5 Steps That Helped Me Learn To Forgive My Parents

Thanks to hundreds of hours in therapy, I’ve been able to begin forgiving them. Here are some things I’ve done to facilitate the process as a Black woman.

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At 21, I left home and moved from London to Nigeria. I couldn’t be happier to move thousands of miles away from my parents and family dysfunction. Despite moving far away, I couldn’t elope the trauma and resentment I felt towards my parents. Frankly, the resentment grew with the scanty ‘just checking how you are’ phone calls, their inability to ask what my address was, and every missed birthday. 

But it was years later before I realized I’d been subconsciously trying to meet my childhood needs and reliving my trauma in romantic relationships and friendships. It took my marriage crashing for me to take a deeper look and realize much of my trauma stemmed from my fractured relationship with my parents.

Thanks to hundreds of hours in therapy, I’ve been able to begin forgiving them. Here are some things I’ve done to facilitate the process.  

I had uncomfortable conversations—even when they didn’t end in apologies. 

In our Black household, challenging my parent’s authority was a “hell no.” The environment left me struggling to communicate and express my feelings and afraid of retaliation. I also struggled during uncomfortable conversations. It could take me ten to thirty minutes to express feelings during vulnerable discussions for much of my life. 

Along my healing journey, I’ve learned to use my voice and have uncomfortable conversations, especially with my parents. The first time I tried this was a couple of years ago when sitting in the living room with my mother. She brought up an incident that happened in the past, and I thought it was a good time to unpack my resentment. She met me with deflection and defensiveness. Her conclusion was, “I did my best, and sorry if that wasn’t good enough for you.” It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But it gave me the closure I needed even though it was hard not hearing a genuine apology from my mom.

Dr. Shanita Brown, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and teaching assistant professor at East Carolina University in Raleigh, NC, says sometimes you won’t get an apology because your parents don’t know how to give one. 

“Sometimes closure looks like accepting ‘I won’t get that apology’ or ‘my parents can’t show up,’ or ‘my parents don’t have the capacity to do what I would like for them to do,’” she says. “And then you have to focus on healing your wound and how you show up in that relationship. But that can be very hard.”

I asked questions about my parents’ lives to humanize them. 

After confronting my parents, I became curious about their life experiences and who they were as people. The answers I found made me realize they’re not the superheroes I thought they were. They are nuanced people with imperfections, just like me. 

Brown suggests trying to understand who your parents are and says this can help if you struggle with acceptance. “It would be helpful to gain some clarity and background about their history–I think we have to accept and learn more about our parents,” she says.

You can also ask family members or friends for more insight if you don’t feel comfortable asking your parents. 

After confronting my parents, I became curious about their life experiences and who they were as people. The answers I found made me realize they’re not the superheroes I thought they were. They are nuanced people with imperfections, just like me. 

When trying to understand my mom better, I asked my aunt questions about her childhood and life before me. I learned my mom had to fend for herself from a young age, which helped me put some of her behaviors into context. Likewise, I sat down with my father and asked him about his childhood. To my surprise, his life was filled with abuse and neglect. Knowing that helped me be more compassionate and understand why he may struggle to show up for me and maintain a nurturing relationship. 

I let go of the fantasy and grieved the parents I’ll never have 

I wanted my parents to be gentle with me, nurturing, understanding, and curious about who I was. I needed them to celebrate my wins, show up at my poetry performances, hug me when I felt sad, and not shame me for making mistakes. Unfortunately, they didn’t know how to do those things, and it has taken me years to move past that. We all have fantasies about who we hope our parents will be. Sometimes this means you’re holding onto unrealistic expectations. Accepting that I had a fantasy version of my parents and giving myself a chance to grieve has helped me tremendously. 

“Allow yourself to grieve that you don’t have that mother-daughter or daughter-father relationship that you thought you would have,” says Brown. 

The Grief Recovery Handbook was fundamental in helping me go through all the stages of grief. Anger, accepting, and releasing were crucial steps. I still cry when I see my fantasy parents on TV shows like This is Us or movies like From Scratch. But then I practice gratitude for the parents I do have and recommit to making the most of our relationship.

I’m learning to re-parent myself. 

After accepting that my parents couldn’t meet my needs, I realized it was my responsibility to give myself what I needed as an adult. To do this, I had to re-parent myself and do inner child work. My therapist and Black wellness influencers like Shelah Marie helped me navigate the journey. 

Inner child work is about recognizing your childhood trauma and healing it by acknowledging the little version of you. It involves seeing how they were neglected and how you can meet their needs. It isn’t easy work, and you’ll need lots of self-care during the process. 

“It is really working on your own self-care and self-compassion,” says Esther Boykin, a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and CEO of Group Therapy Associates in Washington, DC. She also says it’s about asking, “How do I nurture those very young, very tender parts of myself so that version of me feels cared for?” 

For me, inner-child work comprised sitting with my emotions, learning to celebrate myself, having a kinder internal dialogue, and engaging in hobbies little me enjoyed. “When you care for your inner child, it can be easier to accept these are the parents you have, and you won’t get anything different,” says Boykin. 

I learned it’s OK to set boundaries in our interactions. 

Black families in America are often guided by Afro-centric values such as obedience, religion, and respect. But it can be challenging to identify which of these qualities are rooted in slavery and Black parents trying to teach their children how to cope with stress and keep them alive. In many Black cultures, we’re taught that no matter what your parents do, you must forgive them and maintain a relationship. 

“I think as Black people, culturally, we value family and often have a sense of hierarchy in [the] family. Oftentimes in Black families, respect is conflated with conformity,” says Boykin. 

She says it’s OK to accept who your parents are, decide not to forgive them, and cut ties if that’s best for your mental health. But you can also set boundaries around how much you interact with your parents to preserve your peace. 

“That can make it really hard to set boundaries or to feel like, ‘it’s OK for me to talk to my parents three times a year because that’s the only way I take really good care of myself and my emotional well-being,” says Boykin. 

While I am still in a relationship with my parents, I’m learning it’s OK to set boundaries and minimize how much I speak to them when I lack the capacity. “It’s about figuring out ‘how do I love and honor them while still loving and honoring me?’ And sometimes that means space,” says Boykin. 

My parents and I aren’t as close as I’d like. But I finally accept them for who they are and enjoy our time together. I hope that when my son grows up and realizes I am flawed, he will show me the same grace. 

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