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Trying to Make Peace With Abusive Parents When You're Stuck Between Anger and Forgiveness

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” ― Khaled Hosseini

Fifteen months ago, I was backing the car down the driveway when something inside me snapped. I put it in park and stormed through the front door.

My dad, in early-stage dementia, sat in his normal chair by the window, while I stormed past him screaming, “Where is she?! Where is she?!” Dad stood up. My mom appeared from down the hallway.

“Do you realize what you’ve done to me?!” I shouted. “Do you know how much pain you’ve put me through?! All this depression, all this anxiety; it’s all your fault!”

She nodded and parroted her therapist amateurishly, “OK, I hear you’re upset. Can you explain to me how you feel?”

“I’m angry! I’m screaming! Why won’t you take any responsibility for this?”

“That’s just the way things were done back then. We didn’t think about it.”

“You didn’t think about it?! What kind of person has a kid and doesn’t think about it?”

That’s when the steam kettle burst and I just let them have it for about a half hour.

This happened four or five times over the course of a couple of months. We were living together, a bad situation. I had just broken through in therapy, realizing that all my years of depression, anxiety and pain had been a result of my parents’ following along with the way their parents had raised them.

What I had learned was that trauma and pain were passed down through three generations, both through a person’s DNA and their behavior.

Over the past 15 months, things between my parents and I have calmed down, and I’m coming to a better understanding of the dynamics at work. But, at the right time, if my mom tries to manipulate me or one of my kids, I still feel the hatred I felt 15 months ago.

I just don’t yell anymore. It doesn’t do any good. They honestly don’t understand.

My mom was raised in an abusive, alcoholic family. To defend herself, she became manipulative, controlling and selfish.

Dad’s dad was killed in a car accident when my dad was only 5. My grandmother never remarried and worked full-time to support the family. Dad was more or less on his own.

Boiling it down, I was raised by two ignorant parents, an absentee father, and an almost narcissistic mother. Mom turned me into a model child to reflect brightly back on her, and bludgeoned me with guilt when I failed to meet her expectations. I’m still working through that.

Right now, I’m wedged between wanting to forgive them and the anger I feel toward them that sometimes boils up.

Forgiveness.

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim – letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”  – C.R. Strahan

Wanting to forgive my parents, I’ve treaded lightly around them since I stopped yelling. I speak calmly and quietly to them. I try to do things they want me to as quickly as possible, unless I think they’re wrong, then I get to it when I get to it.

Setting boundaries with them that I’ve never been able to do before; I keep to myself a lot. We’ll talk when I want to talk. If I think my mom is being manipulative, I’ll hear her out, then walk away quietly.

I have come to peace with the ideas that my parents don’t want to change, don’t understand anything about the damage they’ve done to me, and don’t care to know anymore.

Abusers only see the world one way – their own. They are unwilling to change and lash out when someone asks them to do so. When my mom realized she couldn’t manipulate me anymore, she tried my kids, but my wife and I had already coached the kids on how to react.

I’ve set boundaries with my mom, who continues to try to manipulate my family, but she has come to respect these boundaries. She is no longer allowed to discipline my children. If she has a problem, she needs to come to me.

I understand that she can’t help herself with her need for control; she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. But if she tries to manipulate or control us, I step in and say no.

Reclaiming the power she took from me when I was a child who didn’t know any better was the first step toward forgiving her. The next part, which has moved me greatly, is seeing her as human, and not a monster, again.

Just last week, we were having a conversation about dad’s dementia. She spoke about how scared she was that he was going to take a sharp, downward turn before they were able to move into assisted living, which is slated to happen later this year. She hovered on the verge of tears the whole conversation.

This experience humanized her for me. I felt relieved that she was able to show love toward someone, even if that person wasn’t me.

I’ve learned that she shows she cares for people in ways that don’t matter to me. She likes to go over the top with gifts, money and cakes for birthdays and holidays. These are things that I don’t care about for myself, but I’ve come to realize it’s important to her.

