“It’s always something or your mother,” as Wynona Judd is fond of saying. I guess she should know. She and her mother Naomi Judd were one of the most successful duos in country music history, and the backstory of their complicated relationship has been well documented on reality TV.
I had stopped blaming my mother for ruining my life. I also didn’t feel a need to forgive my mother. It knew it wasn’t necessary. I hadn’t just “survived” the experience of growing up with her addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. I was no longer one of the “walking wounded.” I had managed to recover and it felt good.
I also had some science to validate what I had personally experienced. I knew from my doctoral research on resilience that when we’re hurt or harmed by someone important to us, emotional recovery is possible without forgiving the one that caused the hurt or harm. Some of the evidence-based recovery methods I studied were the same ones I had personally experienced as helpful.
So how do we know when we’ve recovered, versus just engaging in some kind of defensive/BS/window-dressing or a sincere-but-delusional pretending that everything is okay by just slapping a happy face on it all?
Again, science has some answers. Here’s what the research reveals about what recovery looks like:
- We are no longer consumed with feelings of resentment, anger, blame or sorrow.
- Without forgetting about, excusing or minimizing the experience, we’ve managed to let go of the bad feelings associated with it.
- Letting go of the bad feelings don’t necessarily mean we’ve reconciled with the person or that we don’t seek justice.
- We are no longer stuck in an endless loop of ruminating, “accusatory suffering” or a victim mentality about the experience.
Before We Go On, A Few Caveats:
- Recovery means we’re free to go on about our lives, without carrying around the emotional baggage. I’ve also learned to respect that some people prefer to keep lugging it around because, after all, there are certain advantages…
- I’ve also learned to respect that some cases of abuse may so severe and damaging and/or some of us are genetically wired in such a way that recovery may not be possible.
- When it comes to recovery, I like the modifier “enough” versus “full.” Because ”enough” recovery appears to be totally sufficient for a good life.
- At the same time, letting go of the bad feelings doesn’t mean we’re suddenly and spontaneously healed in every way, on every level. We may still be affected by what happened. It just means we’re now in a much better position to do something about it.
So How Do We Make Things Better?
Here’s one thing I know for sure: Recovery requires an experience.
Recovering from being hurt or harmed is not an intellectual exercise. You can’t think or talk yourself into letting go of bad feelings. Just reading some “tips,” trying some “techniques” and probably just thinking about a lot won’t cut it.
Nor can you by determination, discipline or sheer force of will yourself into healing from emotional wounding.
Not that dogged determination to heal and a willingness to talk about painful things can’t be helpful. I think of them as necessary and insufficient conditions along the path to a recovery that is real, solid and here to stay.
So where does the experience part fit in?
Therapy is an obvious way to jumpstart the process, but don’t overlook some near-effortless opportunities that may happen to cross your path as you make the journey to peace with your parents — or just about anybody else that has caused you hurt or harm.
Bibliotherapy Can Help
Bibliotherapy uses the creative arts for the purpose of healing and is often combined with writing therapy. It can be profoundly therapeutic because of the way the content of the material and the characters draw you in and move you on a feeling level. Examples include:
- Movies and plays
- Books and stories
- Art and Performing Art
- Journaling, including a dream journal
Dreams can give us a felt experience of encouragement, clarity and support from the unconscious. One of the most memorable dreams during my own journey of recovery seemed to both validate and encourage my progress:
I step onto a bus and see my mother sitting in the seat right behind the driver of the bus.
She is glaring at me. I calmly tell her to get up and go to the back of the bus. Without incident,
she gets up and goes to the back of the bus. I take her seat and the bus proceeds on its way.
Living Life Can Help
- One of the surprising benefits of being a parent is that given enough time and mistakes (usually about the time our children reach adolescence or young adulthood), we realize how much we hope our kids will forgive us. In the same stroke, you may suddenly find it easier to have more empathy for the flaws of your own parents.
- Nothing creates empathy like experiencing the alarming effect of seeing yourself acting exactly like your parent. Realizing that you’ve “become” your mother or father is humbling and creates the opportunity to feel empathy for your parent, recognizing that no one is all bad or all good. We’re all human, which means we are all a mixture of both good and bad — and yet inherently worthy.
- Sometimes seeing our aging parents move into the child position as we reverse roles and assume the caregiver role for them can give us a different or bigger perspective of our parent as a multidimensional, multi-faceted person.
Therapy Can Help
Therapy is specifically designed to promote psychological health and healing from emotional wounding. Recovery from emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse by a parent is not for the faint of heart, but the sheer desperation to make life better, to feel better and do better, can be a powerful motivator. Here’s what it involves:
1. Accept that your parent probably will not change.
In other words, give up and grieve the loss of the hoped-for relationship with your parent.
Why does it often take us so long to move out of denial and give up? Because facing the truth — that you will probably never have the kind of relationship you hoped for — has just been too painful to bear.
How will you know you’re there? You will have eliminated any behaviors designed to make or manipulate him or her to change. You probably already know exactly the behaviors you need to eliminate, whether it’s pleading, placating, being overly-responsible, rebelling, acting out, approval-seeking — You fill in the blank.
2. Learn to reinterpret your parent’s hurtful behavior.
In addition to allowing yourself to see and feel a painful reality, let yourself also see more reality. For example, I eventually recognized that my mother’s hostility toward me included more than her tendency toward ill-tempered meanness.
My mother had given up on life a long time ago. It was healing for me to realize that it was actually quite painful for her to have to be around someone like me, who dared to hope that I could be happy and have a good life. My attitude really challenged a life position she had invested heavily in — and wasn’t the least bit interested in re-examining.
3. Develop your own authority and boundaries.
Remember the dream I mentioned earlier? That’s a good example of how the unconscious shows us how to set boundaries. Other examples of boundary-setting include:
- Speaking up — about what you like and don’t like or what you’re willing or unwilling to do or accept
- Setting consequences — by taking action when your boundaries are violated
- Emotional distancing
- Physical distancing
- Letting other people protect you, help you resolve conflict or teach you how to set boundaries
4. Allowing that the relationship may not get better, how can you enjoy your life anyway?
Invest in your own healing and use your therapy to address beliefs that may make you susceptible to guilt, anxiety and depression.
Although I knew from my research on resilience that forgiveness is not required for emotional recovery, that same research revealed that, in cases where forgiveness is feasible and possible, additional emotional and psychological benefits accrue if we can forgive.
My mother’s decades-long addiction to drugs and alcohol never improved.
She continued to be abusive.
I was not able to reconcile with her before she died.
I still recovered.
My mother never apologized to me or asked for my forgiveness.
Eventually, I found it easy, in fact, effortless, to forgive her.
Stay tuned. I’ll discuss the forgiveness process in depth in future writings.