For all intents and purposes, I had a great childhood. There was always food on the table, I had nice clothes, and though I was spanked, I was never beaten. I took dance lessons as a little girl, always had books to read, and graduated sixth in my high school class.
I had an all-American, Middle-Class upbringing. I know that I was more fortunate than many.
That doesn't mean, however, that I moved from childhood to adulthood unscathed.
My mother was 5 feet tall, weighed 102 pounds, and was nicknamed "Aunt Meanie" by my older cousins. They all knew not to cross my mother. She had a fun side and many people loved her. She had loyal girlfriends that remained close for more than forty years. She was also mentally ill, suffering from severe depression. I grew up on a diet of grudges fueled by her insomnia and addiction to nicotine.
My father had what I'd call a firecracker temper. He didn't anger easily, and when he did, he'd blow up and it was over. My mother did not. Yes, she was capable of flying off the handle at a moment's notice, but she had this slow burn about her, like hot coals. And just when you believed that something had been forgotten, she would bring it up again and hash through every painful detail of a perceived betrayal.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, there were many hours of conversation in the hospital about how terribly she had been treated during her life. She would tell me that she was good with her relationship with God and ready to go Meet Him. And moments later, she would bring up an old story, detailing who had wronged her and being clear that she was unable to forgive them.
In addition to the pain associated with the impending loss of my mother, I was back to a daily diet of the pain and the sapping of energy of grudges and the withholding of forgiveness. As the days progressed and her body was ravaged by her cancer, the radiation and chemo treatments, and the agony of trying to hang on, I was so heartbroken for her that she needed to cling to her anger and grudges. I wanted the last days of her life to be focused on the love she was surrounded with, not shackled by the burdens of the past.
Though I can't say I have forgiven my mother for everything (I am human), I learned by observing her that that holding onto anger and grudges was a poison. Though we think of anger as something that can be fueled by adding to the fire of it, it actually reduces the energy we have for living a life based on love.
The question then becomes: how do we begin to let go of our own anger and grudges around an unhappy childhood?
First Step: Acceptance
This isn't about diminishing what has happened in your life. For many of us, the circumstances outside our control as young children traumatized us. We can't change the fact that we were abused by people who were supposed to care for us. I can't change the fact that my mother was mentally abusive. What I have chosen to do was to accept that it happened and understand that I can’t change it. That's living proactively.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
One of the keys, for me, has been creating awareness around my mother's life. To look at how she was abused by her older sisters, had her heart broken by a boy when she was seventeen, and was never able to break free from the fear that kept her playing small when she believed she deserved a big and bold life. The awareness and understanding of what happened in her past to make her bitter and angry has helped me loosen a bit of the burden she has upon my heart. My mantra around those trying times has been "She did the best she could with what she had."
Make a Choice
You get to choose where you put your focus and your energy. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose courage. You choose fear. Proactive people recognize that they are "response-able." They don't blame genetics, circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They know they choose their behavior.
Forgiving Doesn't Mean You Have To Forget
For a long time, I would beat myself up for not being able to simply "forgive and forget". But we can forgive without forgetting, because to forget would be tossing aside the lessons learned. Forgiving doesn't lessen the fact that you have been hurt in the past. It simply means it has no power over you any longer.
We Heal. We Integrate.
Healing is something that takes place in stages. Sometimes the scar tissue is so thick and dense that getting through it becomes so incredibly painful that we want to quit. It doesn't mean that you aren't meant to move forward. It just means that you are evolving and growing and reaching. I've come to really understand that some pieces of you may never heal. It isn't that you are flawed. What your soul is telling you is that you aren't meant to forget every painful part of your past. Instead, you are learning to integrate your past with your present.
Somehow, I believe that allowing yourself to forgive YOU is so much harder to do than the extension of forgiveness to others. Sometimes, we hold on to the belief that we are at fault for being treated poorly. When you are stuck within the trap of perfection, then, darling, you are going to withhold forgiveness to the person who most needs it: you.
So, how do we receive forgiveness and forgive ourselves? The same way we forgive others. We remind ourselves that sometimes, we just do the best we can with what we have. We extend ourselves grace. It's time to release those demons of the past and lean into the process of healing and integrating.
And remember the lessons I learned from the life of my mother: when it comes time to leave this earth, do you desire to leave it holding grudges or are you going to allow yourself to be surrounded by love?
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