I might not like or need my mom’s forms of affection, but recognizing what they are has helped make her more human to me again.

The final thing I’m looking at with her as I work toward forgiveness is her age. Can I bite my tongue, look the other way or be gentle but firm in setting boundaries with her for the next decade or two to keep the peace? I’m not entirely there yet, but I think I will get to that point.

I don’t want my parents’ last years to be acrimonious. Forgiving them is one of the things I can do to help achieve that goal. We don’t have to be close, but we can still be together.

Am I finding all of this to be coming easily? Absolutely not. There’s one big obstacle that I have to overcome.

Anger.

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

The anger still festers inside me; mostly, it lingers below. But every now and then it surfaces. But that’s to be expected: I’m human, I’m learning and I’m healing.

I need to let go of the anger. Early on, I tried to get it out in large, loud bursts.  While that felt like a relief, unintended consequences came with it that I didn’t expect.

There was the discomfort in my kids. My actions had put them on edge. I also created a hostile environment in the place they lived.

That experience led me to talking to my kids about setting boundaries with people. I’ve seen them use this with both my mom and their friends. Empowering them to care for themselves was good for me as well.

I made the decision to cut myself off from my entire family except my parents. They all share the same toxic belief system that has led to my lifetime of problems. However, this is a decision I do not regret; it was done to create a healthier environment for myself.

Surrounding yourself with people who support you while removing the ones who don’t has been my biggest takeaway from this entire experience. My life has changed for the better by letting go of the people who dragged me down.

I feel hurt over the loss of the first half of my life, which was spent largely toward making my mother look good. It makes me wonder, what have I missed out on?

Unfortunately, those kinds of questions don’t help us. In order to forgive, to recover and to move forward, we have to let all of that baggage go. It’s difficult.

It’s difficult because after all this time, it’s become part of our identity. Just like anxiety, depression or BPD, the anger has to be dealt with or it will never go away. We don’t ask for any of this, but it sits in our laps, requiring our attention while we attempt to move on with our lives.

This is a time-consuming, emotional experience that requires close attention. I don’t want to spend three hours in my room letting anger dissipate every time my mom crosses a line, but that is necessary for me to do if I want to move forward toward forgiveness and peace.

Anger is a difficult beast to tame. Letting go of it in small pieces over what can be a long period of time is necessary. Every piece we drop lightens us, making the next step forward a little easier.

“Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later.” ― Alice Munro

I think reconciliation is the best I can do in my situation. My mom still tries to manipulate and control me. I can’t trust her.

I’m not sure I can love her. She has taken too much away from me.

Reconciliation acknowledges our common humanity; our flaws, our strengths and our willingness to move forward despite our weaknesses. It allows us to connect while maintaining boundaries. It allows us to move forward while respecting our differences.

Reconciliation is the path forward when we can’t come to an agreement, but still care on some level. We can be free from attachment, guilt and abuse without going all in. We can agree to disagree with a mutual level of respect.

I know the time will come when my parents and I will part. I want that time to be peaceful and respectful. They didn’t mean to harm me, how can I fault them for that?

Forgiveness and anger are tricky partners. We need to find a middle ground that lets us stand up for ourselves but recognizes the humanity in the other. We’re all flawed and we need to acknowledge that.

Maybe we shouldn’t be connected to the people who abused us. That’s a very reasonable and valid stance to take. It’s also an individual decision that should not be judged.

Right now, I’m choosing the road to reconciliation. Maybe it’s not the easiest choice for me to make, but it’s what I’m going to do. I want to find peace.

The quickest path to peace for me, I think, is through reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s a tough row to hoe, but it’s the way I want to go. I want to take the high road.

I am choosing to honor the anger I still feel, letting it transform into pain and pass through me. This is my path to healing and forgiveness.

Recognizing the humanity in those who have done us wrong is the shortest path to peace. It may not be right for everybody though. We all have to make that difficult decision by figuring out where that line rests.

Making that decision in a manner that is true to ourselves, no matter what that decision is, is the best way for finding peace within ourselves.

Getty Image via Grandfailure

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