This post is on a tremendously difficult, sensitive, but important topic.

It is about the pain of having a childhood where our needs are not met, the anger we hold towards our parents, and what we can do about it.

It is particularly relevant if you have been through childhood trauma— caused either by neglect, abuse, or other toxic family dynamic.

This is important if you were born an emotional sensitive and intense child, into a family that did not understand you.

You will need this work if you are struggling with the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, personality disintegration, or Complex Trauma.

The goal here is not for us to harbour self-pity or to blame anyone, but simply to validate some of the painful experiences, and to look at what we can do now to release some of these emotional poisons that we have carried for far too long.

Times spent with our close family members, especially parents, are often the worst triggers for our intense negative emotions. Sometimes we wonder why we are triggered by them even when they are old, frail, live far away from us, and can no longer influence our lives. Even when we have successfully walked away and built a life outside of our home when in contact we can immediately revert back to feeling powerless and frustrated like we are five-year-old again, or that we start behaving like a raging, uncontrollable teenager.
Even when we are living in independent adult bodies, we can feel caged by these strong emotional turmoils.

Not everyone has been blessed with patient, loving, and attentive parents.  Yes, some parents are abusive and neglectful, yet there are many parents who even with the best intention, fail to meet the needs of naturally emotionally intense and sensitive children. Often, our parents did the best out of what they knew. Their limited capacity often finds its root in the limited parenting that they had.

In cases where our upbringing had been abusive, neglectful, or lacking in some ways, we may experience unease and even disgust when we interact with our parents. If there had not been a history of real emotional closeness, the interests that they now show in our lives can feel phoney. Blocked by their defences and our frustration, there can be little authenticity. Even if we love each other enormously on the deep down, real closeness may seem inaccessible.

Intellectually, we know that our parents cannot change who they are; Rationally, we know that the past is in the past. On many levels, we have forgiven them.  However, these do not change the emotional reality that is raw, heavy, reactive, uncontrollable and full of rage. Although we cannot go back in time to alter the actual reality, we do have the power to change our inner reality. This involves not just an intellectual shift but an emotional soul shift.

And this is not an easy or obvious process.

1. GRIEVING

The first and the most important step towards emotional freedom is grieving.

Because grieving involves pain, our default position is to run away. This is usually unconscious, but we would do anything just to avoid the deep pain of not having the childhood that we have always wanted. Rather, we use things like comfort eating, excessive drinking, self-medicating, and all sorts of sensation seeking and emotional- numbing behaviours to mask our deep longing for love, safety and belongingness.

This mourning process involves allowing ourselves to feel very sorry, and sad, for not having the ‘what might have been’. Often, people confuse this with self-pity or as a passive acceptance of defeat. Yet the opposite is true, for nothing is more heroic than facing reality head on.

Even with what they knew best, our parents’ limited capacities mean that they were not able to protect us from the abrasion of bullies, to celebrate our gifts, honour our intuition, or cherish our sensitivities.

Grieving is also not about blaming, but simply an acknowledging the tragic nature of events. If anger comes up in this process, we shall honour that too. Such anger is a healthy, appropriate response to an unjust situation — no children should have to go through such pain and loneliness.

Our  pains and insults were real, but these wounds are only toxic if they remain invisible. Once we have exposed them, acknowledged them, and call them for what they are, they gradually cease to have power over us.

Although we can never completely stop feeling sad for our lost childhood, the intensity of our pain and anger will gradually cease. In truth, grief is the best medicine for our pain; It is a poignant and sacred process that offers true liberation in the end.

  • ‘ In mindful grief, we become the landing strip that allows any feelings to arrive. Some crash, some land softly. Some harm is, but none harm us in a lasting way. We remain as they taxi away. We can trust that we will survive.’ – David Richo

2. TAKING MATTER INTO OUR OWN HANDS

Alongside grieving, to be truly healed we ought to embrace, nurse, and comfort the lost child that is inside of all of us. Love may not come naturally, especially if we had limited experience of it in our childhood. However, it is in our human potential to learn to take care of ourselves in a way that we have never been cared for before.

