“My parents did the best they could.”
It’s something I hear repeated over, and over, again.
It’s total nonsense, and so far off the mark that I wonder sometimes if people really stop to think about what they are truly saying. But it does serve as a wonderful model to help us begin to analyze the principles of forgiveness and acceptance in an emotionally-healthy context.
Let’s start with some brutal truth for people with emotional disorders:
Your parents didn’t do the best they could. They did the best they did.
There is a difference, and it is an important one.
One is a statement that simply, accurately, and non-judgementally, describes the reality. Not only is it accurate, but it is immune to argument. It is a non-subjective statement of fact: “They did what they did.”
The other is colored by what one subconsciously hoped or wished. The very construction of it is steeped in denial: “They did the best they could.” In it, you can almost hear the speaker trying to convince herself of what she is saying.
They did not do the best they could have done. They did the best they did. But they could have done more, and they could have done better. Do you know how I know? Because lots of kids do not grow up having their emotional needs neglected or abused, which is the cause of Borderline Personality Disorder. (See my other articles to understand the broader nature of this emotional neglect.)
Obviously, parents who raise emotionally-healthy children are doing better parenting than your parents did. So, your parents did not do the best they could. Rather, they did what they did. They could have reached out for help in educating themselves, but they didn’t. Nobody kept them from buying a book to try to develop a healthier perspective on feelings. Only they kept themselves from taking that simple step.
They could have chosen not to have children until they were more mature, or more emotionally healthy themselves, but they didn’t. They could have gone to a counselor, but they chose not to. They could have spent more time caring, and thinking about, the effects of their attitudes on their children, but they didn’t. They could have done many things, but they didn’t.
There is no - read that carefully, zero - excuse for adult parents neglecting or mistreating their children. Your parents are not the magical exception to this. ’Zero excuse’ means just that: Zero excuse. No, the era they were born into does not matter. No, the stresses they were under do not matter. No, their own emotional struggles at the time did not matter. No, your culture does not matter.
You see, there are many parents throughout all of the history of the world, who themselves were around every situation and norm that you can come up with to explain why it wasn’t so bad that your parents were abusive and neglectful, who did not abuse or neglect their children, and who instead parented their children healthfully.
Your parents did not do the best they could.
This is the plain reality. Acceptance is coming to see this, and choosing to give up any denial of it.
This brings us to forgiveness.
Appropriate forgiveness – that is, the only form of emotionally-healthy forgiveness that exists – is dependent on the following conditions: Has an offender demonstrated genuine remorse, or not? If they have, then forgiveness is appropriate. If they have not, forgiveness is not appropriate. It’s that simple.
Demonstrate is a key word here.
‘Feeling bad’ over something is not a demonstration of genuine remorse. ‘Kicking oneself’ over what he or she did is also not a demonstration of genuine remorse.
‘Demonstration of genuine remorse’ means that the person is so disappointed with themselves for having offended, that they are motivated to take action to understand what they did, and why they did it, so that they can then correct the problem or make amends, in the interest of never again behaving that way.
The primary responsibility for each one of us is to care for, nurture, and protect our own emotional, physical, and mental well-being. This is your, my, and everybody’s number one responsibility. Whether people recognize this as the reality or not does not change reality.
There is no such thing as putting respect for your own emotional needs and inherent dignity in second or third place, and at the same time enjoying true emotional health. If you believe otherwise, you fail to see the paradox.
So imagine your boss calls you into his office, and he sexually assaults you. Then he kicks you out of his office and pretends it never happened. He never acknowledges what he did, and never demonstrates any sort of remorse whatsoever.
Is your primary responsibility, in the interest of your emotional health, to make sure he receives forgiveness?
No. Your primary responsibility is to be a caretaker of your dignity first and foremost. To respect yourself. And part of respecting yourself is protecting your dignity. That means holding people who violate it accountable. To fail to do this is showing contempt for your own dignity.
Your use of forgiveness is one way of showing that you have a proper, healthy attitude toward your own dignity and self-respect. Emotional good health is powerfully tied to how well you are your own greatest caretaker of your dignity.
It’s a violation of the natural order to put your boss’s forgiveness above your own dignity, self-respect, and right to accountability.
Incidentally, the extent to which you honor your emotional health and inherent dignity as being non-negotiable priorities, is directly tied into how emotionally healthy your view of others and your dealings with them will be.
Forgiving people – which is something specifically for them, not us – who do not meet the conditions that forgiveness requires, is an act of injustice you commit against yourself. It is dishonoring yourself. You can’t treat yourself unjustly, dishonor yourself, and also enjoy emotional health. The two things are total opposites.
Now, I know people have a hard time grasping the reality of this. They rebel against the very thought of it, almost like a built-in reflex. I also know that Jerry Seinfeld disapproves of the following saying, but I’m going use it anyway; It just is what it is. Your failure to understand it, to see the inherent balance in it, and to value it, does not change reality. One gets to live in harmony with emotional health, or emotional unhealth, but not both.
As I’ve explained before, forgiveness of those who harmed us is not a necessary ingredient for emotional health. This is a myth – albeit an oft-repeated, sweet-sounding myth – that is very popular, but wrong. Forgiveness is nice, and it feels good, and there is nothing wrong with carrying around the hope that one day those we love, who have committed real crimes against us, will meet the conditions that will allow us to grant them forgiveness, without violating or dishonoring our own self-respect and dignity in the process. But granting them forgiveness is not a necessary ingredient for our genuine emotional health.
For non-atheist readers, even God’s forgiveness, his mercy, is dependent on genuine demonstrations of remorse. He doesn’t grant it to those who, not only feel no remorse, but do nothing to demonstrate it. Think of David and Bathsheba, as just one example. God was prepared to have David pay for his offenses with his very life, but God ultimately forgave David when he demonstrated genuine remorse.
Acceptance – this is what is necessary for our emotional health. Acceptance is a non-negotiable, necessary ingredient. Accepting the reality of what our parents did, rather than what we wish they had done. Accepting that they may never care at all about the harm they caused us. Accepting that they may never meet the conditions for forgiveness, and that’s ok, because they are responsible for their own life choices. Accepting that they may never demonstrate authentic love towards us. Accepting that their ‘kicking themselves’ is not a demonstration of genuine remorse. A genuine demonstration of remorse would be them taking action to educate themselves; to explore and understand what they did, and why they did it.
Acceptance is the key, not forgiveness.
Acceptance is not forgiveness, and forgiveness is not acceptance.