I am currently reading Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward, PhD. Most of her information and advice is spot on. However, I disagree with her on a couple of issues. Before I get into those, I should probably fill you in on why I’m reading this book.
As stated in my introduction post, I lived with a sociopath for a number of years, and my significant other was ensnared by one for over a decade. If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve had your own major encounter with a psychopath, or perhaps you have a loved one who has. And if that’s the case, you may already have learned that the reason some of us get involved with sociopaths is because we’re trying to resolve childhood issues. We had high conflict, sociopathic, or personality disordered parents, and we got stuck in dysfunction; we don’t know what normal, healthy relationships are all about.
As far as my parents are concerned, I’ve already made my peace. When I say that, I mean I’ve made my peace within myself and, as a result of that, I was able to make my peace with them. (I want to point out that this was partly a result of the relationship I had with the psychopath. As I was discovering what he was, I realized he and my father seemed to have come from the same template. So it gave me some deep insight into the relationship I had with him, as well.)
My SO comes from a highly dysfunctional family also, and has made significant progress as far as understanding how that has affected his life and his choices. He has learned to recognize when he is being manipulated, and he stands up for himself. We both still read books like this one to continue to gain valuable insight. For me the subject is still fascinating.
Getting back on topic, Dr. Forward tells her clients that forgiveness is not essential. I respectfully disagree. Unfortunately, many people seem to think forgiveness and absolution are one and the same. They are not. Forgiveness does not equal absolution. The two are not synonymous. Forgiving someone does not mean that you will continue to allow them to abuse you or that you will pretend like the abuse never occurred.
It’s been my experience though that forgiveness is a process. You cannot simply state that you forgive your abuser and expect that, magically, all of the hurt from the past will disappear, you will have your self-esteem back, your toxic parent(s) will be grief-stricken at ever having hurt you and will become the perfect parent(s), etc. Strangely, many people seem to think that that’s how forgiveness works. It has to come naturally. For me, it’s been part of the healing process. It gradually started to happen on its own, without any conscious effort on my part. (Other than struggling to make sense of everything and to recover from it all.)
I realized I had forgiven these people when I got to the point where I could think of them, and unpleasant incidents from our past, without feeling strong emotions. Now, especially when I recall traumatic incidents from childhood, they almost seem as if they happened to someone else. I don’t feel anger, confusion, emotional distress, helplessness, hatred or a wish to lash out. Sometimes there’s a little sadness at the fact the we humans can be so cruel, but that’s not what this post is about.
The second thing I disagree with Dr. Forward on is her urging all of her clients to confront their toxic parents. I don’t think a confrontation is necessary for everyone. She suggests putting it in writing or arranging a face to face meeting. The patient basically outlines the abuses/neglect they suffered, how they were affected by it, and that they are not going to tolerate any ongoing abuse or disrespect. I think there are plenty of people who could benefit from writing a letter that they never intend to send. (Writing in a journal is another option.) If you’re struggling with going no-contact, then the response to your confrontation might help you decide. However, if you already know in your heart that no-contact is the only way to have peace in your life, then what’s the point of a confrontation?
Dr. Forward suggests that the confrontation is to prove to the patient that he/she can stand up to their parents. In my experience, in order to do that, you must set solid boundaries and stop allowing the parents (or anyone else for that matter) to cross those boundaries. When you can do that, then you know that you are okay. When you no longer allow them to abuse you or treat you with disrespect, when you can calmly tell them that you’re going to walk out/hang up if they keep acting like children, when you can refuse to give in to guilt and manipulations, when they are no longer able to push your buttons, then you are fine.
You can stand up to your parents without confronting them with the past. In some instances, a confrontation may make things worse. For me, I simply don’t see the point – it wouldn’t be helpful to me at all. Everyone is different though and, if you feel the need for a confrontation, Toxic Parents will help you prepare for one. Check your local library, or you can purchase the book on Amazon.
There’s one more thing I want to mention. Dr. Forward gives examples of how toxic parents typically respond during these face to face encounters. Not surprisingly, they react exactly the same way personality disordered spouses/lovers do, when we call them on their bullshit. Essentially, they respond with denial, blame shifting, false apologies – in hopes of sweeping everything under the rug, making excuses/rationalizing, the martyr routine, and – my personal fave – the whiny, melodramatic why-are-you-being-mean-to-me crap. I couldn’t help noticing the pattern, and it made me wonder if Dr. F would also advise her patients to have a face off with an ex spouse/lover. I doubt she would, and doing so with one’s parents hardly seems like it would be particularly helpful for the same reason.
Each of us is different, and it’s important to do what’s best for you. If you find this book helpful, and you want more, I’ve comprised a short list of books that have been helpful to me during the healing process. If you’re interested, you can view it here.