To Err Is Human. To Forgive… Well, Maybe; Baby, You Move Me! (No Thank You.)
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My mother was not very good at being a mother. She used drugs in front of me, and had a steady stream of “gentleman visitors” who would “crash” at our house. Frankly, I pretty much raised myself. Now I am an adult and my mother is doing everything she can to be nice to me (including paying for my ongoing psychotherapy). But I just can’t get past it! I can’t lose the resentment I feel over her lack of responsibility when I was little. I want to forgive and forget, but I just can’t.
Dr. Hurd replies,
“Forgive and forget?” Let’s be honest: You can’t forget, and whether you want to hear it or not, you don’t have to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice. Of course, the knee-jerk response here is, “If you don’t forgive, then you’ll hold onto the anger and never move past it.” This makes sense if you view forgiveness as nothing more than putting something into perspective and seeing it for what it is. I have no problem with that, and in fact, it’s necessary. But first and foremost, seeing with perspective requires that you don’t pretend. It’s the mental and emotional equivalent of 20/20 vision. By this standard, you don’t pretend to yourself—or your mother—that her negligence is anything other than that. If she sees it that way, then you might consider giving her a hearing. On the other hand, if she’s playing make-believe or otherwise evading the facts, then I would refuse to participate in that. In spite of all the platitudes, rewriting history isn’t right, it isn’t accurate, and it isn’t healthy.
To some, forgiveness does not mean simply putting something into perspective. To them it means turning the other cheek in mythical saint-like fashion and acting as if nothing happened. This is phony, foolish, and from a mental health perspective, futile. In my experience, I’m always fascinated how so many sanctimoniously hold this up as the ideal, but how so few actually practice it.
You probably won’t hear this perspective from most people. And I’m not telling you what to do or what to think. But I hope this encounter with reality lets you recognize that you’re in the driver’s seat of how to regard your mother, and that nobody has the right to tell you otherwise.
Trying to make the resentment just “go away” will require you to lie to yourself. So the question is whether there’s anything worth salvaging in your current relationship with your mother. Forgiveness, however you define it, can only apply to the remorseful, so your decision hinges on her attitude about what actually happened. If she is sorry for the right reasons, then it’s your call whether to move on, with or without her. To me, that is the determining factor.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I own a big pickup truck. I often get calls from friends asking me to “help them move.” At first I didn’t mind, but now it’s getting on my nerves. We are all in our mid-50s, for goodness sake! Isn’t there a point in our lives when we should drop the college dorm mentality, act like grownups and hire a mover or a hauler instead of imposing on friends? I know you’re going to call me an enabler. Go ahead. I need to hear it. I also need to know what to say the next time I’m asked for a “favor” that ties up my whole day, makes my back hurt, and costs me $50 in gas!
Dr. Hurd replies,
It’s not a matter of what to say the next time someone asks you—in your mid 50s, no less—to help them move. It’s a matter of how you look at it. What to say (or not say) flows from how you see things. Yes, you may be an enabler, and if your behavior could speak, it would say, “I don’t own my time or my life.” Put that way, it sounds absurd. But think about it: If you really believed your life and time belonged to you, would you hesitate to say a polite “no” to these requests you’re unwilling to grant? You’re allowing others to place an emotional mortgage on your time, but you don’t like the consequences of that. You can’t have it both ways! Understand that you don’t have to adopt my way of thinking, but if you hold onto yours you will continue to experience the consequences.
I suggest you rehearse your next response so you won’t be caught by surprise. Don’t say what I tell you to say. Think about how you would like to say “no.” Whenever possible, do it with humor. Sometimes it smooths out the process of gently denying their request. I’m not anti-helping, by the way. In the right circumstances, helping can be one of the most gratifying things we can do. But whether you choose to help people or not, your life still belongs to you. In order to say “no” politely yet convincingly, your mind first has to change. Once it does, the words will find you.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.