We may seek wisdom and guidance from therapists and spiritual teachers, from having loving adult friends and partners in our lives, and from loving others and gradually transferring that love onto ourselves.

Ultimately, we must learn to be our own best parent. This means we love ourselves fully – embracing both the good and the bad, not just our kindness but also our rage.

Remember, you are a survivor for being here today. You deserve to live without a heavy emotional baggage.

Perhaps you can take the hand of the little ones inside of you, and love her with all your heart. You can be that parent she never had, and tell her how much you see, hear, and love her. You may say to her: ‘I know that things are really difficult, and I am sorry’.

When you first get a glimpse of this ultimate and all-encompassing love, it is so compelling that it can bring tears to your eyes.  And because you know what it is like to live without love, you do not take it for granted but cherish each and every single moment of it. Although the old insults and loneliness had left a scar, you no longer need to walk around with an open wound.

3. SEEING REALITY AS IT IS

At some point on this path, we will notice a subtle but profound internal shift: We start to see the reality as it is now, and our parents as they are now. The more we grieve and let go of our version of the idealised parents, and the more we can be open to the present.

Suddenly we begin to see our parents’ vulnerabilities, weakness, and humanness.  This insight may bring about a temporary wave of sadness, as we must now fully acknowledge their limitations and their impact on us. However, it no longer feels threatening. This time, the sadness has a poignant but serene quality; we are grieving not just for ourselves, but the impermanent and imperfect nature of humanity itself.

Once we have fully grieved and have learned to take care of our inner wounds , we are now able to relate to our parents as they are now with no unconscious agenda. We can stay open to the experience itself. When such shift happens, we feel free; Like a heavy weight being lifted off our shoulders, we are no longer trapped by the unexplainable compulsion to alter the past or present reality. We can finally stop looking for, asking, and tirelessly seek the perfection that never existed.

4. RELATING WITH STRENGTH

With the strength of a self-assured adult, you now have the power to change the way you react to and interact with your parents.

If we continue to interact with our family members with the psyche of a wounded child, we inadvertently engineer the situation so that we are treated like one. In contrast, we can be grounded in our reality as a self- sustained adult, break away from the negative communication cycle and start an adult-to-adult conversation.

As a child, you could not escape the family home, but as an adult you have the ability to speak up, walk away, minimise contact.

At first, doing so feels uncomfortable. Your parents are likely to resist the change by criticizing or guilt-tripping you. But you can find a way to tell them you need to be treated with respect, and they can no longer influence important decisions in your life. More importantly, you need to believe in your ability to stand on your own two feet.

Sometimes, when we interrupt the longstanding and dysfunctional cycle of communication, change inevitably happens within the family system.  For example, when we start being assertive about what we can and cannot give, others will have to find a way to renegotiate boundaries with us, and to respect our basic rights.

Whilst our family members may or may not react in the way we have wished for, at least, we know that we have done our part. And that is all we can do.

***

In grieving, we allow our fantasies and idealisations to die off, just like the butterfly that sheds its cocoon. When we choose to face reality head on and stay present to what is, we are ready to perceive the goodness that is right in front of us.

“To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go.” –Tao Te Ching

THE BRIDGE OF GRIEF- LIBERATION IS ON THE OTHER SIDE

Intellectually, we knew that our parents would never be the loving, attentive and sensitive people that we had needed them to be.

Emotionally, we have been hurt and let down again and again.

And yet we keep trying. We compulsively seek what we would not get, and then we blame ourselves for the pain that occurs afterwards.

The grieve for what we never had can drive us into a deep depression.

For a while, we are plunged into the deep end of disbelief.

Even after all these years, we cannot believe that we still had not given up.

One day, we reach a point of desolate sadness.

It might be a particularly painful interaction or something that they said or do, that finally break us open.

This is the moment at which we are being initiated to walk the bridge of grief.

This is a bridge of inner mourning, full of mini-deaths and letting-go.

As we step onto the bridge, we drop- one after another— false expectations, fantasy, and hopes.

