Looking back at family of origin is a mainstay of therapy, and it has nothing to do with placing blame. The goal is, instead, to promote insight into hidden patterns or “unwritten rules” that have shaped our beliefs and behaviors in ways we may not recognize. Dissolving the blame we cling to, whether we blame others or ourselves, is often the result.
Recently, I’ve met with a dad and his son, whose relationship has suffered for years after a tragedy took the life of their wife and mom. Both have brought deep caring and tenacity to this effort, and both have written eloquent essays to communicate and to build understanding.
The dad, who I’ll call “George,” recognized a connection between holding a grudge against his own father and allowing bitterness and resentment to contaminate his life and his parenting. He wrote his own personal “TED Talk,” called “Great Things my Dad Taught Me.”
In doing so, George turned the tables on his own automatic thinking that had morphed into rumination and resentment about his dad’s flaws. The rift between them came after George’s dad showed scant empathy for the terror George’s wife had faced, and instead insisted on putting his own complaints first. His dad is deceased, so the work of acceptance and reconciliation was George’s to complete on his own.
George took initiative to put in writing his memories of dad throughout his life, and seven single-spaced pages later, had produced a glowing report of better days. Just a few of the subheadings:
“Dad taught me that family mattered” “Dad taught me how to fish.” “Dad taught me the art and science of finance.” “Dad introduced faith into my life.” “Dad taught me how to hit a ball.”
As George wrote, he said he felt as if shackles were being loosened. “Dad was a decent man. But most of all he was human, and he was worthy of my forgiveness.” George is in the process of extinguishing a decade’s worth of white-hot anger, as his past threatened to incinerate today’s relationships.
George discovered that he had been judging himself harshly, and came to see that “never is peace found in anger.” Forgiving his dad has been a stepping stone toward forgiving himself, by “recognizing and embracing the good.”
And George’s son? “Jason” (not his real name) responded by writing his own long essay to his dad. While struggling with matters that have divided them, Jason tempered his own anger with appreciation. He closed with an eloquent description of the current struggle, and his goal as a young man:
“I feel like I’m on a small lifeboat with you and mom, fit for two, but we are three. ... I see another boat in the distance made for one. All through my life you’ve taught me how to swim…and I’m ready. As I jump I feel my whole body go in, but one foot, it’s being held. You are holding it in the fear that I’ll drown, or worst of all, that when I get to the boat I’ll paddle away from you and never return. … You offer me advice and techniques, but if you just let go I would be able to make it, and you know I would. I might struggle at first, I might make some mistakes, but I’d get there, I’d find my own way. … When I climb aboard, it’s my boat. I don’t paddle away forever and forget you, I just paddle on my own terms, and it’s fine.”
In recognizing and shedding his own shackles of anger and hurt, George has created a family legacy of honesty, connection, and compassion. It actually builds on the strengths his own dad possessed. And this legacy helps assure a future for Jason that points his own boat toward joy and freedom.