Exonerating Parents Instead of Forgiving

Woman hands praying, begging for forgiveness and believe in goodness.

In my last blog I talked about how Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are not always happy holidays for people to celebrate because their relationships with one or both of their parents were fraught with pain and disappointment. It is hard to be affirming of a parent when you carry so much hurt, loss, anger or emptiness.

Many of us could look at the overall nature of our relationship with one or both parents described as negative, unfair, unhealthy or inadequate. Still, should we find it in our hearts to forgive the parent who was unable or unwilling to give to us what every child has the right to expect in their relationship with their parent? Does that parent deserve to be forgiven? 

Research shows that there is a cost to holding feelings of loss, anger, disappointment and resentment. A person can become depressed, bitter, and less able to experience health in other relationships. Or a person can become fixated on perceived injustices, placing themselves into a victim role. 

Imagine that these beliefs and feelings are taking up real estate in our minds. That means there is less real estate for healthier and more productive thoughts, feelings and beliefs. They can be roadblocks to our ongoing journey in life towards experiencing satisfaction, contentment, joy, freedom and peace. 

From a practical perspective being able to possibly eliminate ongoing bitterness can open the door to freeing us from all the negative personal reactions from experiencing the unfairness of poor and even destructive parenting. You probably heard the adage that anger, and the accompanying resentment, is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. Our anger and built-up frustration along with the accompanying hurt and sense of betrayal can emotionally poison us over time. 

Forgiveness requires coming to a place of wanting to no longer hold onto feelings of anger, bitterness and resentment. Forgiving involves a decision to let go of these feelings and the accompanying behaviors that can perpetuate destructive inner turmoil. 

Forgive concept: Silhouette of bird flying and broken chains at sunset background

Here is an alternative to feeling like you must forgive someone. I first heard about this in a course taught by a brilliant professor and psychiatrist who created the field of Contextual Therapy, Dr. Ivan Boszormenyi Nagy. Instead of forgiving someone and in order to experience a release from the negativity of hurt, anger and bitterness, try instead to exonerate that person. 

Exoneration, by a Google definition, involves “the action of officially absolving someone from blame,”  “to relieve someone from being responsible, to clear from accusation or blame “ Synonyms for exoneration include: to vindicate or absolve. It is an acknowledgment that the person was unable or incapable of doing something. In the case of poor parenting, most often parents aren’t purposely trying to perpetuate the unhealthy practices they experienced growing up. It often isn’t about a lack of desire to parent in a healthier way, it is the reality that as human beings we are almost compelled to repeat our troubled pasts. Many of our parents did not have the resources or the support to allow them to break toxic family legacies of unhealthy parenting. 

To me there is something about exoneration that is more appealing than attempting to forgive. When I can believe that one of my parents had no intention of purposely harming me but rather they were trapped in the cycle of perpetuating unhealthy parenting processes and repeating the very same practices they experienced growing up, I am freer to let go of resentment and built-up bitterness. It doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate how destructive their parenting practices were in terms of the negative impact they had on my life. What changes is that I no longer hold my parent accountable because I don’t think they could have done it any differently. They did the best they were capable of doing, given their resources and life experiences. 

I suggest you take some time to decide if people in your life who have hurt you somehow need to be forgiven or should you exonerate them instead? You might find some freedom, just as I have, in leaning into exoneration rather than forgiveness. 

Invitation for Reflection 

  1. If you are burdened by the weight of anger and resentment towards a parent or other family member for all the ways they neglected or abused you as a child, how has this impacted your life? What kind of real estate does it take up in your mind?  
  2.  Have you struggled with the idea that you should just forgive them? Does that seem unfair? Shouldn’t they somehow be punished for what they did and didn’t do to you growing up?   
  3.  How does it feel to consider exonerating them instead? Could it be more freeing for you to appreciate that they may not have been capable of parenting you in healthier ways? How does removing blame impact you? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute