A Difficult Kind of Forgiving

Learning to See Our Parents with Understanding and Compassion

One morning I was surprised to receive a call from a woman who had attended a meeting where I had given a talk the night before. I had spoken about agency—the wonderful power God has given us to control our own thoughts, actions, and feelings.

“I believe that what you said is usually true,” she told me. “But in my case, it just isn’t so.”

I was a little taken aback and asked her to explain.

“I know you can’t understand this,” she continued, “because you were raised by good parents. Your parents loved you and taught you well.”

I agreed that they had. “Well, my parents didn’t,” she said. “I didn’t have the advantages you’ve had, so I can’t do everything you can do.”

To convince me that she truly couldn’t use her agency to change, she began recounting experiences from her youth. Indeed, her experiences had been painful, even traumatic. “That is what has made me the way I am,” she concluded, “and I will never be able to change.”

Her words haunted me for weeks. Then I remembered something I had heard many years before. “Most adults, at some time in their lives, must forgive their parents for the way they raised them.” When I first heard this, it seemed strange. But as the years passed and I have thought more about it, I have come to feel that it is true.

At some point most of us do need to forgive our parents for some aspects of our upbringing. Unless we do, we feel unnecessary pain and suffering and often transmit our own emotional scars to our children. Harboring bad feelings can also impede our spiritual progress.

Many of us carry grudges for things our parents did, or failed to do. We may blame them for our problems twenty, thirty, or even forty years after we have left home. “My parents didn’t give me the best they were capable of giving,” or “My parents loved my sister more than they loved me,”—these feelings can fester and grow through the years until they are completely out of proportion.

Strangely, when we probe the lives of the most successful adults, we often find that they too have had emotional scars from childhood. But instead of letting these scars fester and infect, they have forgiven their parents and gotten on with living their own lives.

Forgiving those close to us for faults in our relationships is possibly the most difficult kind of forgiveness. But it is an important key to a happy life and is absolutely essential to eternal progression.

A young woman once confided to me that during her teen years she constantly hungered for her parents’ approval. She tried out for every team, play, music event, and speaking contest she could find. She studied, tried to be popular, worked hard at achieving in anything—all just to hear her parents tell her they were proud of her, that she had done well. But no matter how hard she tried, the praise and attention she craved never came.

At one point, she decided that exceptional grades would surely attract her parents’ approval. Through an enormous effort, she brought home a report card with all A’s—not even an A- in the batch. She remembers carrying home the little slip of paper, feeling that her long-awaited dream was about to come true. She was so excited she could barely contain herself. At last her parents would recognize that she was special, that she was important.

Wanting to get the most out of the occasion, she carefully placed the report card on the refrigerator. Then she had a snack with her brother as she waited for it to be discovered. In a few minutes, her mother came into the room. The young girl watched out of the corner of her eye as her mother reached for the card. The excitement of anticipation tickled through her. Certainly this would win her mother’s approval.

“That’s pretty good,” her mother said, replacing the card on the refrigerator. Then she turned to the brother. “Where’s yours?” At first he refused to hand it over; then he reluctantly pulled a crumpled card from his pocket.

“This is ridiculous,” the mother said as she examined the Bs, Cs, and Ds. “You are as smart or smarter than your sister. You can do better than this.”

The girl remembered for years the choking feeling of hurt that clutched at her stomach. As the mother and brother went on arguing about his grades, the girl quietly took her report card and went to her bedroom so no one would see her tears.

After this experience, she gave up trying to please her parents. Without that goal to motivate her, she began to drift. After several years, she began putting her life back together and saw the need to develop goals and talents for better reasons.

As the years passed, the hurt from this incident and others began to build within her. She married and had children, but she couldn’t forget. Instead of getting better, the pain grew worse until she finally became very concerned about the problem.

Then one night her parents asked her to perform at a meeting of an organization they belonged to. Her father got up to introduce her and said, “Tonight my daughter is going to perform. I’d like to tell you all about her, but since she’s my daughter that wouldn’t be appropriate. So we will just turn the time over to her.”

In the few seconds it took to stand before the audience, whole worlds of thought came crashing down on her. In one of those moments when the Spirit gives us a whole encyclopedia of learning in a fraction of a second, she realized that for some reason that she might never understand, her parents could not praise her. Maybe they felt it would make her conceited. Maybe they felt it would be bragging. But for some reason they felt it improper. With that understanding, she vowed not to let those painful experiences ruin the rest of her life. After that, she was able to let go of the hurt and forgive her parents.

Later, she began to recall that her parents did express their pride in her to others when she was not present. People had sometimes repeated their positive remarks to her. She also realized that her parents were basically kind people and that a handful of bad incidents had kept her from enjoying the memory of the many good times they had shared.

In addition, she realized that her painful experience had given her three significant strengths. First, she had learned to set and use goals. Second, she had developed many talents and abilities that were now a great source of joy to her. And third, as a mother now herself, she made sure that she told her own children how much she loved and appreciated them.

Most of us have had similar experiences, some of us even more painful ones.

Even in the scriptures we find the story of Abraham who was raised by a father who worshipped false gods. At one point Abraham’s father fell so far as to give Abraham to the priests as a human sacrifice to the false gods he worshipped. But an angel of the Lord intervened and saved Abraham’s life. Despite all this, Abraham went on to be a righteous man, even a prophet of the Lord. Abraham used his own agency to follow God’s ways and progress.

While it is true not all of us have parents completely worthy of emulation, we all have a Heavenly Father who has taught us the way. We can all follow him as Abraham did. We can all rely on his help and direction to teach and guide us through life.

In addition, for those who still carry the burden of emotional hurt, there are things that can be done to help us overcome the problem. Sometimes professional help must be sought. Most often, however, a few basic principles can help free us from the pain and injury these hurts inflict.

1. After a significant amount of time has elapsed, analyze the past with greater empathy. Try to see situations from your parents’ positions. Realize that they did the best they could under the circumstances. Now it is up to you to accept that fact.

Often time and personal growth will allow you to see how you contributed to the problems. You can then see what you did wrong. Often you need to seek forgiveness from your parents as much as to forgive them.

2. Build a “bank of memories” to draw on, a written account that could be part of a journal or a life history, or perhaps a separate notebook you can turn to when you begin thinking negatively. Fill this “bank” with as many good memories as possible, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. Focusing on positive memories can help unhappy ones diminish in significance.

3. If your parents are still alive, create new positive experiences. As an adult, you have more control over your relationship with parents. These experiences can become the ones you remember and dwell on in the future. The “new” relationship can become so satisfying that the far-away bad experiences are forgotten. The present becomes more real than the past.

4. Pray for help and guidance. Change of any kind is difficult, but forgiving and forgetting is perhaps the hardest kind of change. This change is beyond yourself, but is attainable when you seek and accept the help of Heavenly Father. He can give you the strength you lack.

Each of these things can be a help, but the important first step is to realize that only by forgiving and forgetting—letting go of our bitterness and hurt—do we free ourselves to progress. And it is only then that we enable ourselves to achieve our full potential.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “A Difficult Kind of Forgiving,” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss the following questions and ideas.

1. What makes it possible for us to change our lives for the better? From the Topical Guide in the LDS edition of the King James Bible find three or four scriptures that teach about agency and freedom. How do these scriptures apply to the principle of forgiveness? What role does the Savior play in our exercise of agency?

2. Why is it necessary for us to forgive others—including our parents if such needs to be done—in order to progress spiritually? Why do we need to seek their forgiveness?

3. How can understanding aid forgiveness?

4. Are there things you may be doing as a parent that may be harming your children emotionally or spiritually? What do you need to do to change? What changes do you need to make in your life as a son or daughter?

Photography by Eldon Linschoten

Sherrie Johnson, a free-lance writer and mother of nine, serves as Relief Society president in the Bountiful Utah West Stake.