“Families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. At some point you forgive the people in your family for being stuck together in all this weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to forgive anyone… Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rats to die.” — Anne Lamott
When your child pushes your buttons, you automatically move into “fight or flight.” It’s hard to love unconditionally. Of course, your child might need you to set a clear, kind limit, but you’ll do that better if you aren’t seeing him as the enemy while you’re doing it.
Often, we think it’s our child’s fault that he’s pushing our buttons. But do you ever wonder when those buttons were built into your psyche? That’s right — during your own childhood. Those are your buttons, and life will keep pushing them until you heal them.
It’s hard to love unconditionally when part of our heart is closed off behind the bars of anger or resentment. If you want to liberate your heart to access all the love there, you have to heal your old wounds.
Most of us didn’t have perfect childhoods. Perhaps you got the message that you weren’t good enough somehow. Too needy, too angry, too selfish, too lazy, too careless…too childish? Our parents, however well-intentioned, were products of their time, and most of us didn’t get the message that we were wholly loved, human imperfections and all.
Now — and this is the hard part — it’s time to let that anger go. Stay with me here. I’m not asking you to call whoever hurt you and “forgive” them. In fact, you never need to speak to them again. But as Anne Lamott says, drinking rat poison doesn’t hurt the rats. Carrying around resentment poisons our hearts and keeps us from feeling loved.
Worse yet, that anger keeps us from loving as we’d like to. It changes the way you relate to your child, even when you don’t know it. It keeps you from being the parent you want to be; the parent your child deserves.
It’s easy to stay angry. They deserve it, after all. And even if we do want to forgive, most of us find it so difficult. The minute we begin, that wounded child inside us screams in pain. To fend off the pain, we stay angry. But that hurts us, and our kids, and whose life is it, anyway? Letting your childhood determine your happiness level is like letting the waiter eat your dinner.
Here’s the secret about “forgiveness.” The way past the anger is not about “making up” with whoever wronged you. You don’t have to say a word to them. The secret is being willing to accept what happened (even when every part of you is screaming NO!) and feel the pain of what you suffered. To cry through it and comfort yourself. As Oprah says, “Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past could have been any different.” Once you offer yourself that healing, you won’t need to hang onto the anger. Or the rat poison.
1. Start by finding that small child who was you, and acknowledging your wounds. “I felt unprotected….unappreciated…unloved….hurt.” Whatever is true for you. Allow yourself to feel that pain. Hug and love yourself, and breathe through it. Once you let yourself feel the pain — in your own loving embrace — you won’t need to fend it off with your anger. Depending on the rawness of your wounds, you might need a loving “witness” with you to do this.
2. Once you’ve worked with Step One enough that your wounds feel less raw, find a time when you’re feeling strong and move on to Step Two. Now consider a different small child….The one who grew up to become your parent. Acknowledge what happened to that child. What wounded him? What hardened her heart?
I’m not saying that justified their wounding you. I’m just asking you to notice: were their childhoods perfect? Your parents, or whoever hurt you, weren’t born looking to hurt. They were simply humans who were hurt themselves, and maybe they weren’t as courageous as you are about taking responsibility, so their pain spilled over onto you. (I know you’re courageous because you’re doing this work.) You have a right to be angry. But the adults who were your parents almost certainly wanted to love you. Even if they failed you in ways that most of us would consider unforgivable, they were wounded themselves. You don’t have to forgive them. But if you can see their woundedness, it’s easier to move on.
3. Express your willingness and intention to move toward healing. Say, “What you did was not ok. Every child deserves better. I deserved better. You deserved better, too. I ask for the grace to forgive. Please help us all to heal. Please help me to move on. Thank you.”
Do you need to phrase it as asking for help? No, not at all. You might just be able to find that healing in your heart. But most of us need a little help from a deeper source of healing, whether you see that source as within you or without. And when we ask for help, somehow we make room for grace.
Just too hard to let go of what happened? We’ve all been there. That’s a defense against the pain. Your anger keeps that pain away — by walling it up inside your heart. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to heal those hurts so you can move on.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.