How to Forgive Your Family of Origin with Adam Young

How to Forgive Your Family of Origin with Adam Young

A lot of us have experienced neglect or abuse from our family of origin, the people, whether our parents or grandparents or other caregivers that are supposed to be raising us have actually caused some harm. Some of us might suspect that things happen to us, but we aren't really sure if it did. And some of us are actually very aware of the abuse and neglect brought on by our parents. And then there's also this idea that some of us were over-parented and too sheltered.

How do we move towards forgiveness and healing when it comes to the pain that was brought on by the people that were supposed to love and protect us? Adam Young, who is a licensed trauma therapist and host of the podcast, “The Place We Find Ourselves” is joining us to talk about this important topic.

Why is it important for us to dig into our family of origin stories?

Because the past is not in the past. It's present. I don't think there's any value in engaging your past unless it's still relevant to your present life. We know this neurobiologically, and we know it biblically that your past is still playing out in your present day-to-day life. The reason that's true neurobiologically is that your brain is composed of billions of neurons. And the only way that neurons connect to each other is through genes and life experiences. So, with the exception of the genes that were passed on to you, your brain, and your neurons are configured completely as a result of the experiences you have had in your life, particularly when your brain was first developing. So the brain is influenced most by relationships. More than drugs, more than exercise, more than meditation, more than prayer, more than everything. Relationships shape the configuration of neurons, and as a result, your relationships with the primary caretakers that you had are still very much influencing how you experience the world.

How do you navigate the feeling of shame that you may have about your family of origin story?

We don't want to believe that our parents or grandparents might have done something—not just abuse—that negatively affects us, but we want to explore it. Sometimes shame or fear prevents us from exploring these stories because many of us esteem our parents and want to believe they were great parents, but we know they're not perfect. On the other side of the pendulum, we might sensationalize their issues and blame them for everything that we struggle with.

Regardless of what side of the pendulum you're on, the invitation is to honesty. The invitation in biblical language is to confession. The Greek word confess is homologeo. Homo means “sameness”, logeo means “speaking.” So to confess is to speak sameness with God about what has happened to you. To confess your sin is to speak sameness with God about the way that you have sinned. But to confess the truth of what has been the case for you in this world with regard to your family of origin is simply to speak sameness, to speak truthfully and candidly about what actually happened. Now there are a lot of obstacles that get in the way of that. It can be very difficult to get candid and honest about some of the heartache, some of the ways that we were harmed by our parents, by our siblings, or by our soccer coaches.

Whoever was influential in our lives when we were younger, it can be very hard to put words to the stories that we still remember that make us nauseous or make us enraged or fill us with shame as you've brought up. The real question is how free do you want to be? Because these stories of shame are affecting you today. That's a premise that you have to understand if that's true, you are bound by those unengaged stories from your growing-up years. And so the question is, how free do you want to be? If you want to free yourself fully in your body, then you have to reflect on, ponder, put words, and share with another person. Some of these pivotal stories that had an effect on you, you still remember them and you just don't want to engage them. I am deeply compassionate for the avoidance if you will, for the feeling of “not wanting to go there or I don't want to explore it.” Everyone gets to make their own decisions about how free they want to be.

Whether we explore this or not, we are carrying these stories and we are carrying shame. And it's a matter of if we want to dive into this and be free from it. Because it's absolutely shame on either side—whether you are afraid to face it or you’re afraid you’ll blame everything on them.

When we remember things, we remember them primarily in our bodies. So, if you have a felt sense of queasiness or yuckiness or rage or shame, whatever the big feels are that you have when you either interact perhaps now with a family member, or you think back to that story that happened when you were 11 years old at your birthday party, whatever it is that brings a bodily reaction that is memory. You are not making that up. The left hemisphere of your brain can lie. You can make up a story with your left hemisphere, but your body cannot lie. So, if you have that feeling of yuck when you think back on that 11th birthday party, that's true. Now what truth it's saying, we're not sure yet until we explore it. But I'm very reluctant to agree with you that you're somehow making something up. If you're doing that with your left hemisphere you're confabulating a lie but that's not my sense. My sense is you have bodily feelings about some stuff that happened when you were younger and you're not sure you want to be truthful in the telling of the story and you're not sure if you are, quote-unquote blowing it out of proportion. The body can't blow things out of proportion.

What do you do if you can't remember your childhood?

