Finding permission not to push our selves into forgiving those who have abused or wounded us when such forgiving feels like it re-violates our tender, wounded selves.
Forgiving Before It's Time
When you "forgive" before you've gone inward to plumb the depths of your hurt and anger or,
before you've acknowledged your right to your upset… You're violating your deepest self!
My mother died on Valentine's Day, 42 years ago, just three months after my 30th birthday. After several years of estrangement, I had become re-involved with her during the two years of treatments for her ultimately fatal metastatic breast cancer. And, I'd spent each of the last ten days of her life sitting beside her hospital bed as she lay in liver coma, moving toward her death. It was long before the Hospice movement, and hers was neither a conscious nor an openly acknowledged dying. Yet, I felt a compelling need to make sure she would not die alone. I tended her and crocheted quietly for hours looking out at the winter landscape in Central Park. My father came to relieve me for the evenings after his workday ended. I'd walk home, see a few clients, go to sleep and wake again each morning to another day of the deathwatch.
In the end, she did die alone, discovered at the changing of the shifts at seven in the morning, just before I was to arrive for the day. I did not grieve for her. On the morning of her death, and forever afterward, what I felt was gratitude and relief: I would never again have to deal with her as a physical presence in my life.
It was the best Valentine gift anyone could have given me. Her death left me having to deal only with my mother's destructive presence as it lived on within me: the venomous voice of my inner-critic, the Hatchet Lady. I was also freed, at last, to feel the fullness of my rage at this woman who had so damagingly mothered me. While she lived, my rage at her had been stifled by my sense of the fragility beneath her hostility toward me. Liberated from the fear that it would destroy her, I began the journey of plumbing the depth of my fury.
From early in my life I had learned (as so many of us have) to make excuses for my mother's unremitting cruelty toward me. Typically that involved (as so often it does) blaming my self: I was not being a good enough girl, not behaving properly or, in some obscure, inadvertent way, provoking her to meanness.
From the earliest I can remember, I was constantly trying to appease her, undeterred by the fact that most of what I did seemed only to escalate her nastiness toward me. I learned independence early. Although it's probably apocryphal, there's a family tale of my walking to the corner candy store holding someone's (not her) hand, clutching my penny and asking the man there for a pretzel when I was nine months old. A similar tale has me out of diapers before I turned two.
My precociousness had to do with the fact that it was always infuriating to her when I needed anything. Getting hurt or sick petrified me. I'd react with hysterical crying. When I came to her in terror or pain, she'd yell at or ridicule me for malingering and "making such a big deal out of nothing!" As I've reflected through the years, I've considered that my terrors (or, indeed, any of my needs) might have overwhelmed and frightened her, facing her with her incapacity to cope as a parent. Perhaps it was this that stirred the rage she'd vent on my needy little self.
I can remember being paralyzed by fear at having the breath knocked out of me when, at six or seven, I'd fall while roller-skating. After the first fall, when my coming to her for comfort triggered her wrath, I'd sit on the sidewalk where I'd fallen, in a panic with only my already terrified self to try to comfort me.
I have no memories of tenderness or loving closeness with my mother. The only gentle touch I remember was her washing my hair when I was too little to do it my self. All other physical contact with her involved being yanked, pushed or slapped. But, more than contact, I remember icy distance and being ignored.
My earliest, most devastating memory of her mothering comes from when I was a little past three. It was 1944. My father had enlisted in the Navy just before he would have been drafted into the Army. Most other women with children in her position gave up their apartments, moved back in with their parents and went to work in factories. My mother, at 26, went back to the work she'd done (and loved) before her marriage, as a relatively well-paid legal secretary. She kept our apartment – living (with considerable delight) as an attractive, glamorous single workingwoman – and sent me to live with her parents.
My maternal grandparents were warm, loving non-English speaking Eastern European immigrants. They lived three blocks away from our apartment. They doted on me. During the year that I lived with them, my mother would pick me up for the day on Sundays. Occasionally she'd take me back to our apartment on a Saturday, after a half day of work, for a sleepover with her. We rarely spent time with the four of us together. (In my late teens I learned that there had been years of discord and resentment between my mother and both of her parents by the time she'd left me with them.)
The memory I have is of waking up one night on my cot in the small room off my grandparents' kitchen. I woke in anguish, crying uncontrollably. My whole body remembers the convulsive sobbing, the inconsolable longing for "my mommy." Nothing my grandparents did, no amount of holding or soothing words quieted my desperation. I had to have my mommy.
