When my dad died, I knew something had changed forever.
My dad was very open with his love. One of his favorite things to say when I'd made a mess of things was, "You can always come home." He'd send me a hand-written letter when things were tough, often quoting scripture, but always with a supportive, guiding message that reminded me of what was really important in life. And I knew how his eyes would light up when he saw me, especially when I no longer lived in the same city as him and my mom. I'm sure my brothers saw that same light.
I know my husband loves me, but let's face it, I'd have to be gone a long time before his eyes lit up. We've been together way too long.
My dad's love was probably the purest love I'd ever experienced.
I was very lucky.
As a therapist, I've heard hundreds of stories of children, now adults, who suffered terribly at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for them. And yet, there's a frequent tendency to somehow discount the pain of what was their "childhood." They didn't actually ever get to be children, but had to grow up almost instantaneously in order to handle day after day of being ridiculed, demeaned, abused or forgotten.
"I can't remember too much of it. It's a blur. What I do remember is all the fighting."
"I just did what I had to do. I tried to stay out of his way when he was drunk."
"One day my mom would be so sweet, but the next she'd come after me with a vengeance."
"I didn't tell anyone, but I was always hungry."
Healing isn't about going back and blaming parents for whatever their shortcomings were. Blame will likely leave you stuck, paralyzed in bitterness, anger or even fear. You risk still living in the past. And you may walk around with a huge chip on your shoulder. The world will owe you for the crummy childhood you had.
Healing is about acknowledgment.
Your past doesn't imprison you. But understanding and dealing with its impact helps you make connections that can free you from its pain.
So how do you heal from the hurts of the past?
1. Acknowledge the reality of what happened
How do you acknowledge the past? It's allowing yourself to realize how growing up within your circumstances - both good and bad - affected you. Staying in a place of denial or discounting the impact of an abusive or neglectful home will only keep you emotionally stuck. You'll be much more likely to act out the consequences of it, without realizing what you're doing.
Here's an example. My husband and I used to fight about money. Then one day, he said to me, "Do you realize you're treating me like your dad treated your mom?" I was stunned at first, but then realized he was exactly right. I didn't want to live out my mother's more submissive, 1950s role with money that I was overcompensating. A lot.
Acknowledgment shed light on what I hadn't seen until then. It put the pieces together. Call it insight. Call it understanding. Whatever.
We've never fought about money since.
2. Have compassion for yourself
If a child ran up to you and had a bleeding gash in his arm, you wouldn't say, "Just be glad it's not broken." You'd help them stop the bleeding and give them comfort.
That's what compassion is - seeing pain, having empathy for what's causing it and then trying to do something about it. You can do that for yourself. That's not self-pity. That's not wallowing. In fact, it's likely to lead you to more quickly move on and not wallow at all.
3. Allow your pain to surface
This is harder than it sounds. Feeling all of your emotions can be tough. You may be totally walled off from painful emotions. You may tell yourself that it's not enjoyable to feel sad or angry, or you may actually fear feeling pain. You may have become accustomed to either not feeling anything, or staying stuck in one emotion or the other. Perhaps you're more comfortable with anger and everything makes you mad. Or, you remain afraid and worry all the time.
Risking change - risking feeling something that's been denied - can be scary but very rewarding.
4. Reveal what you experienced to someone you trust
Learning how to soothe your own emotional pain gives you safety that perhaps you never had as a child. Don't forget that there are people who want to understand and help you.
Whether it's your partner, a good friend or a therapist, there's someone who'll be willing to listen - but only if you reach out.
It's a wonderful gift to give and to receive.
Check out Dr. Margaret on her new podcast, Self Work With Dr. Margaret. In each episode, Dr. Margaret takes a direct, solution-oriented approach to depression, anxiety, trauma or grief to guide you toward the changes you want.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 2012, she began blogging, focusing on mental health topics. Her work can be seen on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Better After 50 and Readers Digest. She also has published one eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.” You can listen to Dr. Rutherford on her podcast, SelfWork!