How To Forgive Your Toxic Parents…Even If They Don’t Deserve It
The trauma that abusive parents inflict on children can impede their quality of life, which is why it is important to learn forgiveness, for yourself.
Most of us (even those who are members of relatively functional families) know that not all families are a force for relative positivity. Pun intended.
Put another way, some of us came into this world with one (or even two) parents who were in some way abusive, neglectful, or otherwise terrible. Translation: while no parent is perfect, some of us do have bad parents. And some of us have parents that are simply unforgivable. Right?
My abusive parent didn’t want to reconcile
Personally, I grew up with a father who was very psychologically abusive, who enjoyed making games of guilt, shame, and fear. Plus, he physically abused my mom. On occasion, he also got physical with my siblings and I. Fortunately, though the damage was done, my family is now long past this collective stage of our lives.
Although I tried to reconcile with my father as an adult, I was not successful; he was not interested in having me in his life. Sometimes, our parents have demons we will never come to fully understand, and that’s just the way it is.
Whether or not you’ve made efforts to reconcile with your problematic parent(s), and whether or not you were successful, it must be said: forgiving them is necessary for your own forward motion and healing.
But your forgiveness must never be contingent upon whether or not your parents choose to evolve as human beings—or whether or not they “deserve” it. No, forgiving is all about you. Think of it as a selfish (yet very positive) act that allows you to get over past crap, past trauma.
Just because I never reconciled with my father doesn’t mean I didn’t forgive him. I did. For years, I held onto rage that was directed at him and fueled by all the controlling, manipulative, delusional, and downright cruel things he did.
My father liked to take out his anger on those with less “power” than him—to him this meant his kids, his wife, and even our family pets—he once kicked our dog down the stairs for no reason at all.
And he would regularly cook the one meal he knew I hated for the sole reason that I hated it. He would then force me to eat it, sometimes to the point that I would puke. Once, he made me eat that too—no joke. It’s a miracle I never had an eating disorder, though to this day I’m sure my digestive issues took their root back then.
Yet—I still forgave my father because it was what was best for me.
Even if it seemed unforgivable, you can find a way
For those of us shaking our heads at the thought of forgiving unforgivable, completely un-self-aware parents, there’s good news: forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean you ever have to see them again. It just means liberating your soul so you can learn to prosper without unnecessary weight or toxic hate dimming your light or causing you health problems.
If you know your anger toward your parent(s) is decreasing your quality of life, perhaps you can learn from the following 4 ways I managed to find forgiveness in myself:
1. Acknowledge and accept all the reasons you’re angry
I mean it: spell them all out to yourself, nice and clear. I recommend writing them down. For instance, I was angry at my father for making my childhood scary and anxiety-filled, but I was also angry at him for refusing to evolve and be in my life as an adult; I actually felt abandoned by him as well.
Once you have your list, keep it around for as long as you want—until you’re ready to let it go. You might stick it on your wall in a prominent spot that forces you to look at it—like above your toilet, or on your fridge.
The more you plainly face the reasons behind some of the deepest feelings shaping who you are, the easier it will eventually be to let them go. You may experience a number of intense emotions when facing these reasons head on.
I suggest feeling your anger and your grief rather than burying them. The whole point is to dig them up. When you’re ready, have a little ceremony where you burn the paper, along with any other belongings you have that represent the feelings you want to release.
2. Write a letter
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I do find the written word has its power at times like these. I recommend writing your parent(s) a letter expressing everything you feel. Steer clear of accusations no matter how warranted you feel they are.
Stick to “I” statements rather than “you” statements. This letter is not a letter you will send (unless you want to), but is largely meant for you to release old, stuck emotions which are no longer serving you—like blame.
3. Get physical
Old emotions don’t just get stuck in our heads and hearts—they get stuck in our bodies too. To this day, even though I long ago forgave my father and do not feel resentment or accusation bubbling up anymore, anxiety is a hard habit to kick, as it often seems to ‘dwell’ in the cells of our body.
In order to help extract these feelings from your body so you don’t end up compromising your health, I recommend solo sports like running, cross country skiing, or jumping on a trampoline, but whatever speaks to you will do. This is a good way not to let old feelings fester. Sweat it out, quite literally. This one will only work once you’ve chosen to forgive, however.
4. Seek therapy (any type)
Therapy comes in many different forms. A handful of talk therapy sessions worked for me, but then that was enough. Talking to close friends, getting deep into my creative writing (I got me some nice, disturbing material!), and finding endless ways to nurture my sense of humor have all been key ways of maintaining my act of forgiveness by finding continuous ways to love myself.
Bottom line: forgiving a parent is ultimately about learning to love yourself when the person(s) who raised you did a questionable job of it. But hey, you came out on the other side. YOLO, for real. You got this—it’s all you.
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