“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” ~Nelson Mandela
Has anger ever filled you up so completely that you felt you’d explode?
Two months after I had a baby I suddenly found myself inextricably angry. Yes, I felt the joy and happy stuff that everyone tells you about.
But having a daughter also triggered a flash flood of buried anger, blame, and resentment. And it was all directed to one person—my mother.
A therapist told me once that my mother had “verbally abused” me. That launched a fifteen-year process of rehashing and blaming my plethora of emotional issues on my mother.
But no matter how many therapists or coaches told me that she “didn’t form a proper attachment” or whatever, I always defended her. That is, until I became a mother myself.
When my own nurturing instinct kicked in, I realized what I’d missed out on as a child. I was overwhelmed by “how coulds.” How could anyone treat a little girl that way?
The anger overtook me. It was like a well of blame had opened up and I had fallen in. Something had to shift.
In truth, it happened fast. You might think it would take years to let go of anger and blame so strong it feels like it’s coming out of your eyeballs.
But once I realized how to let it go, all at once, poof, I was free. Now years later, I’ve never looked back.
How did I do it? I discovered the profound meaning of two words: perspective and compassion.
Life is Like a Box of Hair Dye
My mother grew up in the South in the sixties. I’ve watched enough Mad Men to know that life for women in my mother’s generation was very different.
Women’s value was heavily dependent on their looks and the look of their houses. Combine that world-view with a heaping helping of stress from an overwhelming job and you get a picture of my mother.
Think of an uber stressed-out Betty Draper. At thirteen, when my blonde hair started fading to light brown, she started dying it. “Boys won’t like you with brown hair,” she said.
Yelling was the norm and more I cried the more she yelled. I was an only child, lost in a world where my looks and image were tantamount to survival and nothing I did was enough.
The Blame-Spin Cycle
Getting stuck in blame feels like walking through an endless maze, looking for cheese that doesn’t exist. That’s what therapy felt like.
The more I re-counted the past, the madder I became and the more hopeless I felt. I was spinning in an endless cycle of blame, anger, and resentment.
What is the end game? What do I do with the fact that my mother’s behavior may have caused me pain later in life?
It was a well-meaning friend who finally cracked the code, over wine and panic one afternoon. I had called her over because I felt too emotionally unstable to be alone with my infant daughter.
“Why don’t you just ask her why she did it?” she asked.
That had never occurred to me.
I’d Like Perspective with a Side of Compassion Please
“It was the only way I knew…” she explained, after I found the courage to ask her why she had treated me so harshly.
My mother then went on to recount tales of her childhood. You know the beginning of Cinderella, when she spends her hours cleaning endlessly at the whim of a demanding mother?
That’s the image that came to mind as my mom recounted years of cleaning and re-cleaning my grandmother’s house. The family was not allowed to leave the house to do any activities until the house was spotless.
And of course, the cleaning always took up the entire day, disappointing my mom and her sister every time. My grandmother, it turned out, had been an even stronger product of her environment.
Why are people the way they are? If you can ask yourself that question before passing judgment, you can save yourself tremendous mental energy.
When I started understanding the world for my mother and grandmother, I was flooded with intense compassion. Think of Biff in any Back to the Future movie, when manure was inevitably dumped on his head—that was what happened to me with compassion.
Suddenly I realized that no one is to blame. If I blame my mother for my problems, then I have to blame my grandmother for my mother’s problems. And then I’d have to blame the Great Depression and society for my grandmother’s problems.
I just don’t have enough space for all of that anger.
Getting perspective on a situation and fully understanding the whole story is like pulling back the curtain and finding the little man with the booming voice in The Wizard of Oz. It loses its power over you.
Could my mother have made different choices? Of course she could have. Did she do the best she could with who she was back then? Yes, I believe she did.
Setting Yourself Free
What happened happened. No amount of blame, resentment, or anger at my mother will make it not have happened. It is just what happened.
We can let what happened control us and we can live in blame and anger, or we can let it go and free ourselves. When you hold on to anger, it’s you who suffers. You’re the one who has to live in your head.
Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. You don’t have to tell him that you forgive him, or even talk to her again if you don’t want to.
This process is simply about changing the way you see someone so that you can stop wasting valuable emotional energy. If you are holding onto resentment or anger, today is the day to set yourself free.
Right now, think of one person who isn’t safe to walk down the streets of your mind without being attacked.
Picture your story about that person. Then try to tell the story again from her perspective.
What is the back-story? Think about her childhood; when did she get hurt?
Find some way to see the story that allows you to feel compassion. It may not be easy at first, but there is always an answer.
The forgiveness journey is worth taking 1,000 times over. I can’t even begin to describe how much this idea shifted my experience in life.
Letting go of the anger feels like flying. By getting perspective on the story and uncovering compassion, you have the power to set yourself free.
Sad woman image via Shutterstock