When we’re children growing up with a critical parent, it’s normal to experience fear, false guilt, and repressed anger. It’s also normal for these feelings to eventually express themselves in the form of rage and regret. But once we reach adulthood, there comes a time when the healthy expression of anger runs its course and only one thing can continue to fuel the fire: blame. Fortunately, as the Kirschenbaum’s know, we do have another choice: forgiveness.
After years of criticism that eats away at self-worth, anger serves an invaluable purpose. It’s an opportunity to express all the pain we denied throughout childhood. Anger gives the pain a voice. Anger makes it real. In fact, anger can feel so empowering that it’s an emotion we may not want to let go.
“If I don’t feel angry, I’ll feel weak, vulnerable. If I let go of my anger, what will I have left?”
Rather than risk losing what may be the first sense of control we’ve ever known, we may hold on to anger in the only way any of us can. We blame our critical parent for hurting us. They, in turn, may blame themselves, or they may minimize the impact of their behavior (i.e. deny it was a problem at all). Either way, it serves no purpose in furthering the ultimate goal of transforming the fractured parent-child relationship.
Only when we choose to stop blaming another person can we discover another means of empowerment that actually feels good. I’m talking, of course, about forgiveness. I touch upon this very thing in my book Hope and Healing From Emotional Abuse: “Forgiveness returns you to a state of being in control. No one can bestow your forgiveness on another person but you. You are in total control of your own power to forgive.”
It’s not easy to forgive someone for hurting us. But unlike continued anger that requires a death grip on the pain of the past, forgiveness is a surrender that holds hope for the future.
All of this begs the same question explored in Gayle Kirschenbaum’s Look At Us Now, Mother!: “What does it take to find forgiveness?”
As the film seems to suggest, finding forgiveness starts with trying to understand where a critical parent is coming from. With that usually comes the realization that they never had any malicious intent. In fact, a critical parent likely believes their criticism serve an important purpose, the core of which is to help their child avoid pain or difficulty they have experienced or that they fear experiencing themselves.
None of this is to say we should (or could) forget the past. On the contrary, forgiveness is the ultimate means of acknowledging our pain, as the act of forgiving validates that there truly is something to forgive.