At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Isn’t the first step to forgive my parents?” My answer is no. This may shock, anger, dismay, or confuse many of you. Most of us have been led to believe exactly the opposite—that forgiveness is the first step toward healing. In fact, it is not necessary to forgive your parents in order to feel better about yourself and to change your life!
Certainly I’m aware that this flies in the face of some of our most cherished religious, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological principles. According to the Judeo-Christian ethic, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” I am also aware that there are many experts in the various helping professions who sincerely believe that forgiveness is not only the first step but often the only step necessary for inner peace. I disagree completely.
Early in my professional career I too believed that to forgive people who had injured you, especially parents, was an important part of the healing process. I often encouraged clients—many of whom had been severely mistreated—to forgive cruel or abusive parents. In addition, many of my clients entered therapy claiming to have already forgiven their toxic parents, but I discovered that, more often than not, they didn’t feel any better for having forgiven. They still felt bad about themselves. They still had their symptoms. Forgiving hadn’t created any significant or lasting changes for them. In fact, some of them felt even more inadequate. They’d say things such as: “Maybe I didn’t forgive enough”; “My minister said I didn’t truly forgive in my heart”; or, “Can’t I do anything right?” I took a long, hard look at the concept of forgiveness. I began to wonder if it could actually impede progress rather than enhance it.
I came to realize that there are two facets to forgiveness: giving up the need for revenge, and absolving the guilty party of responsibility. I didn’t have much trouble accepting the idea that people have to let go of the need to get even. Revenge is a very normal but negative motivation. It bogs you down in obsessive fantasies about striking back to get satisfaction; it creates a lot of frustration and un-happiness; it works against your emotional well-being. Despite how sweet revenge may feel for a moment, it keeps stirring up the emotional chaos between you and your parents, wasting precious time and energy. Letting go of your need for revenge is difficult, but it is clearly a healthy step.
But the other facet of forgiveness was not as clear-cut. I felt there was something wrong with unquestioningly absolving someone of his rightful responsibility, particularly if he had severely mistreated an innocent child. Why in the world should you “pardon” a father who terrorized and battered you, who made your childhood a living hell? How are you supposed to “overlook” the fact that you had to come home to a dark house and nurse your drunken mother almost every day? And do you really have to “forgive” a father who raped you at the age of 7?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this absolution was really another form of denial: “If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn’t so terrible.” I came to realize that this aspect of forgiveness was actually preventing a lot of people from getting on with their lives.