When my dad died, I knew something had changed forever.
My dad was very open with his love. One of his favorite things to say when I’d made a mess of things was, “You can always come home.” He’d send me a hand-written letter when things were tough, often quoting scripture, but always with a supportive, guiding message that reminded me of what was really important in life. And I knew how his eyes would light up when he saw me, especially when I no longer lived in the same city as him and my mom. I’m sure my brothers saw that same light.
I know my husband loves me, but let’s face it, I’d have to be gone a long time before his eyes lit up. We’ve been together way too long.
My dad’s love was probably the purest love I’d ever experienced.
I was very lucky.
As a therapist, I’ve heard hundreds of stories of children, now adults, who suffered terribly at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for them. And yet, there’s a frequent tendency to somehow discount the pain of what was their “childhood.” They didn’t actually ever get to be children, but had to grow up almost instantaneously in order to handle day after day of being ridiculed, demeaned, abused, or forgotten.
“I can’t remember too much of it. It’s a blur. What I do remember is all the fighting.”
“I just did what I had to do. I tried to stay out of his way when he was drunk.”
“One day my mom would be so sweet, but the next she’d come after me with a vengeance.”
“I didn’t tell anyone, but I was always hungry.”
Healing isn’t about going back and blaming parents for whatever their shortcomings were. Blame will likely leave you stuck, paralyzed in bitterness, anger or even fear. You risk still living in the past. And you may walk around with a huge chip on your shoulder. The world will owe you for the crummy childhood you had.
Healing is about acknowledgment.
I worked with a great big burly guy several years ago named James. He had terrible obsessive-compulsive disorder, and would drive himself crazy feeling compelled to do things in a certain, rigid order, day after day living out the same ritual. He also had a bad temper, and had been violent at times when arguing with family members. He was a bit unsure about therapy, but he was willing to try.
Medication helped him immensely with his OCD, as well as some changes we worked on in his daily behavior and in his thinking. But it wasn’t until he revealed being sexually abused by a grandfather in his third or fourth session, that quick tears came into his eyes as he made the connection between his anger and the abuse.
“I never thought about it like that. I don’t want anyone to mess with me.”
For the first time in his life, James was understanding the connection between who he’d become as an adult, and his childhood. It seemed so simple, but he’d completely discounted the damage that had been done to him.
There are many people who do the same thing.
Your past doesn’t imprison you. But understanding and dealing with its impact helps you make connections that can free you from its pain.
So how do you heal from the hurts of the past?
1) Acknowledge the reality of what happened.
How do you acknowledge the past? It’s allowing yourself to realize how growing up within your circumstances, both good and bad, affected you. Staying in a place of denial or discounting the impact of an abusive or neglectful home will only keep you emotionally stuck. You’ll be much more likely to act out the consequences of it, without realizing what you’re doing.
Here’s an example. My husband and I used to fight about money. Then one day, he said to me, “Do you realize you’re treating me like your dad treated your mom?” I was stunned at first, but then realized he was exactly right. I so didn’t want to live out my mother’s more submissive, 1950’s role with money, that I was overcompensating. A lot.
Acknowledgment shed light on what I hadn’t seen until then. It put the pieces together. Call it insight. Call it understanding. Whatever.
We’ve never fought about money since.
2) Have compassion for yourself.
If a child ran up to you, and had a bleeding gash in his arm, you wouldn’t say, “Just be glad it’s not broken.” You’d help them stop the bleeding and give them comfort.
That’s what compassion is. Seeing pain, having empathy for what’s causing it, and then trying to do something about it. You can do that for yourself. That’s not self-pity. That’s not wallowing. In fact, it’s likely to lead you to more quickly move on, and not wallow at all.
3) Allow your pain to surface.
This is harder than it sounds. James came back the next session, and said, “I never thought I’d cry in front of someone. But I feel better.”
Feeling all of your emotions can be tough. You may be totally walled off from painful emotions. You may tell yourself that it’s not enjoyable to feel sad or angry, or you may actually fear feeling pain. You may have become accustomed to either not feeling anything, or staying stuck in one emotion or the other; perhaps you’re more comfortable with anger, and everything makes you mad. Or you remain afraid, and worry all the time.
Risking change – risking feeling something that’s been denied can be scary, but very rewarding.
4) Reveal what you experienced to someone you trust.
Learning how to soothe your own emotional pain gives you safety that perhaps you never had as a child. Don’t forget that there are people who want to understand, and help you.
Whether it’s your partner, a good friend, or a therapist, there’s someone who’ll be willing to listen — but only if you reach out. The trust that you’ll be loved for all of who you are?
It’s a wonderful gift to give, and to receive.
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