How can I let go of past abuse?
October 7, 2011 5:37 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to let go of past injuries? My parents were abusive when I was growing up (both physically and emotionally) and I have been dealing with depression and anxiety ever since, with medication and therapy. Now, though, they have changed (really), and I'm trying to figure out how to let go of what happened and have a good relationship with the people they are now.

I really noticed a change in my parents when, through therapy, I learned to set boundaries. At that point, they seemed to realize that their abusive behaviour had consequences, and that I might choose not to have a relationship with them if it continued. They have become respectful of the boundaries I set, and I have learned to tell them when they are being crossed. Still, I am angry about the way they treated me in the past, and it's so immediate to me that I dread seeing them, even though our present visits are congenial and even enjoyable. (I usually come away from them feeling surprised that our visit has been nice. Maybe I still don't trust them?) I truly believe that they have changed, and certainly their behaviour toward me has changed. How can I let go of the past and enjoy the relationship I have with them now, for as long as they are still here? I have been through this in therapy, but I still can't seem to let go of the resentment. Are there therapeutic techniques I can try, or ways of thinking I can practice?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You say their behaviour has changed because now it has consequences they do not like. Have they apologised though for their past behaviour? You have seen their true character and just because they now are forced to change by circumstances outside of their control does not mean their character has changed. Perhaps knowing that, on a gut level, is your self preservation telling you may try to have a healthy relationship going forward while always being on the alert for yourself.
posted by saucysault at 5:50 PM on October 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

what does your therapist say about this? I don't know if you have CBT type therapy or more "let's talk about your past/childhood" type. If the latter, it might not be healthy to go over the same things over and over again, and you might benefit from therapy that works with your thoughts and feelings as they are NOW. However, I don't know anything about your treatment and your therapist's plan of action, so this is just a thought.
posted by sweetkid at 5:54 PM on October 7, 2011

Have they apologized to you? I mean truly genuinely apologized and admitting what they've done type apology?

Just wondering why their change has come from your hard work. That seems slightly backward. Or maybe it's uncommon?

Stuff to think about. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 5:56 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Give it time. Your memories of pain far outweigh the memories of no pain; build up some pain-free memories and you will gradually have more happy associations with them.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:01 PM on October 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

(I usually come away from them feeling surprised that our visit has been nice. Maybe I still don't trust them?)

Setting boundaries, and seeing them respected, is an accomplishment. It is not quite the same thing as feeling safe, baseline, with another human being. Before you meet with them, review your own protections: Can you leave at will? Do you feel strong, emotionally? Can someone call you if you need an excuse to leave? Got your phone, wallet and walking shoes? Do you have stock responses to upsetting inquiries? Sometimes mental armor can let you treat others more gently (than they deserve) while also providing protection. Maybe this will work for you, maybe not, but I wish you luck with your situation.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:12 PM on October 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could try thinking of your past injuries as if they were a limb that was damaged beyond repair in an accident, and subsequently amputated. I imagine a person who has lost a limb eventually must accept the reality of what happened and adapt to the reality of its continued effect on their life.

It's a choice, and it can be a very difficult choice to make and to follow through on. But it's a choice only you can make.

I felt similarly resentful towards my parents for a long time, and I struggled with letting go of the resentment I felt. I resented their past behaviours, and I resented the ongoing resentment that was eating up my consciousness. I finally realised that although I couldn't change the past, I could stop being resentful. I didn't want to stop. Why should I have to change? "They hurt me! I shouldn't have to be the one who has to make changes!" I wanted someone or something to come along and magically change the past and give me justice. But I came to understand that that just isn't going to happen. I could either hold on or let go. No one was forcing me to do either; but in the same way, I could choose to do either. I chose to let go.

No matter how well your parents behave now and in the future, nothing can change what actually happened in the past. This realisation can be disheartening, but it can also precipitate freedom from the past.

The past is what it is. It cannot be changed. You cannot do anything about it. As long as you dwell resentfully on your past hurts, they hold your present and future hostage. But if you just accept that what happened, happened, then you have the opportunity to leave it behind in a certain sense.

You may not be able to wipe out your painful memories, and you may never be able to interact with your parents according to your ideal, but you can find new, positive ways of going forward.

