Compassion and Forgiveness: Dealing With Family Wounds

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Compassion and Forgiveness: Dealing With Family Wounds

Dear Cynthia, I consider myself to be a calm, loving and forgiving person…except when it comes to my family. Even after years of therapy I still get totally triggered, the grudges emerge and the same “family role grooves” appear. Why is it so hard for me to be truly accepting of my family and parents? And how do I keep from making the same mistakes with my kids?

As the old truism goes: “No wonder our parents can push our buttons; they’re the ones who installed them in the first place!” While the notion of Original Sin has mostly fallen out of favor nowadays, with only a slight adjustment of the terminology—re-envisioning it as a “web of woundedness”—it comes right back in line with the temper of our times. We are all, inescapably, caught in a web of woundedness because we receive our lives from imperfect beings and pass on the gift of life while we are still far from perfect ourselves.

The wounds are right below the surface, and any lapse of consciousness can instantly plunge us into a replay of old scenarios.

I was a child bride when I married at age 20, and I spent the next 15 years growing up—at the expense of my two daughters. We can all laugh about it now—a trifle nervously. The wounds are right below the surface, and any lapse of consciousness can instantly plunge us into a replay of old scenarios.

My friends and students are constantly telling me, “Wow, you’ve really grown over the past few years!” With my daughters, it’s striking that the response is usually exactly the opposite: a slightly exasperated “Mom, you haven’t changed a bit!” While there are many reasons for this discrepancy, the one that comes closest to hitting the nail on the head is that families are the guardians of that thread of continuity in all of us. They are the keepers of our human timeline over long, long decades, and in that sense bring a tempering to our own illusions of progress and the projections of friends who know us more superficially. And this is a good thing! When my daughters Gwen or Lucy comment on a change in my patterns, I know I’m really getting somewhere! And when they keep drawing my attention back to a persistent characteristic, I have to acknowledge in all humility that I belong, inescapably, to the web of woundedness—just like all human beings. It is the most fundamental ground of our common humanity.

When I stop blaming my own mother for all the ways she failed me and start seeing the ways in which her own life was a courageous response to circumstances beyond her control; when I realize that she gave me the very best that she could and stood by me in her own way to the very end, then my heart softens: not just for her, but for my own wounded self.

That being the case, the tools we need to engage are consciousness and compassion. Consciousness is the ability to step back from our own agendas and automatic behaviors and see the wider pattern; without this capacity, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle claims, “All relationships are deeply flawed.” Compassion is the capacity to move beyond our own sense of entitlement and victimhood and move inside the other person’s heart. When I stop blaming my own mother for all the ways she failed me and start seeing the ways in which her own life was a courageous response to circumstances beyond her control; when I realize that she gave me the very best that she could and stood by me in her own way to the very end, then my heart softens: not just for her, but for my own wounded self.

It was my three-year-old daughter Gwen, incidentally, who first taught me to do this. While I was still a child bride bouncing off the walls, it was Gwen’s grandmother who first really saw and honored the beauty lurking in a ragamuffin toddler. And Gwen’s unabashed adoration of her beautiful, ladylike grandmother was the first thing that knocked the wind out of the sails of my reactive patterns. Healing is really a three-generation proposition.

And yes, there is no way our kids will escape from the web of woundedness. It’s part of our human birthright, and I believe that no amount of consciousness, maturity, and sincerity will relieve a child of her or his own piece of the family bloodline, and, as the Buddhists would say, karma. That shouldn’t be our goal. Instead, we need to be modeling for our children the “three h’s”—honesty, humility, and humor—which will allow us to cope with our imperfections and extend that same forbearance to others. Compassion and forgiveness are far more powerful virtues than even a “steady-state” maturity (if such a thing actually exists), and our family systems provide the perfect laboratory in which those alchemical virtues can be produced.

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