This is the first out of six blogs in a series called 5 Rooms to Stay Out of: Being Offended, Angry, Resentful, Having Worry, and Having Fear. It is taken from Lessons 7 and 8 in Happy School Advanced.
Before we get started discussing the five Rooms, I want to mention that it was rare in my early Happy School groups to find women (the ones who repeatedly and chronically struggled with their emotions) who said, “Oh, my parents were the best! They were amazing.” There is a close correlation to our early life/family-of-origin and our future mental/emotional young adult self. In almost every case, women who struggle emotionally had difficulties in their launching years. (Of course, everyone goes through adversity and hard times, but I’m referring to continual emotional struggles.)
You already know there is often a correlation between a person’s emotional health and their family-of-origin. But what I want you to know, however, is that if you had an emotionally difficult childhood or early teenage years, it is not a permanent declaration on your life. Since you can renew your mind, it is definitely not the final word on your life story. Let’s discuss a few points regarding difficult families-of-origin before we get into the meat of this week’s lessons.
Families are not like jobs or roommates, where you can merely get new ones. They are part of your very substance. But when families-of-origin continue to be unpleasant, critical, dishonest, unreasonable, highly disappointing, or even evil, then you must have a strategy for thinking about and dealing with them.
Let’s discuss a Biblical command concerning your parents. The Bible’s call to honor our parents is inescapable (Ex. 20:12). The command is not to necessarily love them, but to honor them. How liberating this is, if your parents were not wonderful, because it frees you from feeling you have to be best friends with people you don’t actually like. You can honor the judge in a courtroom, without loving him or her. And you can honor your parents, without loving them.
You Biblical scholars are now thinking, “Wait a minute! There is a command to even love your enemies.” Yes, but that Greek word for love is agape, and it means to benefit or do good to someone. This is different from the Greek word for love, phileo, which is affectionate, brotherly love (as in Titus 2, which says women are to have phileo love for their husbands and children.) Honoring your parents does not mean you have to be with them every time they request it. In addition, know you can still honor your parents even if you have to set healthy boundaries. You do not necessarily have to call them every day or even organize a birthday party for them. But you do need to ask the Lord what honoring your parents looks like in your specific situation.
“How much exactly do I have to do?” asked a girl in one of my groups. “My unpleasant parents expect so much from me.” There is a principle in the New Testament that has helped many women in my groups. Jesus told his disciples that when the hated Roman soldiers asked them to carry their backpacks one mile, to carry it two. I love this teaching. You need to carry the backpack two miles—but here’s the great point—not three. As a Christian, you can return good for evil by going the second mile, but again, you don’t have to go the third. Jesus didn’t say, “Go as far as they ask you to.” He said go the second mile. Figure out what is responsible and reasonable as far as your difficult parents, go the second mile, then have the freedom to set boundaries.
One young woman told me that when her difficult parents came to visit her, they drank excessively, screamed at each other, criticized her, ignored the rules she had for her children, and completely disrupted her household. The young woman, along with her husband, decided to invite her parents to visit twice a year for four days and three nights (as well as visit the parents in their town once). Given the parents’ disruptive nature, the couple felt these visits—along with bi-weekly phone calls, texts with photos, etc.—constituted the second mile. When the girl’s mother heard the new boundaries, she threw a royal hissy fit about being told how much she could come visit. She thought having any limits on her visits was appalling and in her words, “extremely selfish.” The younger woman, the daughter, held her ground, as she and her husband felt this was still honoring her parents, yet not going the third mile.
Another woman had a terribly cranky, critical, and ungrateful mother who was very upsetting to her. The older woman said horrible things (much like Darby’s mom in Happy School). As the older woman aged, none of the other siblings would agree to have the aged mother come live with them. So this daughter (along with some money contributed from the other siblings) rented a modest room at a retirement community where the woman would get meals and care. She regularly visited and called (keeping boundaries when the older woman started her stuff). She was able to honor her mother, but not be swallowed up by her mother’s toxicity by allowing her mother to live in her home.
These are not easy issues. None of these situations are ideal or wanted. What a contrast these situations are to some older mothers I know who are more like angels. Sad as it may be, many women did not get blessed with a mother like Marmee in Little Women. To deal with difficult parents, you need a plan. Overlook when you can, forgive for sure (empty their boxes of offenses), try to remember any benefits you gained from your family-of-origin, and return a blessing for an insult. But after that, you only have to go the second mile.
Another piece of helpful advice is to know that you do not have to give toxic parents access to your heart. When you talk to them, talk about the flowers you are planting or what you’re cooking. They do not get to hear about what’s truly hurting you, as they often cannot be trusted with this information. You can honor them but at the same time, guard your heart.
If your father always drinks too much at Thanksgiving, gets belligerent, and ruins the meal, then tell him you are just having your kids to dinner this year, and you will have him either before or after the actual day. You do not have to be bulldozed by toxic people.
Another young woman said her father neglected her most of her childhood and then, in her teens, he began verbally abusing her. “You’re a nobody,” he had said to her when her career as a secretary disappointed his megalomania expectations. As she matured in the Lord, she realized she had many tapes playing in her mind of hurtful and hateful things her parents had said to her while growing up. “It hit me out of the blue,” she said, “that my earthly father’s assessment of me doesn’t define me; my heavenly Father’s assessment does. And He says I am loved.” (You can listen to Lauren Daigle’s official music video of You Say on YouTube HERE.)
If you’ve been abused, you will need to rebuild your neural pathways about what you think about yourself. God’s Word can tell you who you are. God has now called you out of darkness and you can heal from your early life. Neural grooves can be re-structured and your mind can be renewed.
With a difficult family-of-origin, decide what your responsibility is, and then quarantine thoughts of dread when you have to be with toxic parents. In addition, quarantine thoughts of sadness or anger after you see them. Much of your angst is from your excessive thinking about them but you have now learned to quarantine thoughts by thinking other thoughts.
Many years ago, a girl in one of my groups had been to counseling for help in dealing with her mean mother. The counselor was sympathetic and quietly told the girl, “Women with mothers like yours sometimes feel a lot better after the mother is deceased.”
I thought it was a horrible thing to say. But after talking to hundreds of women with difficult mothers, it’s not that hard to imagine that one might feel better if one has been metaphorically punched in the face for decades, and then the punching stops. The counselor’s remark may sound harsh to an outsider, but this girl completely understood and agreed. Still as a Christian, she forgave her mother, prayed for her, honored her, and witnessed to her, even as the rudeness and meanness continued.
Overlook, forgive, quarantine negative thoughts, and set boundaries by going the second—but not the third—mile. Again, only you and the Lord can determine what honoring your parents looks like in your situation. You decide the relationship though, not your parents. You are no longer a child and therefore no longer have to take orders from them (although they might try to make you think that you do.)
Just remember, even though your parents may be highly dysfunctional, you represent the One who called you out of darkness. So when you’re setting boundaries, always be kind, have integrity, serve, and be humble. Blog 4 in this series offers further help for how to think when dealing with a difficult family-of-origin member.
The next blog in this series is #2 out of 6 and is called An Antidote for Being Offended. You can access all the blogs now at JulieNGordon.com under the Happy School Advanced tab. Scroll down to Lesson 7.