How I Forgave My Dad for Emotionally Neglecting Me

My father never apologized for what he did, but forgiveness doesn't require an apology.

by Bernadette Anderson

How do you bring yourself to accept that your parents let you down? The people you should have been able to trust dropped the ball. How do you forgive your parents for the emotional scars caused by their harmful behavior, neglect, or absence in your life?

I carried deep pain throughout most of my adulthood because of my father, who I derisively called Frank. I referred to my father by his first name because it reduced his stature in my life, and oddly gave me a morsel of peace about his lack of presence.

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My mother and Frank were not married. I visited him every other weekend. I remember wanting him to be more involved in my life. I was his only biological daughter, and I wanted to be the apple of his eye. But even though we had bi-weekly visits, there was no relationship. There were no father-daughter dances, no photos of us laughing, and no memorable conversations. There was absolutely nothing that made me feel like Frank’s daughter. I don’t recall him ever telling me he loved me.

What was more upsetting, I attended school with his stepdaughter and I watched her receive the love I thought I was owed. I was heartbroken by his actions. Around the age of 16, I decided it would be less traumatic if I distanced myself from Frank. When he didn’t seem to mind, I was even more distraught. I lost any hope of ever receiving unconditional love from him.

For years, I carried a grudge toward Frank. Instead of letting go of the anger I felt toward him, I embraced it. The dysfunction between the two of us was stressful. It made it difficult for me to trust other men and be in a healthy relationship. Every little girl learns how she should be adored by the way her father loves and respects her. When she goes without her father’s influence, she second-guesses her worth.

By withholding forgiveness, I thought I was getting back at Frank; however, it just kept me stuck in my misery. At some point, I even convinced myself that being successful would erase the hurt. It would show him I could achieve great things without his love. But it didn’t. Here I was, a physician who co-owned her own medical practice, still stuck in childhood pain.

Frank died before I forgave him.

Eventually, I grew tired of holding on to the anger. I spent nine months in deep grief, and it was only after I began to process my emotions that I came to acknowledge that, like each of us, Frank was doing the best he could with the information and awareness he had at the time. I took a step back and offered my father grace. After years of hurt, I finally got to the point where I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the affection I so desperately wanted from him was never shown to him by his parents. How does one give what has never been given to them?

Also, isn’t it hypocritical to withhold forgiveness, when each day I need forgiveness for something I have said, thought, or done? If I am unwilling to forgive, how can I ask for forgiveness?

As I process my own forgiveness journey, I am learning that forgiveness is my gift to myself. I am not excusing what happened, but freeing myself of the suffering connected to what happened.

I won’t make forgiveness sound easier than it really is. It was frustrating to have people tell me to move on, let it go, and stop living in the past. I found this tool, the Forgive acronym, very helpful:

F is for face the pain. The fact that I survived “it” is a hint that I am stronger than what happened. O is for own my feelings: It’s okay to feel what it is I feel. R is for release the expectations I have of the other person: Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology. G is for give myself permission to surrender guilt. I is for intentionally live in the present moment: It happened and I cannot change it. V is for value the journey: Whatever you don’t allow to take you down will build you up. E is for empathize: There are victims on both sides of trauma.

As painful as my relationship with my father was, I finally realized that parents and children do not get do-overs. However, I am grateful that my father’s actions aren’t a life sentence for pain. Forgiving him has set me free.

Bernadette Anderson is a family physician in Columbus, Ohio. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @DrBernadetteMD or on YouTube.