Dealing with old pain requires confronting internal demons
y wife is outraged at my parents. She blames them for not preparing me for life and holds them responsible for the suffering I’ve caused her by struggling to make a living. She told me that I need to let them know that they let me down. She’s always wanted them to be held accountable.
“I recently gave in to her wish. I sat my parents down and told them exactly where they fell short with me. I told them that their neglect has caused my own family tremendous pain because I simply wasn’t properly prepared for adulthood. My mother started to cry and my father kicked me out of the house for upsetting my mother.
“I told my wife what happened and she said, ‘Well at least they know now.’
“But honestly, I don’t think it accomplished anything positive. My parents are hurt and I don’t feel right about doing this to them. I think they did what they thought was right at the time. They’re good people.”
This man actually went back to his folks to apologize for his outburst. He told them that he knows they did their best and he’s grateful for all that they gave him. Fortunately, the parents accepted their son’s apology and everyone made up and moved on.
However, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes this sort of confrontation results in a permanent rift. People stop talking to each other for long periods of time or some other sort of “cold war” erupts. The truth is not always healing.
A safer place and process for the healing of the past is in therapy. Therapy allows for both the release and the transformation of feelings arising out of negative parent-child interactions. A person can talk to his or her parent without the parent being physically present. This is sometimes accomplished in “two-chair work” in which a client imagines his parent sitting in a chair opposite her. Speaking to the empty chair, the client expresses all the pain of the past — all the hurt, resentment, and other unfinished business. The act of speaking it out loud in this way allows it to begin to move out of the heart and soul, leaving the body lighter and healthier.
Other therapeutic techniques can accomplish the same result. Writing a letter to one’s parent (which is shredded, not mailed!) is similarly relieving.
The truth is that the real work of healing from childhood pain is always an inside job that affects every area of functioning. The adult has to heal the hurt, anger, fear, insecurity, low self-esteem, and other psychological results of troubled parenting. Limiting beliefs and dysfunctional behavior patterns need to be replaced with healthier modes of thinking, feeling, and acting. Specialized therapeutic interventions are required for the rewiring of the brain and heart; talking about what happened is a good beginning, but in itself is not a method for profound change. This is why confronting a parent is not a healing activity; it does nothing to address the internal damage caused by emotional neglect or mistreatment.
Besides being unhelpful, talking about the old hurts to an older parent is likely to be a harmful experience to all parties. It’s is important to keep in mind that people who were very hurtful decades ago simply didn’t have the skills to do better. Now, 30 or more years later, they often still lack the necessary empathic skills and, when confronted by an adult child, may simply cause another round of unintentional pain.
Instead of addressing their parents, adult children can address their pain. When it comes to the current parent-child relationship, it is often better to accept the status quo. Have whatever relationship is available.
Adults can have respectful and functional relationships with parents who, although imperfect, are not abusive. Even though they may mourn the fact that they will never have all that they wanted and needed from their parents, these adult children can have whatever level of comfort and support is currently available.
For some, this may mean that a friendly enough relationship allows for a warm grandparenting bond to form with one’s children. For others, a certain slice of life can be shared: common interests in Torah or business, shopping or homemaking. For still others, the benefit of financial assistance or other forms of practical support may be available.
And on occasion, one even manages to form an authentically rewarding relationship with an older, once-hurtful, parent — based on wisdom gained through the intervening decades on the part of both adult child and older parent.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 649)