I mentioned earlier that I let go of the resentment I felt towards my parents. That doesn't mean that I don't still think about what happened in the past. And it doesn't mean that I don't still talk about these things with people I trust. It's important to continue to try to understand who I am and what has happened in my life. I just do it without the resentment.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 6:19 PM on October 7, 2011 [15 favorites]

Don't rush it when you're not ready to feel okay about your relationship with them. There have been many years of abuse and only a little bit of goodness recently.

Now they are treating you better only because you have changed and you won't allow them to treat you badly anymore. They aren't acting better because of something from within them. Who knows if they've changed at all, or whether this is how they treat people that they cannot abuse anymore?

If this is genuine from them, in time, maybe a long time, you'll begin to feel more comfortable with them. But, you may be sensing that they haven't really changed fundamentally, only outwardly, so wariness on your part is warranted. That, and since it was years of abuse, you are preserving yourself by being wary. It's a good thing you're still feeling careful; don't push yourself into something that you may not feel is right. Listen to yourself. Don't think about what they deserve. Think about what you deserve and what is best for you.

I wish you luck. Always stay true to yourself.
posted by minx at 7:15 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have experienced something like this - parents who were abusive, firm boundaries set by me around the abuse, parents did (and do) their best to respect boundaries, ceased name-calling, screaming, threats of violence, but I still don't feel safe. It's not all terrible, but things are still complicated and can be difficult. I set those boundaries more than ten years ago and to be honest I still don't really feel I can trust them or let my guard down around them.

From my own experience, could I suggest a few things to think about? Firstly, consider easing up on yourself about not feeling the warm glow of family togetherness just yet. In my case, ten years of not-too-bad certainly didn't erase 28 years of godawful, many of them when I was a child without means to protect myself effectively from their rage. It's not realistic to expect yourself to feel super around people who behaved in ways that were hurtful and traumatic to you, no matter how sorry they are and how much they've changed. Could I gently suggest you respect your feelings of hurt and resentment and work on healing, rather than beating yourself up for not feeling wonderful about the people who did you the injury, or forcing yourself to feel happy.

As you work on taking care of yourself, you might think about how you can actively keep yourself emotionally and physically safe, rather than relying on your parents' continued good behaviour. It's early days. Who knows how they will behave in the future. Be prepared for some relapses in their behaviour and to reinforce your boundaries a number of times in the coming years. Of course, this may not happen, but I hope that by flagging it I might save you some of the shock and disapointment I have felt when my parents slip back into old patterns. If it never happens, wonderful. Any work on emotional safety you do will stand you in good stead should anyone else behave badly toward you.

And if I could look back from now to ten years ago, I think the main thing that has shifted and that has helped me feel more comfortable around them is acceptance. Accepting how I feel -- it sucked having abusive parents, I wish they'd been different, I really do -- rather than trying for an artificially imposed sense of happiness, or resolution, or something. Accepting them as deeply flawed human beings who did the best they could. Not the best they should have done. But the best they could. Accepting that we have the relationship we have, not the relationship I wished we have. That acceptance has helped me experience them less as the all-powerful and terrifying monsters of my childhood and more as kind of fucked up people who are in my life. It's a different, much less scary dynamic now. Your version of acceptance would be unique to you. I'm not sharing this to insist you Must Accept Things - just to offer the suggestion of an avenue to explore.

In terms of actual stuff to do, for me, meditation helped me a lot with this particular issue. I practice awareness/stillness and it has profoundly increased my capacity to deal with difficult relationsips, to stay calm and centred in stressful situations, and, truly, to move toward acceptance. There are a zillion places you can learn to medidate and even if there is nothing near you, a bazgillion CDs and iTunes meditation downloads. You don't have to do it perfectly, you don't have to be transcendental, you don't have to be Zen, you don't have to be a hippie or New Age. You don't even have to think it will work. You just have to do whatever practice you choose regularly. And while it works better every day, or twice a day or three times a day, even once a week will help. I promise. I came to it completely by accident, attending a meditaiton workshop to support someone else, was just going through the motions to be polite, and it absolutely changed my life. Profoundly.

Closer to the time I put my foot down and said 'No. More.' I found it really helpful to understand more about my parents behaviour and family dynamics. I recall the books The Dance of Anger, Life and How to Survive It, and Trauma and Recovery were all incredibly helpful.

Good luck on working through things with your parents. The fact that they've listened and heard you is a huge step. And a massive well done to you for setting those boundaries. It's an enormous thing and you should be so, so proud of yourself. Be gentle with yourself as you go forward.
posted by t0astie at 7:26 PM on October 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

I had some difficulty with my parents (mostly my mom) while growing up. A lot of injustices, emotional and mental abuse . . .

