In my previous post, I suggested that the number one reason we don’t feel ready to take responsibility for our part in our relationship with our parents is that we feel wounded. We may not think of ourselves as wounded. We may feel like we’re doing just fine. But if you feel a vague sense that you shouldn’t have to be the one to take the first step, because that’s their job – let me suggest that this feeling is a symptom of your unacknowledged wounds. If you did not feel like the aggrieved party, there would be no reason to sit around waiting for the other party to make things right. There would be no reason to delay getting into action.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to feel wounded. I am not rebuking you or telling you to “grow up and start acting like an adult.” I am simply attempting to shed light on the situation we find ourselves in, which is this: We are all wounded. Every single one of us. We were all born with God-given, legitimate needs – the need for acceptance, safety, support, and so on. And as children, none of us got our needs met in exactly the way we needed. Our parents probably did the best they could, but they, too, were wounded by their parents, and so their love came to us broken and incomplete. There is no shame in any of this; it is the human condition.
If I were to divide everyone into two categories, those categories would not be “wounded people” and “unwounded people.” There are people who have worked through their woundedness (or have begun to do the work), and there are those who have not. The former will tend to lead happier, healthier lives; the latter are much more likely to hurt those around them, especially those they love.
Just to be crystal clear, our purpose in examining our wounds is to find healing. The following do NOT represent our purpose on this journey:
- To wallow in sadness or self-pity.
- To gather ammunition for the next fight with our parents.
- To have an excuse to not take responsibility for our failures.
In the remainder of this post, I will do the following: address some common fears that hinder us from confronting our wounds, introduce an exercise to help you identify your wounds, and offer some steps you can take toward healing.
Facing Our Fears
We can know, rationally, why it’s important to confront our wounds, but when our rational brain gets into a fist fight with our animal brain, it usually loses. Sure, we know we *probably* won’t die, but the fear is real, nonetheless.
Since our fears are a big part of what “stops” us, let’s go ahead and address them. The following is not a comprehensive list, but it represents three of the most common fears people experience in response to this topic.
Fear of infinite pain:
What if I fall into a dark abyss and never get back out again?
I remember the first time I was on a weekend retreat where I was invited to look at childhood wounds. It felt like opening the door to a dark basement filled unknown, but undoubtedly dangerous creatures. I had managed to do fine as a young adult without opening that door. And I felt safe with the door closed. My status quo may not have been amazing – sure, I was vaguely aware I had some issues – but it was familiar. Why risk a familiar reality for the unknown?
Here’s the truth: Your wounds are not infinite. Your pain will not be infinite. It may run deeper than you initially imagine, but it will also be more bearable than you fear. Much of our pain is caused by resisting our pain. Once we are able to let go of the resistance, we realize the pain is not beyond what we can manage.
Take a deep breath and sit with that for a moment. Close your eyes and try to see how much of your discomfort is about your past, and how much of your discomfort comes from the energy it takes to resist thinking about your past. If you could let go of the resistance, what would remain?
Your wounds are not infinite. Your pain will not be infinite. It may run deeper than you initially imagine, but it will also be more bearable than you fear.
Fear of regression:
What if things get worse before they get better? What if I find out that I’m not as mature (or confident, or “adult”) as I thought I was?
Whenever we do something new, there’s a learning curve. If you were in a job you hated, and knew there was a more fulfilling job waiting for you, would you turn it down because the new job required learning new skills? What if you didn’t hate your current job, but it was just *meh*? Would you still turn down the better opportunity? If the status quo isn’t that great, why go to such great lengths to protect it?
Things probably will get worse before they get better – but that’s not a bad thing! It doesn’t mean you’re moving backwards, it just means that moving forward requires some self-awareness and humility. And if you’re afraid of discovering (or revealing) your immaturity, guess what? Your level of maturity is whatever it is. You can either become aware of it and work toward change, or you can remain ignorant and keep hurting yourself and others.
I promise you, whatever new reality you find yourself in by confronting your past, it will not be worse than your current one. How can I be so sure? Because even if nothing else changes, you will have changed. You will be wiser, more mature, more confident. You will stand up a little taller, you will breathe a little deeper. Your life will become larger and filled with more opportunities when you are no longer limited by your childhood wounds.
If the status quo isn’t that great, why go to such great lengths to protect it?
Fear that “negative” emotions will grow if we indulge them:
Aren’t we supposed to fight against anger, frustration, resentment, and sadness? If we feed them, won’t they grow?
What does it mean to “indulge” our emotions? I suspect that it means not actively trying to resist them. Ironically, the pain that we associate with the so-called “negative emotions” flows more from shame and resistance than from the emotions themselves. We are ashamed that we feel angry/sad/afraid, and we expend a great deal of energy trying not to feel those things. As I mentioned above, when we let go of the resistance, the emotions themselves become quite bearable.
But what if we’re meant to do more with our emotions than simply bear them? What if they have something important to tell us, if we know how to listen? When you get a headache, what is your body trying to tell you? Maybe you’re dehydrated, or short on sleep, or worrying about something. Sure, you can pop a pill to quiet the pain, but you can only ignore your body for so long. If your headache is the result of being overworked and you don’t make any changes, your body will have to scream louder the next time, and louder the next. A heart attack might be at the end of that road.
Our emotions are no different. We can listen to them and attend to whatever they’re pointing us toward, or we can ignore them and set ourselves up for disaster later on. Not being impacted by our emotions is not an option. We can either address them and let them go, or we can ignore them and remain trapped.
The Sufi poet Rumi beautifully captures a healthy relationship with emotions in his poem “The Guest House”:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice –
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Seeing Our Wounds
The easiest place to start as we seek to see our wounds more clearly is considering the legitimate needs that we all have as humans, and the places where those needs were not met. The chart below outlines several common categories where wounds can occur. The left-hand column names and defines the legitimate need, and the middle column lists some common symptoms that you may experience if that need wasn’t met.
**Note that the symptoms in the middle column can be triggered by many things, not just parental wounds. For example, if you are a victim of systemic racism, then you will probably experience heightened anxiety and mistrust, even if you have the world’s best parents. Use your discernment to determine what role your parents played in your wounding. And remember, this isn’t about assigning blame; it’s about growing in awareness.**
To best use the chart below (find a printable PDF here), (a) highlight any symptoms in the middle column that you identify with, and (b) use the Reflection Questions in the right-hand column to determine if those symptoms stem from your parents’ attitude and behavior toward you. (Notice that the questions are written in the present tense. Try to answer them from the perspective of your child-self.)
Taking Steps Toward Healing
Once you are able to see your wounds more clearly, the next question is usually, “What do I do?” This is a normal response, and it flows from wanting to feel in control. If there’s something I can do to fix my problem, then I am more powerful than my problem. If there’s nothing I can do, then my problem is more powerful than me, which is terrifying.
But let me suggest that your woundedness is not a problem to be fixed; it is a reality to be accepted. And as with any transformation of the heart, genuine acceptance isn’t something you can force. All you can do is clearly state your desire – e.g. I want to be able to accept my reality – and then wait patiently for the moment when this feels possible. When the moment comes, choose to step into it.
Once you have accepted your imperfect reality for what it is, there are some steps you can take. But let me reiterate that this is not a “quick fix.” Each of the steps below can take a great deal of time, and the journey is not always linear.
- Let yourself grieve. Grief, in my experience, is not so much an action as it is an attitude. When I grieve, I look my pain in the eyes and let myself feel whatever there is to feel. I give myself permission to be weak, to have needs, to feel let down and betrayed. I don’t judge myself for anything that I think or feel or want. I just let it be. And once I stop judging, the feelings stop screaming. They quiet down. Perhaps they tell me something important. When they have finished their business, they go on their way.
