Should You Forgive a Physically Abusive Parent?
Were you a victim of...
You can be hit on the face or over the head.
You can be hit with a belt or some other weapon of discipline.
You can get things thrown at you.
You can get pushed, shoved, slapped or pinched.
You can be smacked around once in a while or be your parent's regular punching bag.
But no matter how you're hit, you're hit in your solar plexus - the center of emotional stability, will, joy of life and ego-identity.
What Happens When You Hit a Girl
When you hit a girl, two things happen: she will likely blame herself (deep down), and she will have serious relationship issues with the opposite sex when she grows up. She will subconsciously choose abusive partners, and distrust men in general (assuming her abuser was a male).
Because of the way girls are socialized, we are trained to put blame on ourselves. Even when we're angry, we're not allowed to express that anger, so it often turns inward. This type of anger is a lot more dangerous than regular anger because it can go unnoticed for years, while a girl is 'punishing' herself through drugs, starvation, self-mutilation and other issues that can be masked.
What Happens When You Hit a Boy
When you hit a boy, the reality of it is, he is likely to become an abuser himself.
He is likely to have problems at school - getting into fights, acting aggressively without provocation, not paying attention in class, losing interest in things he used to enjoy, and becoming friends with boys of similar disposition.
If a boy doesn't receive help, he is also likely to become an abusive parent since he will see violence as the norm, and will probably say things like: "I was hit as a child, and I turned out fine" or "Some kids just need discipline". This type of man is far from fine, or even psychologically adequate.
Being hit is bad enough; but physical abuse at the hands of the person who's supposed to love and protect you is simply devastating.
I know this because I was hit as a child.
It wasn't a regular thing - my father reserved it only for 'special occasions' (and only for me - he never touched my younger brother), but it was enough to distort my self-image into something unrecognizable. At times it seems that I'm still putting the pieces back together.
Something happens to you the first time you're hit. Your whole world changes in a flash. One moment you're a happy inquisitive child, the next - you're a depressed insecure pre-teen who lost a sense of safety in the world, perhaps, permanently.
I was about 10 the first time it happened. I don't remember it very well, only the overwhelming feelings of shame and anger that eventually fused together and turned into a pervasive slow-burning sadness, something psychologists refer to as 'cold depression.' However, I have to recount the episode briefly.
Above all, my father is a man of principle.
He was helping me with my geometry homework, but he didn't believe in just giving me the answers. He wanted me to learn, but he had no patience for it. His idea of teaching was testing me with series of questions. It was like an ambush exam with an extremely irritable teacher. I didn't know the answers, I was tired and mumbling something defensive. At some point my father jumped up in his chair and slapped me across the face. The next thing I remember is lying on the floor with the left side of my face burning. I didn't even feel the pain, only the shocking horror of the moment. It happened again, and again, I'm not sure how many times.
The last time it happened, I was about 16, and I ran away from home. I grabbed the essentials - cigarettes, makeup, a book - and snuck out of the house at night, like a criminal. I took a train to my grandmother’s (I didn't have anywhere else to go), and before I even got to her house, I saw my father's car approaching. He walked up to me and without saying a word knocked me off my feet with a powerful blow to the face. I remember lying on the ground, my palms touching rough cold surface of the asphalt road. My glasses broke, I couldn't see clearly. I noticed something shiny on the side of the road, a few meters away. It was my earring. I was lying there blind and deaf, and then I heard: "Get up. Get into the car." We drove home in silence, and we never spoke of it again.
- How To Forgive Yourself and Others by Louise Hay
When you forgive yourself and forgive others, you are indeed free.
So Should You Forgive an Abusive Parent?
There are two schools of thought on forgiving those who've done you wrong:
- forgive and forget, you'll be better off
- you can't forgive the unforgivable, so just move on.
I agree that forgiveness can be healing and empowering, but only when it's sincere. I don't believe in 'forgiveness' that comes from guilt or outside pressure. Sometimes you're just not willing to forgive. Maybe the pain is so familiar, it's almost comforting. Maybe you want to 'punish' that person by not forgiving them. Maybe you're waiting to be asked for forgiveness. And there's nothing wrong with that.
But I wouldn't hold my breath. In my experience, abusers rarely, if ever, are self-aware enough to recognize the harm of their ways and to ask to be forgiven. In the case of parental abuse, it's even less likely because it would mean admitting they were bad parents, and who is willing to do that?
My father never acknowledged the abuse, let alone asked for forgiveness. In his mind, he was a good parent because he was a good provider; everything else is details.
For many years I carried on the best I could, from one bad relationship to the next, struggling with issues of self-esteem, depression, anxiety and a fear of speaking out. I felt like I was never good enough. I moved to another country and severed ties with my family. I blamed myself, I blamed my family, and even more so I blamed my father for everything that went wrong in my life. And I was angry. So angry.
But at some point I felt like the hurt and the anger are incredibly heavy burdens to bare, and they're holding me back. It's like trying to climb a mountain with a backpack full of rocks. I was suffocating under the weight of my childhood and I needed to be free.
Not only that, blaming my father for everything that went wrong was a very disempowering experience. I realized that I used it as a cop-out, a way for me to avoid taking responsibility for my own life. I needed to take my power back, and forgiveness seemed like the way to do that.
I acknowledge that my parents are imperfect, and they did the best they could. I forgive them for any harm that they knowingly or unknowingly did to me. I forgive myself for holding a grudge against them. And as I embrace true forgiveness, I open my life up to light, laughter and joy.
Two Things to Keep in Mind
- Forgiveness is an act of kindness to yourself. Emotional pain, when stored for long periods of time, has a tendency to fester, and to sip through every aspect of your life. You're not even thinking about it, yet you're acting from it, and your life starts going in a certain direction. Your abuser doesn't suffer from it; you do.
- Most likely, the abuser was a victim of abuse. Although that doesn't justify the abuse, it can help you understand how they've become this way, so you can have enough compassion to forgive them.
My father's parents, my grandparents - God bless them and may they rest in peace, were simple uneducated people. My grandfather was often 'away' (read: in prison), leaving my grandma to raise two boys by herself and to make a living. When he'd come home, he liked to spend time binge drinking and chasing my grandma with an axe. My grandma would run to the neighbors screaming: "Help, he's killing me!", he'd get arrested, and the cycle would start over. Knowing what my father went through as a child helped me see how this damaging behavior shaped him and, unfortunately, desensitized him to domestic violence.
Is There Any Way to Undo the Damage?
Three decades, countless books and one Psychology degree later, I am still asking that question.
I don't think there is a way to completely undo the damage, but you can find healing and forgiveness if you seek to find it, and you might even help someone along the way.
Jungian archetype of the Wounded Healer describes someone who uses his 'wounds' to help others. In fact, only by going through something yourself can you truly know what others are going through, and have the compassion that can potentially extend into service.
I dedicate this to all the kids who are or were abused, be it physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse. I know what a scary and lonely experience it is. But it doesn't have to be a defining moment of your life.
I also dedicate this to my father who was an obvious inspiration for this article. I love you, and I am trying my best to forgive you.
And thank you to billybuc, a.k.a. Bill Holland, who'd encouraged me to use more of my 'voice' in my writing.
© 2015 Lana Zakinov