I got through it, but as an adult faced a lot of resentment and anger mainly because she didn't see the affect of her abuse on my life.

I "confronted" her (confronted is too strong a word) about why I felt so angry and resentful. And know what? She apologized. And it didn't change anything. Her heartfelt apology, while sincere and genuine, didn't take my hurt away. Because really, does she really know, does she really comprehend my hurt? Of course not. But at the same time I knew she was sorry.

So, from then on I had to really work on myself not to get trapped in the circular thinking that would ensnare me. I just stopped thinking about all these injustices (easier said than done - but I made a concerted effort not to fall into thinking about it all).

And then I started practicing some genuine forgiveness. Again, easier said than done. My mom was no longer the way she was when raising me. And so how could I hold her to that standard anymore? And how could I carry around that anger and resentment when I was no longer being subjected to her past behavior? And how could I lash out at her when I knew she was now doing the best she could? I would be devastated if someone lashed out at me when I was doing the best I could with the abilities that I have. And I realized that's what she was doing. She's doing the best she can now. And perhaps she didn't know any better in the past, maybe she had so much stress and problems herself that she just couldn't handle things very well. I don't excuse her behavior, but I don't hold it over her head either.

It's all taken time and it's taken a lot of effort on my part to hold my tongue and not bring these same things up over and over again. I could cry and lament over the consequences of her behavior on my life, but that won't get us anywhere and would only make us both feel really bad. What's done is done. I don't want to relive it again and again.

Like I said it took time and a concerted effort. But now we have a really strong relationship and are best friends. I realized that she wasn't perfect, and had some very real struggles and shortcomings that were not her fault and I realize that she was doing the best she could even though much of the time her best really sucked.
posted by Sassyfras at 7:54 PM on October 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just want to add that I think what you have done to stand up for yourself is phenomenal. I have the highest respect for you.

I just want to offer a book: If You Had Controlling Parents. This helped me incredibly.

Yes, it's the last thing to think of, to be gentle with yourself. I know, it's one of the hardest things for me to do and remember. But, always if you can, be gentle and kind with yourself.
posted by minx at 7:57 PM on October 7, 2011

Your parents essentially took something from you via their abuse. It is not selfish of you to take time for yourself now. It's wonderful that they've changed, but part of their own growth must be accepting that you need time to heal. It's okay for you to take a step back and say "I love you, but I need space." A test of their improvement will be whether or not they can respect this.

Keep going to therapy. In my experience with this, it's also been helpful to keep a journal. You can do this either online or off, however private you want it to be. It can be very comforting to have a place to just spew your feelings out without worrying about consequences, and hiding your anger even from yourself doesn't make it go away.
posted by katillathehun at 7:58 PM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

You sound to me like you are still mourning your childhood. In whatever way, it was beaten and bruised & eventually died, and now here you are with two people who have repented enough to change, and yet somehow you are the only standing at the graveside remember enough about what was lost to have tears in your heart and anger on your mind.

I think it's usually easier for the aggressor to move on.
I also think being around them probably aggravates your sense of loss because, well, if my parent is anyone to judge by, they haven't realized the depth of what was lost --because their "child" is still standing before them & they can go forward content in the knowledge that they still have their child despite all that water under the bridge.

But YOU can't have that child back, or the childhood she should have lived in. Some things can't be repaired & can only be mourned, and seeing others getting on with their lives like nothing happened, especially when THEY were the thing that's hard. It's really, really hard.

I was lucky enough, from one parent, to get time, respect, and an apology. A genuine acknowledgement of wrongs done. Not an excuse or an evasion or a "well that's behind us." It helps. But it can't be forced, and to tell you the truth, it never really encompassed the scope of the damage done. But it was a groundwork that allowed me, years later, to approach an emotional balance when dealing with them. But in order to maintain that balance, there is one thing I have to keep firmly in mind, and perhaps you should spend some time thinking on it too:

I will NEVER be that child again. There is no way to recapture. She's gone, and I am someone else. So are you.

Interacting with my parent is difficult: The parent tries to reconnect with a child who is no longer there. It reminds me of my loss. And it makes me angry, because, as much as I sometimes even wish to be their child again, I can't. She's not there. And that parent is the reason for my loss. It is salt in a wound that only slowly, slowly closes.

