Forgiving a toxic parent. Oof. This is a big one, gang.

Here’s the thing: there is a very clear message that deserves forgiveness and a commitment to move forward in a relationship. When you are ready.

The Apology

That message contains three things:

  • a sincere apology
  • full accountability for the action or inaction taken that was hurtful or harmful (a little gravitas here goes a long way)
  • a commitment to do better in the future

An apology that contains all three of those elements deserves respect.

That said, you might not be ready to forgive. And that is ok.

You get to take your time. Your time to forgive might not come. The offense or abuse you suffered might have been so egregious that you just can’t do it. Let’s sit with that for a moment.

Heavy, right?

People say that forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. It’s not really for that other person. That’s some truthy shit.

The opposite of letting go is holding on, and when we don’t forgive, we are stuck with it. “It” being all that dark, sticky, nasty muck. Negative emotions of anger, righteousness, hurt, the desire for revenge or vindication all stick around inside of us.

What happens to all of that stuff? It makes us sick. Physically sick.

Is that parent who hurt you during the early part of your life worth sacrificing the latter parts to as well? Probably not.

The Un-Apology

If you didn’t get the three part apology, or you get something more like “Sorry about what happened in the past! Happy Birthday!!!” it can feel disorienting. Was that a real apology?

Sure didn’t feel like one.

When we don’t get the apology we deserve we have to find our own closure. This is a process in and of itself. We’ll be exploring this more in the upcoming course The Father Fix.

One of my favorite people is Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach. Here is a meditation by her on the topic of forgiveness, for those of you that are ready:

Forgiveness IS NOT Forgetting

When I was about nine years old I was enrolled in Hebrew school. It was one of the few elements of my Jewish heritage that required my active participation.

One day our teacher brought up the topic of the Holocaust. As a sensitive child the Holocaust always aroused strong feelings of injustice in me. It helped me to understand the importance and meaning of being Jewish in a largely Christian identified country.

“Should we forgive and forget?” she asked the class.

I had always heard that forgiving and forgetting was “the right thing to do.” My hand shot up and my spine straightened as I sat up in my chair and concisely stated my case. “Yes, I think we should.”

What came next was enlightening. Several other students rebutted my answer and gave some pretty compelling reasons not to forget.

Reasons like genocide.

I slumped back into my chair. The weight of their words hit me hard. They were right. Forgetting could cost us our lives.

We have evolved to remember things. If we didn’t remember things, we would not be alive as a species today.

Knowing how to craft a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my three boys, that bears can eat me, and that my husband loves back-rubs when he is stressed are good bits of information to have on hand.

Our memories keep us safe from harm. They are there for a damn fine reason.

Moving Forward: Alone or Together

I think we can forgive and even move forward in a relationship that was once unhealthy with one special ingredient: Boundaries. More on that later.

Also, you can choose to forgive someone and decide not to pursue an ongoing relationship with them.

It doesn’t mean you’re “holding a grudge” or being stubborn. It means you have assessed the value of their apology, un-apology, or non-apology, the remaining desire you have to be connected to that parent, and the importance of having peace of mind.

Anyone who has suffered from parental abuses knows that dealing with a toxic parent’s rages, dismissiveness, or lack of consideration can trigger a cascade of memories, feelings, sensations, and emotions that can feel like a tidal wave and take days or weeks to recover from.

Is that relationship worth having if there is nothing positive in it that compensates for all of that grief and negativity?

You get to decide for yourself.

Figuring out what is right for you and making a choice about forgiving a toxic parent or not is something only you can do. It can be a years or decades long process. It’s ok to take your time with this one.

Where are you in your process?