When most people say, “Hey, I just don't remember much of my growing-up years.” The pivotal word in that sentence is the word “much.” The implication is they remember something. If you've been in counseling for a couple of years or more, you have probably remembered some things. They might be snippets. They might be incomplete fragments of memories. They may just be felt bodily sensations about a particular relationship with mom or with dad or a sibling. But you remember something and you are minimizing what you do. Remember when you say, “I don't remember anything.” It's not that you don't remember anything, it's that what you do remember you don't think is that big of a deal, or you don't think, “Hey, that wasn't traumatic.” It doesn't feel like a story worth telling. So implicit in that is a minimization of what your body and mind and heart do. Remember, why not share, speak what you do remember as fragmented or partial as it may be, and see where it takes you.

What would you say is the best process for forgiving our family of origin?

Well, the first step is to acknowledge that it is a process. It is not a one-time event that happens at 10:13AM on a Tuesday. That is not how forgiveness works. It's a process. Now the question is why is it a process? It's a process because I cannot forgive my father for harm that has not yet been named by me. The more I ponder my story and engage my story as it relates to my father, the more I will uncover how he has failed me, which means the more I will have to forgive.

My father died two and a half years ago. I have things to forgive my father for today that I wasn't aware of two and a half years ago when he was dying because I've engaged my story more deeply since then. Forgiveness is a process. That's number one.

Number two, what forgiveness actually is, is the refusal to make the other person pay relationally for the harm they've done. This means that I'm not punishing the other person, I'm not talking about them behind their back. I'm not withholding my relationship. Now, caveat, asterisk. There are times when you need to withhold, particularly with harmful parents. With that as a caveat, forgiveness means that I don't make the other person pay relationally just because they failed me and harmed me. And that's a process.

How about if the person doesn't admit any wrongdoing?  How do we move toward forgiveness?

The other person doesn't have to admit that she's harmed me, for me to forgive her. My forgiveness of her has nothing to do with her owning the harm, my reconciliation with her does.
Those are two very different things. Forgiveness is, this is Dan Allender's words, “Forgiveness is a weapon on behalf of the kingdom of God against the kingdom of evil. Forgiveness frees you from bondage.” And in that sense, it does violence to the kingdom of darkness. Whether the other person owns and acknowledges her harm of me, that has nothing to do with how much I forgive her.

It has everything to do with if I'm willing to be in a relationship with her. If we're to be reconciled, that's a two-way street. But forgiveness is a one-way street.

That’s a clear distinction. The distinction between forgiving someone being an internal thing, something that belongs to me and then the reconciliation, something that belongs to us. That's something we do together. That's really good.

What about all the nuances?

For example, all the feelings of being dismissed, unsupported, being put in a position to be an adult or being unprotected when you were a child and experiencing abuse.

Well, let me say this. Rage is in no way inconsistent with forgiveness. Do not think that if you have forgiven your abuser or your parents, your rage and anger will be gone. Rage and anger are holy. The expression of it can be unholy, but the feeling of it is Godly.

I don't want anyone to think that if they're still pissed, it means they don't have a forgiving heart—that’s baloney.  It’s not true. Now, as to the question about how you bring yourself to forgive either the parents who set you up for the abuse or the abuser themselves that's a long conversation that goes back to the question, “What do you want?” You don't have to forgive them. What's your goal in forgiving? Do you want to be free from the bondage to either the two people that set you up for it or to the abuser themselves? And if you want to be free from that bondage because anytime there's harm, there is a connecting bondage between the two people. If you want to be free from that, forgiveness is part of the process of severing them, so that you can live your life.

Can you be in an authentic relationship with a parent that continues to harm you? Can I forgive and still acknowledge the fact that some of these patterns are not going to change?

There’s a third option, which is that if you start showing up differently in the relationship, the patterns will necessarily change. Every system can be changed unilaterally. A parent, a son, and a father is a system, it's a relational system, it's a dyad. That relationship can be changed unilaterally by either person. And it's kind of like a family mobile, those things that hang above the baby’s cribs.

A mobile is balanced. If you took like a one-pound weight and put it on one part of the mobile, the whole thing would start bouncing around. It would become unbalanced. In other words, the status quo would be no more. You show up differently in your relationship with your father, for example, the relationship will necessarily change. I want to underscore that phrase that you said, “Things are never going to change or the patterns are going to stay the same.” I don't believe that that's the case. I know from personal experience, and I know it from working with tons of clients. When we start showing up differently in our relationships, whether it's with a spouse, with our children, or with our parents, doesn't matter. The relationship changes. The question is, why are you still interacting with your father or your mother or whoever in the manner and style in which you are? And you've been doing that for 10 years and nothing's different. And you still get the same texts from your mom or your dad. You still get the same kinds of phone calls. You could write a movie script of the dialogue that you have with your dad because it happens in some form or another the same way every time. And it's been like this for five years.

