Wednesday April 15, 2009
Dear Dr. Miller,
People often write wondering how we as adults can possibly be angry at our parents for the way they treated us as children, even when we realize that they had been abusive and neglectful. After all, hadn’t they themselves been abused and neglected by their own parents and weren’t they in fact doing the best they could? I want to describe how my own understanding of myself and my parents changed during the course of therapy – and how I had to hate my parents before I could love them
I am a physician in my 50’s with a wife and two college-age children. I have a busy practice and make a good income. I have always been considered by others to be successful, happy, and fortunate in career and family. Twenty years ago, at the urging of my wife, I began seeing a psychologist – in spite of what everyone else thought, I was dissatisfied with my work, distant from friends and unhappy in my marriage. One of the first things the therapist did was ask me to read Drama of the Gifted Child. The book stuck me like an explosion — I felt the book was speaking directly to me. It seemed to describe my life detail and laid out truths about my past and present that I had not known existed. I read the book over and over with wonder, excitement and relief. Finally, I felt, someone understood me! And finally, I felt, I understood myself: I was unhappy and depressed because I had been in some ways a deprived and abused child raised by deprived and abused parents. I also knew that my parents were had not tried to harm me. They had themselves suffered through painful childhoods, had been kind and thoughtful to me and had inflicted upon me less physical and emotional trauma than they had suffered. I realized that they had done the best they could and had had only the best intentions for me. I fully believed that in spite of their flaws they had truly and completely loved me. I was not angry with them – how could I be angry with people who loved me? How could I be angry with them because they had made unintentional mistakes? After rea ding the book I understood my parents and felt sorry for them. It never occurred to me to forgive them because I never felt they had done anything that needed forgiving. So after 6 months of weekly therapy sessions, I decided that I had figured out everything, that my life was in order and back on track — and quit therapy.
Seven years ago, I was hit with a massive depression and started therapy again with a different psychologist. Early on I began to talk about my childhood, but this time in more depth than before: the spankings, the emotional distancing, the silences, the manipulations, the demands, criticisms and scowls. I recalled incident after incident with increasing fury and indignation. This time around I did get angry at my parents. How dare they slap me! How dare they not talk to me! How dare they ruin my life like that! Feeling that anger toward them was liberating. Yet in spite of that anger, I did not hate them; I loved them and did not in the slightest blame or reproach them. This time around I did feel the need to forgive them for the pain they had caused me and the mess I felt they had made of my life. But forgiving them was easy. How could I not forgive them? I knew that they had loved me and had done the very best they could.
The next few years of therapy consisted of alternating periods of happiness and depression. Always a period of depression would end with some specific emotional realization: grief over my wasted life, mourning at how mistaken I had been in so many ways, horror over the way I had treated my own children. In a way that surprised me at first, these feelings of grief brought not despair but a sense of wholeness. When I was depressed, I felt numbed and empty. When I was grieving and tearful, I felt alive.
Two years ago, just before Christmas, I was several months into another round of depression. One afternoon, while sitting at my desk and writing in my journal, I looked up from the pages and had a sudden and utterly clear thought: “I hate my mother.” I whispered it to myself, “I hate my mother.”&nbs p; The feelings came in a rush. “I hate my mother!” I had never before felt that. But I did hate my mother. I hated both of my parents. I didn’t care if they had loved me and couldn’t help themselves – their problems didn’t matter to me now. I was overwhelmed with emotion. “You bastards to hit a little baby! Get your goddamned hands off of me! Don’t you ever touch me again! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you both!” All of this happened within minutes. And within minutes, my depression was gone.
The feelings of hatred keep coming, day after day and week after week. To myself and to my therapist I raged at my parents, cursed them, damned them. My hatred was so insistent that, as weeks turned into months and the flood kept pouring out, I began to think that it would never end and that I would hate my parents forever. But it did end. After two months, the flood began to diminish, and in few more weeks it was completely gone. I did not try to make it end; it dried up on its own. I did not try=2 0to have good feelings about my parents or try to forgive them; I simply did not hate them anymore and found that I had forgiven them completely without trying to forgive them at all. Ultimately, I found that I loved them with a truer love than I had before without ever once trying to create the feeling of love.
That was two years ago. I continue therapy, have not another episode of severe depression, and at this point suspect that I never will. I think I understand why it was necessary for me to not only know the intellectual truth of my childhood, but to feel anger and hatred before I could be healed: As an adult I had “forgiven” my parents; but the child I had been, the one who had actually been injured, had not forgiven them. And how could he forgive them? Except for the earliest days, he had never felt hurt, never felt wronged, never felt angry, had always been grateful for his parents’ attention and had blamed himself for everything. As a child I felt that my parents were perfect and that I was the one who was disobedient, troublesome, in danger of failing, rebellious and sinful. I felt that I was t he one who needed forgiveness, not they. But those absolutely justifiable and correct infant’s feelings of hurt and anger had not gone away; they had remained buried deep and out of sight yet still very much alive. As an adult I had begun to learn to deal honestly with my parents in everyday interactions. But I had to learn that I had hated and despised not only the way I was treated back then, but had at times hated and despised my parents as well. My depressions returned until that child of 50 years ago experienced the pain and anger that he had avoided, and my adult forgiveness and love were not complete until that child was able to experience, forgive and love.R.S
AM: The title of your letter is “Healing Hatred” and this wish is apparent in your text. However, you show how your (JUSTIFIED) hatred helped you to get rid in a few minutes of a depression that lasted for months ! This (very moving) description makes me assume that you had once a therapist who helped you to discover your true feelings and to benefit from this discovery. But my impressionn is that you had also other therapists who made you believe that the goal of a successful therapy is to forgive and so (?) to become free from “negative” feelings once and forever. I don’t share this opinion. To me, the goal of a therapy is to become emotionally honest and open for EVERY kind of feelings that may be triggered in future. As your letter shows, the hatred doesn’t stay for ever, it is a path to your truth and it should not be lost and covered up by moral demands for love and fogiveness that very often must by paid for by one’s own children. It seems to me that you are struggling with your TRUE feelings so that you could see yourself eventually as the good person who would deserve to be loved by your parents. And you often repeat that they loved you. But loving parents don’t hit their children. And the rage of the child is a normal reaction to cruelty. You can’t “heal the hatred”, you can only try to understand it and THEN it disappears. Not by forgiveness that easily creates hypocrisy you so much suffered from in your life.