A Short Story About How to Get to Forgiveness
Last Sunday, our pastor reminded us of Jesus’ message, “Before you pray, you must forgive.” A memory flashed across my mind of the only time I saw my father cry.
The relationship with my father was the source of my greatest pain during my childhood and much of my adulthood. For many years, I couldn’t forgive him. I wanted a close emotional relationship with my father, but as if by some unspoken contract, I picked a man who was not designed to love me the way I needed it. Dad was brilliant, a leader among leaders. He provided for us financially, and he was always ethical and honest. But he was emotionally distant. Stoic. He loved his work, but he was the strong silent type at home.
I tried every possible tactic to win my dad’s love. As a little girl, I decided that if I could become like him, I could finally get the love I craved. I had to work extra hard to get good grades because I had dyslexia. Every time I got straight A’s, he didn’t even say a word. Not a word. But that didn’t stop me. I kept trying.
There was always a dull ache in my heart—dull because I had grown emotionally numb like Dad. He thought stoicism was superior to emotion. Emotions caused trouble. Fear, sadness, and insecurity were not discussed in our family. My mom and my two sisters tried to bury their emotions, too. Without the ability to manage our emotions in healthy ways, we endured on-going conflicts, cold wars, depression, worry, anxiety, and unpredictable outbursts of anger.
As a child, I felt the tension among my family members, and I hated it. I didn’t know it then, but I felt my own feelings and everyone else’s, too. Emotions swirled inside me like a hurricane. I didn’t have words to label my emotions and I never learned to express them directly. I felt lonely and insecure, but never showed it. Instead I poured myself into studies, and I looked like a high-functioning child and adolescent. I played my clarinet in the marching band and musicals, and became a leader in school activities. I confided in my two close girlfriends.
As an adult embarking on my career as a licensed professional counselor, I studied communication and conflict resolution skills. I desperately needed to learn emotional intelligence skills that were missing in my family. I could feel the deep anguish in my clients who had similar pain with their fathers and mothers and siblings. I wanted to help them. And, I wanted to help my family resolve our pain.
Annual visits to my parent’s home felt more like arduous personal growth retreats than vacations. For several years, I organized a family council meeting. Everyone sat around the dining room table, reluctant to face the issues that had been shoved under the rug. I would facilitate the meeting and encourage people to be open and honest with each other. To our credit, we dared to reveal some of our thoughts and feelings, but often we ended up feeling more miserable than when we began. By the end of the meeting, my mom would melt into a puddle of tears, telling me she didn’t want me to play counselor.
Often on the last day of my vacation, my mother would get angry with me for some unknown reason. After this happened several times, I asked my mom, “Are you sad when I leave? Is that why you get angry with me?” “Yes,” she replied. Weeks later on the telephone, she retorted, “I never want to have one of those family meetings again! You always disrupt everything.” I’d back down while issues seethed in a slow burn for another year.
I didn’t want to give up hope that my family could become more harmonious. I kept trying to get people to understand each other and resolve conflicts. But finally I honored my mother’s request. She told me one more time, “Don’t ask for another family council meeting. You are causing too much trouble.”
My family’s relentless decision not to grow in the way I thought would be healthy spurred me to do deeper personal growth work. I distanced myself from them. That was the only way I knew how to keep my sanity. I chose to live my own life instead of allowing the family anguish to affect me so deeply. I stopped trying to get them to change so I could be happy. I took on a deeper sense of personal responsibility for my own happiness.
But, I still wanted a closer relationship with my father. I had already done several years of therapy, but it was not until age 38 that I had done enough of my own emotional healing that I could sit with my dad and have a genuine conversation. There seemed to be an unwritten family rule: “Don’t talk to your father about anything meaningful that involves emotions.” For 38 years I went along with that, but then I realized that I, too, was perpetuating the pattern. If I didn’t take responsibility to change my part of the pattern, I predicted that I would never experience the emotional closeness that I wanted with my father.
I did a lot of preparation to be able to ask for an authentic conversation with my father. In addition to doing intensive deep emotional healing work with my counselors, I wrote several inner dialogues between my wounded inner child and my dad’s spirit. I spoke to the part of him whom I imagined to be warm and loving: his spirit. Then I imagined what his spirit would say back to me, and I would write that. The more I wrote these scripts, the more I healed. (Read my journal entries.)
After several inner dialogues, I came to believe that my father might actually choose to respond the way I imagined his spirit would respond. He might be present with me while I shared my vulnerable feelings. I might be right, or I might be wrong about that. The decision to have a candid conversation with my father was the scariest thing I had ever done in my life. I chose to break the family rule about never talking to Dad about feelings or anything deeply meaningful. If I didn’t take the risk to open up, I was pretty sure the whole pattern would stay the same the rest of my life, and I would never get the emotional intimacy I wanted with him. It was worth the risk.
I visited my parent’s home during the week of Thanksgiving. As my vacation was drawing to a close, time was running out. I made myself muster up the courage to ask Dad to talk with me. As dinner ended Sunday afternoon, my mom, my two sisters and I were sitting around the kitchen table. With a big lump in my throat, I forced myself to speak up. “Dad, I’d like to talk with you after dinner, just the two of us. Would you be willing to do that?” He agreed.
We walked into the living room and sat in front of the large white stone fireplace. Dad pulled up a chair to my left, and I sat on the love seat to his right so we were positioned at a 90-degree angle to each other.
I did my best to speak from my heart with sincere emotion, not just from my head. I spoke vulnerably and stayed connected to my Authentic Self. I told my dad about the deep pain that I carried since childhood because he had not been emotionally available to me. I told him how I felt insecure as a child because I didn’t have the connection with him that I needed. I told him that I wanted the kind of father who would play with me and hold me on his lap. I told him that I worked hard to achieve straight A’s for many years, hoping he would acknowledge me, but he never did. I told him how my coping strategy had become working hard to be successful. I hid my anxiety with my success.