I can tell you that time and respect and and kindness may eventually let you forgive. But that ambivalence betweeen being and not being a parent's child can lead you into a minefield of unexploded emotions. My advice to you, if any of what I have said has resonated, is to figure out the balance of what you want from them, and what it is possible for you to be with them. Then use your boundary-fu to recast the relationship.
posted by Ys at 8:19 PM on October 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

A lot of people mellow out as they get older, even abusive parents. When you feel like your child-self perceiving them (and all the anxieties attached to that), it may help to view them the way your future (and wiser), geriatric-self would. I find this exercise helpful in sort of reversing painful childhood thoughts.
posted by lrrosa at 12:04 AM on October 8, 2011

In my case, my mom did apologize, and did call me sobbing in regret a couple of times now that I live in a different country. And I adopted the bizarre role of comforting her. You see, she messed up. She was evil, cruel and crazy. And the fact that she regrets it now helps a little bit, but I still find myself literally irate, reliving the things she did to me. It's like she's two people. One mom that I love and want to protect and that I will comfort despite my own trauma, and one mom that broke a wooden spoon on my back because I didn't make my bed well while calling me a whore and saying I'm in love with my dad even though I'm just 8.

My point is, even if they ask for forgiveness, and even if you forgive them, it will never be truly forgotten, and the score will never even out. You just have to (for your own sake) analyse it (learn the lessons of not repeating bad behaviours, and of staying away of people like them) and move on with your life, or you will never have one.

Also, staying away from them is an option you are entitled to. You have a right to keep them out of your life and wait until you're truly ready (if you ever are). I didn't do it because my mom is older and her health is not the best, and I feel like if I ever want to fix things, it has to be now. And (this may be something you want to think about), at the risk of sounding like an abused puppy, I tell myself that my mom is a good person who is mentally ill and doesn't know it, and I love her (I really do).
posted by Tarumba at 5:48 AM on October 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

All I want to say is: Be Careful.

My mother was abusive. We had a good relationship for several years, in adulthood. I had convinced myself that she had changed. And maybe she has, I'm not sure anymore.

What I DO know is that a) I convinced myself she had changed and b) She subsequently acted out in a very weird and pretty painful but not really destructive way (she gave me the silent treatment for something that made absolutely no sense). For various reasons we were trapped in a tiny apartment for a night and a morning until I could make my get away.

Now, I thought I had forgiven my mother for the physical and emotional abuse. I thought I'd put it behind me. But her most recent behavior aligned with the precursor for her physical abuse of me while I was growing up (e.g., she would get completely enraged for incomprehensible reasons, and then attack me).

A person w/o my history with her might have said, apropos of her recent behavior: Mom, I love you, but giving me the silent treatment for no reason understandable is really not O.K. Now what is going on with you?

This is not what I did. The clock was set back immediately twenty years. I was (and to some extent am still) convinced that with the right stimuli, she is a dangerous person. She hit, slapped, pulled my hair, and clawed me enough times as a kid to know that she was, at least once, very dangerous.

What I'm trying to say is: Yes, forgive, forgive, forgive. My mother did not give birth to me expecting to do things to me that were very horrible and, if I had gone to the authorities, likely would have resulted in me removed from the home. But she did, and she has to live with that. I know that she loved me very much, and maybe still does.

But be careful. If you have any sort of the buttons that I do, witnessing behavior associated with past abuse might be very scary for you. Keep those boundaries up, and don't let forgiveness fuck with your duty to take care of yourself.
posted by angrycat at 6:29 AM on October 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Therapy. You may have some level of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It helped me to understand that my Mom was not mentally healthy, probably bipolar, and did not get good treatment when she did seek therapy. It helped me to forgive her. Various siblings confronted her about her abusive behavior and her alcoholism, and I didn't feel the need, or see any benefit, in adding to that. I moved 1,000 miles away, to a situation where it was initially hard for her to contact me. Going to Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings helped. Self-help books helped. Therapy helped a lot. Over time, we got closer, and had a good relationship, though not quite the mother-daughter relationship of my dreams.

You have to let go of any fantasies about what could-have, should-have been. You have to protect yourself from further harm, which may mean having a limited relationship. You have to build a life with friends who will treat you well. A therapist with experience treating PTSD can help. It's hard to find a really good therapist; be persistent.
posted by theora55 at 2:25 PM on October 8, 2011

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