Forgive Your Parents, Heal Yourself: How Understanding Your Painful Family Legacy Can Transform Your Life

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9780684824062: Forgive Your Parents, Heal Yourself: How Understanding Your Painful Family Legacy Can Transform Your Life

A uniquely effective guide to parent-forgiveness can aid adults in finding the strength to finally release oppressive anger and begin the personal healing process, showing how to understand a parent's pain and rebuild the capacity for non-recriminatory family relationships. 20,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Barry Crosskopf, M.D., is in private practice in Seattle and is a clinical instructor at the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry. He is active in community medicine with difficult-to-treat patients, the underprivileged, and the under-served. He lives in Seattle with his wife, therapist and author Wendy Lustbader.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

WHEN LIFE DOESN'T WORK

Taking Another Look at Our Life Stories

We weave our memories into narrative, from which we construct our identifies.
Leonard Shengold, Soul Murder

Parents want to do well by their children; those who harm their children distort their own hope and intent. To grow beyond the limitations of a painful childhood, we must try to understand the parents who hurt us. But to see our parents clearly, we must acknowledge their love for us and recognize our effect on them as well as our debt to them.

When parents act in harmful ways toward their children, it is a sign that something harmful once happened to them. It is only by knowing their stories that we can understand rather than condemn them. What thwarted our parents as they raised us? Was it marital pressures, financial strain, an accident, illness, alcohol or drug addiction, ignorance? Even for parents whose conduct was the worst, there are explanations, reasons that would make sense of the harm they caused.

As children and adolescents, we do not understand the sacrifice of freedom, the anxiety, or the depth of love our parents feel for us. Parents want the best for their children and want to be their best for them. But parents have little time for reflection and even less for composure. There is a child to raise, a home to secure, and more work than can be accomplished in a day. There is little time to enjoy former activities and less time to give or receive emotional support from one's partner.

Unless we make a conscious effort to do otherwise, we tend to blame our parents for the problems we have, and accept judgments formed in childhood and adolescence. But as children, we did not have the experience to relate to our parents' world; as adolescents we had better things to do; and as adults, we do not automatically use our mature experience to perceive our parents differently. We each have a natural blind spot that gets in the way of seeing our parents accurately and keeps us from imagining the reality of their lives.

New understandings require that we reassess the past and see life through a new, more sharply focused lens. In the ordinary course of affairs, however, we hold on to our long-standing beliefs and dismiss whatever contradicts them. Radical challenges in how we view our lives are too unsettling. We are most comfortable viewing our parents according to the emotional bias we carry from childhood, and we interpret events to conform to the familiar feelings that bias us. This circularity of vision makes us overlook the obvious as we cling to attitudes we developed earlier in our lives.

In growing up, we learn our parents' stories in dribs and drabs, and we rarely question those stories in maturity. We string them together to create a diffuse narrative we think we understand. We take so much for granted, we do not notice that we have overlooked obvious gaps in our parents' stories, or have filled them in with faulty or incomplete assumptions. We hear our parents speak in shorthand: "My mother's father died when she was four." The emotional significance of such abbreviated stories is difficult to appreciate, yet we go on reciting what little we remember and presuming knowledge we do not have.

Ellen, thirty-six, was a clinical psychologist who had been in therapy for years before consulting me. I was surprised at how little she knew about her father. Despite being a therapist, her understanding of his story was poorly developed:

My father was an accountant. When he came home, he'd sit in front of the TV all night and read his paper. I don't think he ever wanted us kids. He barely spoke to us. I used to be angry about this, but I worked it out in therapy. I didn't have a brother and barely had a father; so I never learned much about being in intimate relationships with men. No one knows the whole story, but when he was a child, my father's father was shot. My grandmother didn't remarry; so I guess my father never had a father either. The only other trauma I know of was that he fought in the South Pacific during World War II.

Though Ellen had achieved an intellectual understanding of her father, she still saw him largely in terms of the hurt child she had been. From that perspective, Ellen believed that her father didn't want her.

As she spoke, I imagined Ellen's father as a little boy upon first hearing that his father had died. I wondered what it was like for him to go to school and then come home afterward. I also wondered what the next years had been like for his mother as she grieved. Had she protected Ellen's father from the truth, and had he protected his mother by holding in his own feelings? Ellen's father had no model to follow for being a father or for expressing masculine emotion.

Ellen's eyes flashed with recognition when I suggested that, emotionally, her father was a hurt boy who had never stopped crying for his own father, and that he was probably still a teenager when he was sent into the bloody combat of the South Pacific. How many close friends had he made? How many died? Did the war pound the last nail into the coffin of her father's silence?

As she joined my imaginings, Ellen started to feel compassion toward her father. After a few more sessions, she began reaching out more openly to him, and he responded. Shortly before his unexpected death, he wrote her a letter that she treasured.

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

So much of our family's history is hidden from us in plain sight. Later, as we learn more of our parents' truths, we are startled into new awareness with each revelation. We are amazed at how much we had previously overlooked or taken for granted.

Matthew, for instance, was in his late thirties before he actively imagined the reality of a story his mother had told him many times before. Until he imagined the feelings of his mother as a little girl, he had not really understood it:

My mom was an unhappy person. Nothing was ever right for her. She complained about everything. I hated the way she whined. Over and over, she told me the story of how she never got the bicycle her father had promised her. She was eight and he died before he could give it to her. I always thought, "So what. Get over it, for God's sake." But now my daughter is about the same age that my mom was when she lost her dad. I started thinking about it. I imagined my mom being eight, excited about her birthday, expecting a new bicycle; and then her father gets killed. It wasn't the bicycle. Her life was never the same or as happy afterwards. The bicycle represents the happiness she never got to have. I realized that my mom still talks about it in the same way she did when she was eight.

When Matthew first heard his mother tell her story, he could only hear an adult childishly complaining about an event long past. Reevaluating the story later as the father of an eight-year-old, however, Matthew began seeing his mother in a different light: he was able to react sympathetically to the hurt little girl she had been rather than with impatience for a whiny, immature adult.

THE IMPORTANCE OF UNREMEMBERED HISTORY

We identify with events we can remember directly, not with what is passed on to us secondhand. We minimize the importance of what we ourselves cannot remember. We relegate such stories to a nebulous and vaguely understood background and do not imagine the moments of intense life unfolding.

We do not emotionally relate to incidents that we are told happened to us as one-year-olds. Events that have been lost to memory are too removed to feel like a part of ourselves. A piece of our lives disappeared from consciousness, and we neither notice nor feel its absence.

It is the telling of our stories that fixes them in memory. You

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