Just like I had imagined in my inner dialogues, my father gave me his undivided attention with perfect eye contact. He wanted to know how I felt. He didn’t dismiss me, or get defensive, not even once. He didn’t criticize me or minimize my feelings. He told me that he had no idea that I felt so hurt and insecure.
I replied, “Of course, you didn’t. I never showed you how I felt inside.” Those conversations were reserved for my counselors and trusted friends.
That Thanksgiving talk was the turning point in my relationship with my dad, and in my relationships with all men.
From that time forward, Dad and I grew closer. He began to open up more each time we talked. When I called home, instead of passing the phone to my mother, dad would talk with me. Sometimes, we had casual conversations the way good friends do. At the end of our talk, I would say “I love you,” and after many times, he would say, “I love you” back to me. After a few years, he surprised me one day when he jokingly quipped, “See, I said ‘I love you’ first!”
Dad’s hugs that had been stiff as a board began to soften. I especially remember the times he took me to the airport at the end of my Holiday visits. He embraced me a little longer each time, and he told me that he loved me. Every year, he said it with a little more feeling, and so did I. We both gradually developed more courage to express our love.
Those were some of the most meaningful times of my life. My dad stretched outside his comfort zone to meet my needs because he loved me.
But there was still more healing to do.
At age 44, I entered a Dark Night of the Soul that lasted 3 years. I cried almost every day. Although I could have been diagnosed with clinical depression, I didn’t see it that way. I judged myself harshly when I felt emotionally insecure, and I desperately wanted others to love me. I feared that they would not respect me if they knew my insecurities. I realized that my unhealed insecurity was the basis of my over-working. Denied insecurity and lack of self-love was at the root of every failed relationship. I also realized I needed a deeper relationship with God. We often project our father issues onto God.
I realized that I had to love myself, warts and all, or it was unlikely I would have deeply fulfilling relationships. I grew in my ability to receive God’s love. RECEIVING was the key. OPENING to my vulnerable feelings was the process. I promised to suspend my judgment about feeling insecure. I practiced a new paradigm: feelings are OK, no matter what name they carry. There are healthy or unhealthy ways of expressing them. Holding them in or exploding is not healthy.
I visited my family again, and I called one last family meeting. This time it was different. I realized that playing the role of the facilitator was one of my coping mechanisms that kept me from being fully present and transparent. I practiced disclosing myself instead of playing the role of the facilitator. My father seemed more present that year, or maybe it was me. I’m not sure.
At one point I looked deep into my dad’s eyes and said to him, “I no longer hold you responsible for my emotional pain. I am taking full responsibility for healing my pain.” That was an act of forgiveness. I finally let my father off the hook. I said it clearly and without emotion. There wasn’t any emotion because I had done so much healing. I felt much more centered in my Authentic Self.
I didn’t expect the reaction I got. Tears began to roll down dad’s cheeks. That was the only time I saw my father cry. I had no idea my statement would affect him so deeply. He did not try to hide his tears. He did not act ashamed. He just stayed present and said, “Thank you.”
I was in awe.
When I returned to my home in Atlanta, I continued to do my inner work. I watched the adversarial relationship where my inner critic demanded perfection and my inner child felt ashamed. I had a large array of feelings, and I was committed to loving myself in the midst of all of them, all the time. I no longer had to get rid of feelings to be OK. I wanted to become my own best friend, and to continue developing my relationship with God. I forgave myself for my so-called shortcomings.
The transformation with my dad happened when I was willing to go first, when I took a deep level of personal responsibility. I stopped blaming my dad, and I stopped clinging to him for my sense of self-worth.
Out of all the things that have helped me grow in this lifetime, my father’s willingness to stretch outside his comfort zone to love me the way I needed is near the top of the list. I completed my unfinished business with him, and I experience inner peace because of it.
When my father died in December 2005, I felt a gigantic flow of love streaming from him to me, more than I could have ever imagined. I feel his presence with me now as I hear him speak these words:
“Write your stories, daughter. Tell your truth. You are making a difference, and you have a lot to share. Proceed even amidst obstacles and your concern about what people say. Remain undaunted like you always have. That is one of your greatest gifts. You are your father’s daughter. Express yourself in the ways that you know to be wise and loving. Do it your way, not my way. I am proud of you.”
I cry … again … this time out of love and appreciation.
I love you, Dad.
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REFLECTIONS: Now It’s Your Turn
1. What are your childhood wounds? What needs were not met by your father? What wounding do you still carry that is reflected in your adult relationships? Have you forgiven your father? Are you ready to take the next level of personal responsibility? Do you have close supportive friends and family to help you work through your grief in healthy ways?
2. Write a dialogue between your wounded inner child and the spirit of your father, not his personality self. Pour out your pain. Then use your imagination and tune into the spirit of your father who is wise and loving. Write what you hear from him. It will seem like you are writing a script in a play. You are. It’s your play, and it just might come true like mine did. Click here to read one of my dialogues with my father.
If you have trouble doing this exercise, or if you think your father will never respond in a nurturing way, please ask for counseling. Without doing deep inner healing, your adult relationships are likely to be dysfunctional, continually repeating the wounds of your childhood.
It’s my great joy to serve you. Contact me.
Benita A. Esposito, Licensed Professional Counselor. Bio. To see if we are a good fit, request a 10-minute complementary phone interview. Offices in Atlanta and Blairsville, Georgia. Distance counseling is available via telephone and video-conferencing.
All rights reserved. The Esposito Institute, Inc. 2006