When my dad died, I knew something had changed forever.
He’d been very open with his love. One of his favorite things to say when I’d make a mess of things was, “You can always come home.” He’d send me hand-written letters when things were tough, often quoting scripture, always with a supportive, guiding message that reminded me of what was really important in life. I could always anticipate 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.
In fact, my dad’s love was probably the purest love I’d ever experienced. I was very lucky.
What if you weren’t so lucky… what if your parents hurt you?
I’ve heard hundreds of stories of those who suffered terribly as children at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for them. Maybe you were never an innocent child, but had to adapt in order to handle the onslaught of being ridiculed, demeaned, abused, or forgotten. Maybe you absorbed the message you weren’t important and have struggled for years with esteem or worth. Or maybe your parent leaned on you and rather than receiving guidance from them, you had to be the adult.
“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. She always told me it was my fault.”
“I couldn’t tell anyone, but my brothers and I were always hungry. I cooked when I could find food.”
“She knew the abuse was happening, but she didn’t want to leave her boyfriend – so she just ignored it.”
There’s justifiable anger and blame that comes from these tragic situations.
There’s no doubt about it. It was crummy. And unfair — maybe even cruel and intentionally hurtful. But staying in blame will likely leave you stuck, paralyzed in bitterness, distrust, and even rage.. You can even think that the world owes you for the crummy childhood you had.
How do you heal from unhealthy parenting?
Healing is first about acknowledgment.
I worked with a great big, burly guy several years ago; I’ll call him 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 more than unsure about therapy. But he could recognize that things were getting worse – and the very people he loved, he was hurting.
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.
I quietly asked, “Did you ever consider that your abuse is connected with your anger today?” He looked at me, a little confused at first, then with the light of recognition coming into his eyes, “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 his childhood and who he’d become as an adult. It seemed so simple, but he’d completely discounted the damage that had been done to him.
Discounting your pain doesn’t disempower its impact.
There are many people who do the same thing as James. You may believe that if you deny or discount the hurt you endured as a child that you’ve got things under control. However, it doesn’t work that way.
So how do you heal from the hurts of the past so that you can have a more healthy today?
The four healing steps: Acknowledgement, Compassion, Connection and Revelation
1) Acknowledge the reality of what happened.
Acknowledgement means allowing yourself to realize how growing up within your circumstances, both good and bad, affected you. If you acknowledge it, you see it. And then you’re much less likely to blindly act out the consequences of it.
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 care and comfort.
That’s what compassion is: seeing pain, having empathy for what’s causing it, and then try to do something about it. You can do that for yourself. It’s not self-self-pity, it’s not wallowing, it’s not “living in the past.” In fact, having compassion for yourself can help you quickly move on.
3) Make the connection between your past and your present; then 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. But as Terrance Real says in his book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, ‘”If you don’t feel it, you live it.”
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 – after you reach out.
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Originally published on July 16, 2017; updated and republished on June 17, 2023.