Q: How can I overcome the bitterness I have about the way my parents treated me growing up? After all these years, I continue to struggle with negative feelings about my mother and father. I remember only their harsh criticism, dysfunctional parenting and unloving attitude. I especially don't want these memories to affect my relationship with my own kids.
Jim: According to our staff counselors, the struggle you're facing is probably more common than you'd think. Many people who were wounded as children by their parents' attitudes, words and actions end up carrying around a great deal of anger and bitterness. You've taken an important first step in the right direction by recognizing that you need to deal with these emotions.
In the long run, feelings of bitterness only harm the person who harbors them, not the one who inflicted the pain in the first place. You're also correct in being concerned that the resentment you feel toward your parents could have a negative impact on your relationship with your own children, particularly during the teen years. It's best to resolve this internal struggle before it begins to affect the rest of your family.
While it may sound cliche, the best way you can do this is by learning and choosing to forgive. Ultimately, it's not about your parents -- it's about facilitating your own personal healing. Note that forgiving and loving someone is an act of the will, not the emotions. You may never experience warm and tender feelings toward your mom and dad. But you can choose to love them unconditionally. (As a Christian, I believe there's a critical spiritual component to this.) And you won't be able to move ahead with your own life until you give up your right to be angry at them for making your childhood miserable.
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If your parents are still living, you may want to consider setting up a time to meet with them to discuss your feelings. Of course, there may be some situations where this wouldn't be advisable -- use discretion. If your spouse is supportive, it would be a good idea to bring them along. Tell your mom and dad how much they've hurt you and how the memory of their words and actions continues to cause you pain. Keep your emotions under control, but be straightforward and honest. Explain that your purpose is not to hurt them in return, but to find release from the negative effects of your memories. This will take a tremendous amount of courage on your part, but it can be an important part of gaining the freedom you're seeking.
Finally, try to develop some empathy for your parents. Ask yourself what it was about their personal backgrounds that made them treat you the way they did. Find out what their childhoods were like. It's likely that they, too, grew up with harsh, unloving parents -- that you're just on the receiving end of a problem that spans several generations. If you have a chance to talk with them, try to ask some carefully considered questions about their past. If they're no longer living, you may be able to locate a member of the extended family who can provide you with the insights you need. A deeper understanding of your parents' backgrounds and motives can give you a broader perspective on their behavior. This certainly won't excuse the mistreatment you received at their hands, but it may help you release some of your bitterness.
As you begin to work your way through this process, you may find yourself in need of some outside assistance. Our staff counselors would be happy to help; feel free to call them at 855-771-HELP (4357).