At some point in your recovery you’ve probably heard the phrase:
Hurt people hurt people.
Behind it is the assumption that hurt people, if they weren’t hurting in some way, wouldn’t hurt other people.
I know I’ve bumped into this idea numerous times over the years through self-help books and 12 step meetings. But I’ve heard it the most from family and friends. It’s typically the response that they send my way when we’re talking about abusive childhoods.
I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately thanks to an email I got from a lovely GUC reader.
She grew up with a physically abusive father. And while she recognizes that he was also abused growing up, at this point in her recovery, she’s not sure how to empathize without invalidating her own experiences and feelings.
I’ve struggled with the same dilemma. Out of all of my parents, my mom was the most abusive. Even though I know that she was abused and neglected by her father growing up, I’ve often struggled with what to do with that information.
Does that mean I have to forgive her? Does that mean I have to null and void every shitty thing she’s ever done? Do I have to care that she was abused? Shouldn’t she have known better by the time she had me?
If you can relate to what’s going on here and you wonder how to balance an abusive parent’s past without invalidating your own, this post is for you.
Since every family and situation is different I’m not going to pretend that I have the perfect answer for you. But what I can do is give you a few ideas to consider, from my own experiences, that will hopefully help you figure out what’s best for you and to find balance. Most of all I want you to know, regardless of what your situation is, that you’re not alone.
Once you’ve had a chance to read, I’d love to hear your take on today’s topic in the comment section. Have you wrestled with the same dilemma? How have you found balance? Has the idea that hurt people hurt people helped you find peace of mind?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section.
Remember, your voice, experiences and insights are vital to this community. And what you have to share is not only unique but it may be exactly what someone else needs to read. And that someone could be you.
I’ll see you next Tuesday;)
P.S. If you found today’s post valuable why not share it with a friend?
P.P.S. A quick heads up before you dive in – please be aware that the advice and suggestions I’m sharing here are coming directly from my point of view and experience. You may not agree and some of what you read may not apply to you. That’s totally fine and that’s why it’s so important for you to add your thoughts and insights in the comment section. YOU are the most important part of this conversation!
#1 There’s Just No Excuse
Personally speaking, I don’t believe that your parent’s past, whether it was abusive or not, belongs in the conversation about any abuse they inflicted on you.
Bottom line is that your parents are your parents and it was and perhaps still is their responsibility to protect and care for you.
This is the unspoken promise that people who decide to have children agree to the moment they decide to have children.
As a parent, it’s their responsibility to get the help, support, guidance and even therapy they may need to deal with whatever past abuse or neglect could impair their ability to parent.
When parents fail to take responsibility for their abusive actions and instead blame their pasts or childhoods for their behavior, it ends up doing you more harm than good.
As Alice Miller in her book Banished Knowledge: Facing Childhood Injuries says:
This notion that parents must never be blamed no matter what they have done, has caused untold damage.
When a parent says to a child or an adult child that they’ve abused, “I didn’t have it easy growing up either.” Or “I had it rough too,” they may not realize it but what they’re doing is leveling the playing field between themselves and the child.
But what they’re forgetting is that they’re the parent and the child is still the child. It’s not fair to expect that child to be able to relate to what they’re saying. All the child knows is that they’ve been abused and in some way, whether emotionally, mentally or physically, they’re hurting.
What your parent experienced as a child and what they’ve done to you as a child are two separate issues and they should be treated that way.
Clearly, I have some strong opinions here and that’s because my parents have tried to diminish the damage they’ve done by leaning on the excuse of their abusive childhoods.
And for years, I allowed that to keep me from speaking my truth and acknowledging the pain I felt. I felt like I could either be angry with them for the abuse they dished out or I could feel sorry for them for the abuse they received, but I couldn’t be both at the same time. I felt, as an adult, that I had to choose. And in the process of choosing I lost sight of what I needed to recover.
Can you empathize with a parent’s past? I say absolutely, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your recovery or with them taking responsibility for the choices they made as your parent.
#2 Keep Your Recovery Separate
Unless you’ve agreed to do otherwise, in most cases it’s best to keep your recovery separate from your parent’s.
For example, after not speaking with my mom for years, I made contact with her. And I quickly noticed how often stories of her abusive childhood dominated the conversation. It was almost as if she was trying to bond with me, as a friend would, over our mutually abusive and dysfunctional childhoods.
But what she seemed to forget was that my childhood was screwed up because of her. So I couldn’t talk about my recovery and all that I’d been through without talking about her.
I was placed in an awkward situation where I felt bad for my mom but at the same time I was angry with her. It was a conflict that became an unwanted emotional distraction.
So, I learned my lesson, perhaps the hard way, to keep my recovery separate from my mom’s.
#3 Don’t Let Guilt Fool You
It’s completely understandable when you try to empathize with your parent’s abusive past that you’d feel guilty for being angry with them about yours.
Don’t let your guilt fool you. Don’t let your guilt talk you out of what you’ve been through and what you’ve experienced. Don’t let your guilt invalidate what you feel.
You are allowed to be upset with a parent over the abuse you experienced. And I’d say give yourself permission to feel the disappointment and pain you feel before you consider your parent’s experience.
This is your time to put you first. You are not responsible for fixing your parent’s past or healing it.
You are only responsible for you.
#4 Listen To What Your Gut Is Telling You
I know it may seem like I’m giving parents a hard time here but that’s not what I’m trying to do. As an ACOA and as someone who grew up with abusive parents I feel that there aren’t enough people that advocate for the child. And as a result, many parents are let off the hook for the damage they caused while the child (now adult) is expected to just get over it and move on.
Now while I do believe that you can empathize with a parent, while holding them responsible for their behavior, I don’t think it’s something that we should be expected to do. At least not until we’re ready and willing to and that’s what this last point is all about.
When dealing with a parent with an abusive past, always listen to your gut. If you sense that they’re using their painful experiences to deflect attention away from you and to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions, trust that feeling.
For example, my dad frequently used his dysfunctional childhood to deflect attention away from his missteps as a parent. Over the years, he placed his experiences above mine and as a result there was no room left over to talk about the emotional abuse and neglect that happened on his watch.
It took me a long time to recognize this style of manipulation and to understand how this tactic helped him to avoid taking responsibility. And because I was too busy feeling sorry for him and what he’d been through I lost site of my own experiences. In this scenario, empathizing with him caused me to invalidate what I’d been through.
All along, my gut was telling me that something was off about these exchanges but because he’s my dad and I felt bad for him, the message got lost in translation.
So the point here is this, always listen to your gut. If you feel your parent is using their experiences in a manipulative way, then you may need to put your foot down. If you’re just not ready to take on the weight of their pain because you’re too busy lifting your own, respect that need.
And never rule out the option to sit down with your parent and have an honest conversation about the conflict between their past and your present. I realize that for some of us that may not be possible to do but it’s always an option in any relationship.
But always remember that you’re the child. You don’t have to invalidate your experience in order to empathize with their’s but if you have to choose between the two, always feel correct in putting yourself first.