Grief comes at unexpected moments. It can’t be forced, and it certainly isn’t concerned about your timetable for healing. What you do have some control over is the following: 1) Your mindset, and 2) Your level of self-awareness. If you adopt the mindset that it’s ok to feel whatever I’m feeling, and if you learn to pay attention to your inner life so that you are aware when grief-feelings get stirred up, then you can make space for your grief as it arises.
When after heavy rain the storm clouds disperse, is it not that they’ve wept themselves clear to the end?– Ghalib
- Create space to receive Divine Love. Grieving can be an exhausting experience, and at times you may feel alone. But it’s important for your healing to recognize that, although your parents may not have been able to love you in the way you needed, that love is still available to you from the Divine Source. Whatever your religious beliefs, if you believe there is a Love that is larger than what we as humans can offer, seek that out. And if you don’t believe in that kind of Love, consider opening your heart to the possibility.
As with grief, Love cannot be conjured or controlled. You can’t buy it or earn it. But I believe that it is available to all of us – seek and you will find. Here is a simple prayer practice that can get you started.
- Relieve your parents of their responsibility to meet your needs. If you want to become a mature adult, at some point you need to say something along these lines: My parents will always be my parents, but it is no longer their responsibility to take care of me. They did the best they could when I was young, but now it is my job to learn how to get my needs met. I can no longer blame them for my mistakes and failures. They have may set me back in some ways, but how I choose to respond to those setbacks is what determines my character and my future. I am ready to take responsibility for who I am becoming.
This is an act of surrender, and yet it ushers in freedom and empowerment.
- Learn to advocate for yourself. Just because you’ve grieved your wounds, and perhaps forgiven the people who hurt you, doesn’t mean you don’t still have legitimate needs. Now that you are an adult, you can take the initiative and learn how to get those needs met for yourself in healthy ways. Take a moment and look back at the “Legitimate Needs” chart. Where do you still feel lacking? If you struggle to answer this question, sit for a moment with your “child-self” and ask: What do you still need? What still feels empty or broken? What would help you to feel whole again? Once you get an answer, consider how your adult-self could provide for your child-self in the way your parents couldn’t. Can you provide the acceptance, affirmation, and support that your child-self needs? If not, who could you ask for help?
The above suggestions are all things that take time to live into. You can’t snap your fingers and be done with your grief. Nor can you create experiences of Divine Love. All you can do is pay enough attention to notice the invitations when they come. Is this a moment when I feel an invitation to open myself to grief? Do I feel an ability to surrender that isn’t usually present? Do I sense that Love is accessible in this moment, if only I would step into it?
Being able to see and take advantage of these opportunities requires living a reflective life, where you have the margin to slow down and breathe and see beneath the surface of reality. It requires creating spaces where you invite grief (or surrender, or love) to join you, and then waiting patiently. This kind of life is antithetical to the way most of us live – so consumed with consuming that there is no room left in us to receive. What would it take to slow down? To consume less? To make space for what’s important?
The Gift of Community
This is hard work, and it’s far too easy to get stuck. If you feel drawn to doing this work in this season, I strongly recommend finding a community of people who can support and encourage you along the way. Even better, join folks who are doing this work alongside you so you can be inspired by their stories and know that you’re not crazy.
If you live in Oak Cliff and this work interests you, consider joining us for our next cohort on this topic, which starts the first week of October. This 8-week course will gently guide you through a curriculum designed to heal and deepen your relationship with your parents, while requiring little-to-nothing from them. Perks include relevant content, achievable assignments that will move you forward, a safe place to process your experiences, and the support of a coach. Find more details here.
- When you think about acknowledging the ways you were wounded as a child, what thoughts and emotions arise within you?
- What stood out to you on the legitimate needs chart?
- What are 2 or 3 healthy ways you can take care of your child-self as an adult?
Ready for more? Find Part 5 of this series here: From Grief to Gratitude