We watch them sink into the water and get splintered into pieces by the rapid river beneath our feet.

As we watch them go, we let them go.

As we walk on the bridge of grief,

one layer after another we shed our skin.

 We feel ourselves becoming lighter and lighter.

As all shedding goes, this walk is not without pain.

This shedding pain is our growing pain.

Our instinctive reaction is to be afraid of it—

We may feel an urge to run back to the haven of our own shore.

If we do, however, we fall back into the inferno of disappointment and resentment.

Therefore, the task now, my dear friend, is to walk on.

One step after each other, tenderly, tenderly, but stoically and courageously.

Keep your heart open, even in hell.

 The temptation is to close your heart, and  to run back to the false haven of numbness, of emptiness, repression and denial.

The instruction is not to keep your heart open- allow the grief, the resentment, and the despair to enter you. Let them come into your heart fully and completely.

Let them wash through you.

You may feel disorientated, empty, depressed- but I can guarantee you that these feelings will pass.

And when they do, liberation in waiting for you, alongside bursts of life energy.

All that you have longed for, but are afraid of owning- emotional freedom, spiritual maturity, the capacity to love and be in the world, emotional resilience- are waiting for you on the other side of this bridge.

 Painful as it might be, it is a worthy endeavour.

When it comes to true forgiveness and liberation,

there is no other journey more worthy than the bridge of grief.

I promise you.

So walk on, soldier, walk on.

Once we are able to integrate our past into the present, we will mature from a child-like mind to having a much more full and realistic vision of reality.

We can embrace both the good and the bad.

We can be both the anger and the compassion.

So walk on, soldier, walk on. 

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  1. I was a child with a heart condition. My "Mother"s inability to know how to deal with it altered my life in very negative ways. My sister (who also had mother issues) has tried to convince me to let go the past and I have tried to do that even with the childhood scar (from a failed operation) and the symptoms of heart disease starring me in the face EVERY DAY. To my sister I say… "I HATE my mother" she should have learned how to deal with me (must be some sort of moron not to). No forgiveness, no mercy. I will never talk of her again once she croaks. I hope it’s soon.
    M.E.S.

  2. My mother abondened me and two older sisters all under five. I didn’t like her . I was raised by my fathers parents ( he abandoned us and his own elderly parents ) I was the ‘whipping boy ( even though I am a girl ) however , I respect and admire my grandparents for what they did in taking us in . They did their best . Don’t be bitter and twisted if people have done their best . They cannot do any more .

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. My father was a notorious womanizer so my parents split up when I was 7 years old. Their tumultuous relationship led to my living with my grandparents for most of my childhood, which was a problem because of my grandmother’s undiagnosed and untreated mental disorder. She was delusional and had moods that could swing on a dime. She also didn’t spare the rod so constant physical and emotional punishment from a manic person that thinks that god puts thoughts in her head is terrifying for a child. This article helps me consider my feelings of betrayal by my parents for failing to protect me and my sibling.

  4. This is very helpful thank you. I had a difficult childhood. My parents fought, my father hit my mum. My mum retaliated at times through verbal and physical aggression.
    He was controlling and humiliated me and my siblings with a push, shove, evil look, slap, punch and sexual abuse. This in my young head was normal family life. My mum kept the secret of how bad it really was and so we kept the secret because she did. I didn’t feel loved properly and I feel like I was bad and not good enough to be protected by my mum and now this plays out in my adult life. I’m 38 and have a lovely partner. I’ve been effected terribly by the past and struggle with myself and how I look at perceive things in life.
    I’ve had therapy and still go. I find that I have to try extra hard to not become like my parents. I moved away a long time ago. I joined the military to escape. Into another war zone which actually was easier than my childhood believe it or not. I’ve been angry for so long and I want to change my parents and my siblings. They all live in the same village I’m not in touch anymore with them . I couldn’t be around them as the behaviour is still in the family. The behaviour I despise that we learnt as kids. I am working on my self every day to develop better coping strategies and learning not to react badly o triggers that send me right back to the past.
    I think having a calm relaxed partner has helped. She’s understanding but at times I know when I’ve struggled with the weight of my past and demons she has gone through it too. I think the key is talking about why you feel the way you do and then it’s easier o deal with triggers or the critical self. Remembering your partner is their for you and isn’t that parent who has hurt you. That’s very important to realise that you have to talk not hide how you feel.

