Written by Ellen Scott
Prince Harry says he’s had to make peace with possibly never getting a “genuine” apology from his family. This is a tough pill to swallow.
“I’ve had to make peace with the fact that we’re probably never going to get genuine accountability or a genuine apology,” says Prince Harry in the final batch of episodes of Netflix’s Harry & Meghan. “My wife and I, we’re moving on. We’re focused on what’s coming next.”
Very, very few of us will have found ourselves in the exact situation Harry and Meghan describe in the show, but what many will relate to is the pain of having family hurt you – and then having to navigate the struggle of realising that a much longed-for apology might never come.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” said Philip Larkin in his regularly quoted poem, This Be The Verse. As we grow up, process our pasts and try to heal, we might realise exactly how our mums, dads, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents messed us up, and really assess where they went wrong. Or even as adults, our relatives might do something to wound us deeply.
In the process of understanding this, it’s tempting to crave that magical moment when your family member realises the damage they’ve caused and offers a full apology. We imagine our parents racing to our doors to say we were right all along, that they take full accountability and that they’ll now change their ways.
But the harsh reality is that this is unlikely to ever happen. Your family member might not ever acknowledge that what they did hurt you. They might not be willing to go over the past or admit that they ever went wrong. Maybe they’re stubborn. Maybe they’re ashamed. Maybe they’re now estranged or they’ve passed away before that conversation had a chance to happen. Maybe they’re waiting for their own apology from their parents and focusing on their own healing.
In short, your parents and relatives are complex, imperfect people dealing with their own pain and patterns. Your dream scenario that they’ll be magically wonderful, wise and remorseful is all too often just that – a dream; one that probably won’t come true.
So how do we move forward?
First off, know that you’re certainly not alone in wishing for a picture-perfect resolution. “We get stuck in the desire for an apology because it feels like the only answer to relieving some of the pain that we feel,” Counselling Directory member Shelley Treacher tells Stylist. “It signifies admitting responsibility for all the hurt that has been caused. An apology seems as though it would allow being able to heal and move on.”
“Like it or not, [our parents and family members] are the most important people in our emotional lives,” adds therapist Tricia St Clair. “There was a time when our very survival depended upon them, so we create strategies to ensure they stay on side.When that goes wrong and we have to step away, there is always a sense of something unfinished.”
We tend to think that if our family members would just apologise, everything would be fine and we’d be healed. But in fact, even if an apology were to happen, we’d still need to do inner work. So why wait for a ‘sorry’ if we can just go ahead and do that work ourselves? It’s freeing to realise you don’t actually need your relatives to give you permission to heal.
Treacher advises: “The most empowering thing we can do is turn our focus away from others, to the part where we can heal ourselves. Often, when we feel we have been treated without care, we interpret this as not being deserving of care, or care for ourselves not being possible. This is where the real pain is. So, even if the behaviour of others is responsible for having caused the pain, we need to separate from them emotionally, and turn to ourselves or others who are able to offer support.”
It can help to recognise how holding on to the past, or holding out hope for your family to change, is hurting you.
“It requires emotional commitment to [hold onto] the pain of knowing there is unlikely to ever be an apology from family members,” says senior therapist Sally Baker. “Those feelings are often fuelled by feeling aggrieved or by feelings of anger.Holding out for an apology is a high-energy state which can feel exhausting to maintain over years or even decades and can inhibit your growth.
“Healing from a lack of apology happens in the present, not the past. You have a choice to make. You can stay in an aggrieved and angry state or you can allow yourself to understand their limitations and terrible failings. This might include acknowledging how they were parented themselves, even though their background and past can never justify their behaviour.”
Therapy can be a hugely helpful part of this journey. “It is vital to move away from the negative internal voices and put your attention to something that works in your life,” notes St Clair.
Letting go of the need for an apology might allow you to continue the relationship with your family member, or it might mean releasing this person from your life – there is no right or wrong option, just what’s right for you.
“The relationship may not remain the same,” says St Clair. “There may be times when you may not feel safe enough to be vulnerable within the family and developing protective skills will be important.
“It is more important that the focus is on your own healing first before looking to the family. It is OK to keep family at arm’s length if there are toxic issues or simply to protect yourself.”
Be cautious of keeping a relative in your life only because you’re still secretly hoping for that big resolution. Treacher tells us: “It may only hurt you to keep hoping someone will change when clearly their capacity for empathy for your situation is blocked.”
“The real healing is in focusing on caring for your hurt, and learning that you are in control of receiving your own care and respect, and the care of others who are capable of giving it,” she continues. “This involves providing compassion for yourself, as well as accepting others exactly as they really are. Seeing us all in our human defensive limitations and offerings, without feeling there is anything we have to do to fix this in them.”
You don’t have to forgive your family to recover, but it can certainly help.
“Forgiving someone who has caused you pain does not mean you condone or accept their actions,” says Baker. “Being able to forgive doesn’t mean befriending someone who has hurt you. It means you understand the source of their inability and their limitations. It means you understand and with understanding comes compassion not just for yourself but more like forgiveness of the world. Choosing to forgive is not a path for everyone. It might be an option for you to explore.”
Healing is possible, and you can move forward in a positive way – with or without your family member’s support.
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