Forgiving Family Members

When we are talking about forgiveness and self-forgiveness, what we’re really talking about is making a small decision to do better. We’re saying, “I’m going to try to be conscious of this. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m making a promise.” When someone accepts an apology, they’re accepting that promise, and they are saying that they have empathy about the behavior. This is especially important for recovery, because our addict’s monkey mind is so adept at shoving us into the spiral of regret and guilt and shame over and over again if we’re not careful.

I had a client, whom I’ll call Sam, whose parents are deeply religious. They were born in the old country, and he was born here. Sam is a great guy, and man, is he funny. He’s also gay, and his parents are very old school. So Sam, who is a funny, gay, recovering addict has parents who are constantly telling him that his sexuality is just a phase. They say, “You’ll change” or “You’re only twenty.” Or they’ll switch it up with, “When are you going to get married?” and “We want grandbabies.” At this point, he feels abandoned—worthless in the eyes of his parents. What is Sam to do with that kind of emotional chaos? The answer to this is to either cut his parents out of his life, have his parents in his life while constantly resenting them, or practice forgiveness and see his parents as they are while simultaneously setting up boundaries to protect himself moving forward.

Sam and I talked for a long time about his options. In the end, my biggest question for Sam was this: “Are your parents going to change?” He said he didn’t think so. “So,” I asked him, “what can you do to make you feel okay for the long haul?”

I could see him thinking through the options, and I knew the moment he chose to accept his parents and forgive them, even though they could not accept him. I told him that you don’t have to say, “I forgive you for being close-minded people who don’t get that I’m a human being.” Forgiveness can be changing the way you react to others—the way that you relate to them. It doesn’t mean that Sam has to continually subject himself to his parents’ disapproval. Sam will need to set really healthy boundaries to shield himself from their disapproval in order to live a life he’s comfortable with.

Giving and asking for forgiveness can be hard when it involves family members—“blood is thicker” and all of that. There’s this extra expectation that you should just always be okay with everything. But it takes a little bit of forgiveness every day.

With my dad, because I have forgiven him, I accept the past for what it is; and to me, that acceptance and that forgiveness don’t mean that what he did was okay. It means that I can be okay. I am able to talk about my past, and in doing so, remember some of the hilarious stuff we used to do and acknowledge that he was funny and even kind—the good memories. He also abused me, and there’s no changing that. That is what happened. Full stop. Even so, these two realities can coexist through forgiveness.

Asking for (or giving) forgiveness is often linked with making up for the mistake or the damage that was done—in other words, making amends. Clean up your side of the street as best as you can— clean up the things that fall to you to clean—and then live a life that shows you’ve learned from your choices and that you will do your best to not cause harm again.

When you’ve actively forgiven yourself, there’s a physical feeling— an almost spiritual weightlessness that makes you feel a sense of lightness of being. But self-forgiveness takes a while to get to, and until you do, you just have to bear the weight, even when it feels unbearable sometimes. Grace can help you do that, if you let it.

How do we really gain meaningful forgiveness? By making it tangible, by doing better. Doing better is a lifestyle change based on living a life of integrity and trustworthiness. By living a changed life, we show those we have caused pain that we have changed because we value them. We also show ourselves that we have worth.

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