It was after dark and my grandparents had already been in bed, undressed. Still, grandpa got dressed and walked the three blocks to get my mother. (They had no telephone in those days.) I've no idea how late it might have been, or whether my mother had been asleep, or how long it actually took for him to go and come back with her. I sobbed non-stop, choking on my own mucous, curled between my Grandma and the doorjamb to my room the whole time he was gone.
I remember hearing the key in the door, then seeing my mother in the doorway. My body turned cold with panic as she stalked in and stopped, leaning back on the porcelain washtub on the far side of the room from where I stood. The fury in her hard eyes is still a powerful, visceral memory; so, too, her glacial voice as she snarled at my sobbing little self across the room, pointing a wagging finger at me. "If you ever do this to me and your grandfather again, I'll…."
For years, I couldn't remember with what it was that she threatened me before she turned and stalked right out of their apartment, leaving me frozen and bereft. I recalled the rest of her sentence some twenty years later, in my first therapist's office. In the middle of an almost dissociative panic state triggered by becoming aware of feeling intense neediness in his presence, I had a frightening physical experience. It felt as though invisible hypodermic needles were pulling all the strength out of my knees. In that moment, I re-heard her enraged voice snarling at me: "If you ever do this to me and your grandfather again, I'll break both your legs!"
Her endless litany of belittling words and actions (or ignorings) lacerated me throughout the first 30 years of my life. The internalized version of my mother, my vicious inner critic, the Hatchet Lady, continued the lashings for another seventeen. (Only after years of working on and with the Hatchet Lady, was I at last able to defang and transform her into an almost gentle ally.)
As I've grown into knowing my self more fully, I've understood how trapped and beleaguered my mother must have felt as a parent/wife/woman in her times. I've felt sadness for the woundings in her life, for how damaged she must have been, for how few options were available to her. I've been able to see the grief and resentment underlying her competitiveness with me: I received from her parents and from my dad the tenderness and attention she so craved from them. How infuriating it must have been for her to watch them treat me as she yearned to be treated by them. I can understand that she would resent and want to punish me.
As I watch young mothers with young children, I know I could never in my wildest dreams have had the emotional wherewithal to cope with the 24/7, 100% attention it takes to parent in our non-tribal culture. I am filled with gratitude for the awareness, the help of Spirit/my deep-knowing self and the willingness to tolerate considerable criticism that combined to allow me the freedom, as a young woman, to choose consciously to neither birth nor parent children. I know my mother's world was a harder one in which to see that option, much less risk choosing it.
Freeing my self from the toxic legacy left by her mothering has been my healing journey. The wounds and tangles of my relationship with her were, in a sense, the greatest gift she gave me. Without the comforts and acceptance of traditional mothering, I've had to find ways to comfort and mother my self. From the deprivation and pain I suffered, a keen awareness of what a being needs for it to grow and thrive emerged.
My years of doing the inner work to provide for my self a compassionate, unconditionally loving, fiercely protective mother-within have born lavish fruit. This fruit has nourished me, the people I work with as clients and, more lately, the people who read the tales I write from the inside of my healing process.
I would not be the woman I am, a woman I love and freely share, had I not suffered from my mother's mistreatment. It was the ground from which the me that I am was born. I've created wonder and magic from that pain. I would not trade this me for a different childhood, a different mother.
I can and do feel compassion for that seriously damaged woman, for her impossible predicament. I can and do accept that she did the very best she could within the limits of her capacities and the level of consciousness available to her. I cannot and do not, however, forgive her for the ways she wounded the delicate being that I was. I cannot imagine what would make forgiving her a possibility in me until or unless the day comes that it doesn't feel that to do so will violate the tender damaged little one inside me who was her hapless victim.
Volumes of pressure from New Age, spiritual and psychological hype all around us keeps pushing forgiveness as the singular solution, the only path to freedom/enlightenment, the ultimate goal of all healing for all of us. Over and over, through the years, I have struggled to keep wresting permission to honor my own unwillingness to forgive what feels to me unforgivable. Revisiting all of this painful history as I've written this tale has moved me again and acutely, to emphatically carve out the space for my right to hold what's so for me.
Whenever we who have been victimized or traumatized – emotionally, physically, psychically, sexually – are being pressured into forgiveness before or unless that forgiveness arises organically from our own depths, we are being encouraged to violate and re-victimize our wounded selves. Any philosophical system, spiritual practice, psychological theory, religion or person/healer (including any part of our selves) that would so pressure any of us needs to be challenged/questioned/set aside in this domain. Sometimes the best we can hope for is acceptance, compassion and perhaps some sympathetic understanding of the context of the victimizer's life circumstances.
Consider being as tender as you possibly can be with your wounded, upset, hurt or angry self.