If I step into doing the work of forgiveness and also start interacting differently with your dad, the relationship will change. And that's completely up to you. And that doesn't mean trying to correct my dad. I show up differently so the relationship changes.

How does it hurt our kids if we aren't able to move to a place of forgiveness with our family of origin?

Whoever we have not forgiven, we orient around, which is another way of saying we idolize them, they become like a God to us. So, if your posture towards your abuser, for example, is “I am not going to let that jerk have one more tear, one more moment of my life. I am not going to do the work to forgive him or her, because I don't want them to have one more ounce of influence over me.” If that's your posture, you’re orienting around the very person that you can't stand.

You're bound to him or her. Wherever we're bound to someone other than God, it's going to have profound effects on our parenting of our children, because that's what idolatry does. So if you want to be free to be the mom that you are created to be, and you can give yourself willingly and fully to the parenting of the children that you love, that you want to orient around truth and goodness and light and God, and not orient around, “I'm never ever going to let that jerk have one more of my tears.”

Because it's impossible, if you are orienting yourself around an abuser, for that not to flow over into your kids.

After you recognize the dysfunction and dishonesty, when you do the work of forgiveness, when you work towards telling the story, honestly, stepping into that and employing whatever kind of grace we can, it also changes the way you parent. It frees you to be able to tell yourself, “I can do better than this. I can stop this cycle.”

Here’s a quote from Richard Rohrer that is just axiomatic. “If you do not transform your pain, you will transmit it to your child.”

Where do you draw the line between trying to point out someone that's still in your life as a family of origin, that it's their fault and wanting them to take accountability?

The question is, do you want to be in relationship with this person? If the answer to that is yes, then the next question is, would you like that relationship to feel differently than it does presently? It feels yucky. And so, if the answer to that is yes, then the question is, “What's one of the ways that your father or whomever is presently harming you or that he harmed you in the past?” Then take your dad to dinner and sit down and say, “Dad, are you open to having a conversation with me about one of the ways that I feel harmed by you?”

For the listener, just to ask, “What would it feel like in their imagination? You don't have to do it. In your imagination take your mom or dad to dinner and just ask that question. As yourself, “Could we talk about one of the ways that you harmed me?” That will bear so much fruit in your imagination. How they're going to respond to that question influences what you're going to do next.

Are you saying that I do take my dad to dinner and ask him that question? Or I pose that situation in my head just as an exercise?

First go through the exercise in your imagination and say, “What would that feel like just to me, to my body, to take dad to dinner and say, dad, could we talk about one of the ways I feel harmed by you?” And if your whole body tenses up because you're bracing for either his dismissal, his shaming, his rage, or another negative reaction, then it might not be wise to actually take him to dinner and share that question. The exercise of just going there in your mind is powerful. It gives you lots of data about the kind of man that your father is.


When you change your behavior in a relationship, the relationship will change.

Rage and anger are consistent with forgiveness and are considered holy and Godly.

Listener Question

Hi, I'm Rita, a single mom of a six year old boy. I'm struggling with needing to teach him about his growing body. I don't know how to answer his questions sometimes besides a book. How do I figure out what to tell him?

The first place for Rita to go is to ponder what it is stirring up in her, what she's feeling about her six year old's developing body. Because our children pick up on the implicit communication from us way more than the words we use.  So, if you are freaking out, whether your kid's 6, 12, 18, sooner or later this six year old's going to become a 12, 13, 14 year old, and his body's going to be developing even more quickly. He's going to discover masturbation. There's going to be a developing sexuality. And the question is, “What does that stir in you as the mother of this boy?”  

Because those feelings all get put out into the air of your home, and your children pick up on them. That is far more important than any words that come out of your mouth. What matters to the child is the energy, the implicit communication, the nonverbal communication that gets put out into the home from mom or dad. And that is entirely a function of the degree to which you have made sense of your own sexuality, your own relationship with your body, and your own story in your growing up years.

It’s appropriate to tell your child, “I'm feeling a little scared or uneasy. Can I get back to you?” Because your child already knows. They already pick up on your awkwardness, your fear, your dysregulation, your shame, your discomfort with the whole subject. They already pick up on that. It is not only appropriate, but it is sanity producing for your kid, if you put words to your feelings and acknowledge them, because then they feel less crazy.


1 Comment

Todd Nail - September 19th, 2023 at 1:48pm

So if the family member/person that we are obsessing about has roots in idolatry, does that also mean other things could be the same way; sins, addictions, compulsions.






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