connecting on an emotional level instead of trying to agree with how things happened in the past.
Forgiveness can feel complicated and messy, but it's not impossible. How long it takes for you to arrive at a point in which you can forgive without an apology will be unique to you, and largely depends on your willingness to explore other paths to a resolution because, in the end, you are the only person who can release you from a prison of unforgiveness.
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