  5. Yeah, but what to do when your abusive parents continue to abuse you mentally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually right up to the end? In such a case, the abuse lives in the present as well as the past.

    I’ve cut my perpetrators off, but they still get in through the cracks in many ways. I cannot escape them.

  6. This article was extremely helpful to me. I have been feeling guilty and resentful for years and years over the hate I feel towards my parents. I am still in the process of grieving and letting go of this hate. What turned the tables for me, was when I told myself that even though my parents had hurt me badly, i wasn’t going to walk around always being angr, and let their past actions ruin my happiness for the rest of my life. So, through grieving, I am gradually letting go of this toxic hurt and anger. it is truly liberating!

  7. J’ai bien aimé votre article merci !

    Moi mon difficultés c’est que ma mère me vois la même façon comme lorsque j’étais à la maison. je le ressens dans tous ses propos, elle réclame une amitié profonde avec moi, impossible d’y arriver!!! nos conversations finissent toujours par des disputes. je ne crois pas qu’on serait de meilleurs amis, mais au moins vivre ensemble paisiblesement. çela devrait être possible, sauf que elle ne le permets pas parce que elle ne vois toujoirs pas qu’elle dois changer et cela est dommage. ça me rend triste des voir à quel point elle est aveuglée et qu’elle ne cherche pas à me connaître. qu’est-ce que je dois faire?
    VB

  8. La cruda realidad

    For the past months of my pregnancy, I’ve been feeling so much resentment for my parents for fighting with each other so much throughout my childhood. More towards my father for cheating on my mother so many times and for my mother for putting up with it while becoming bitter and dedicating so much of her attention to her troubled relationship instead of helping my siblings and I with homework or providing a stable environment.Although in the past couple of years my mother has made big efforts to visit and be there for me, I still can’t believe how inadequate they were in their parenting. It’s almost as if I feel that my potential as a human was hindered by the choices they made. Now that I’m about to give birth, I feel a sense of urgency to let go of these unpleasant memories that actually hurt me physically any time they pop up. It’s gotten to the point where I’m resentful of extended family members with similar behaviors, in my mind I see them as a disappointment.When I try to think of their positive traits, it’s difficult to recall many stories that bring me joy, although my younger sister experienced the exact same events in a more positive light. I do however recall beautiful shared moments with my siblings.

    With that being said, I want to free myself of these feelings and try to truly forgive. I want to teach my child to appreciate family and take care of the elderly, and the best way for me to do it is by modeling this behavior.

  9. "Someday everything will make perfect sense.
    So, for now, laugh at the confusion, smile through the tears and keep reminding yourself that everything happens for a reason."
    Author Unknown

  10. Well, this is all good reading, I guess but I was molested by my father and had the crap beaten out of me until I was 16. I left home with a black garbage bag. My brother used to suffocate me and also sexually abuse me. Years of therapy didn’t work, it only cost me thousands of dollars. So what do you say about all of that? I was the last out of 11 kids. That is why the world is so fucked up.

  11. Thank you. This was a great addition and reminder for everything my therapist said or is about to say.
    In the end, we can’t do anything else than choose to embrace our child and encourage them to be the adult we want to be in front of our parents. And practice this until we reach the end of that bridge.

  12. Thank you so much. This is exactly how I’ve been feeling only you but it into beautiful precise words. I have so much anger and resentment for my family and today was the tipping point that triggered me into a fit of rage – and everything came flooding back to me…all the feelings of abandonment, neglect, and having to earn my parents love. It has shaped me into a person I don’t want to be. I hate my family but I hate who I’ve become more. Today I let that go. Your words have helped me know that I am not alone.