Is it time for a new family tree?
If you have been abused, and you were to map out your family tree in terms of abuse and affects, it might look something like this image. And that can be really hard to live with because no matter how much one breaks the cycle of abuse, it can’t magically and retroactively change the leaves and branches of one’s family tree going back in time. I struggled with this for years- that I am of them, my family, that I am made up of the same genetic material that was expressed in such hurtful and negative ways with such damaging and lasting effects.
As a coach and as someone who has done a lot of healing and personal growth work on myself, I am a huge fan of techniques that allow one to do something tangible to help in their healing. I am going to share an empowering, healing exercise that allows you to change the way you think of your family tree by planting a new one, literally.
First, it’s important to talk about forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness, the term that is perhaps especially loaded for abuse survivors for reasons tied to the simple etymology of the term- “to give.” To give even more to our abusers than they have already taken from us- our innocence, the childhood we didn’t get to have, the other versions of ourselves we didn’t get to become. This forgiveness work is so hard, but also so crucial.
As the adage goes, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
To be quite frank, I used to think forgiveness was a load of garbage. In my forthcoming memoir Fullness (available for pre-order in the coming weeks and to be released 9/8/20), I describe not wanting to forgive because “it feels like a justification, like saying [they] had a good reason for treating me that way, and that is like saying it was okay on some level.” I thought my anger and resentment towards abusers and abusive upbringing was actually an advantage because I used it as my fuel source to accomplish many things in my life in order to “prove them wrong.”
As the years went on and the nature of the abuse simply changed instead of ending, I found myself in a state of seething anger. And this anger disrupted my sleep, was intimately related to disordered eating behavior, and made me snippy with my husband or daughter or people at work. It felt like this resentment was completely taking over my way of being and my very essence as a person. In other words, by instilling this resentment in me, my abusers were able to continue abusing me by proxy because I was abusing myself on their behalf with that resentment. So if you want to truly rebel against your abusive upbringing, just know that forgiveness is actually the most rebellious act you can take in the face of your abusive programming.
Of course, knowing the benefits of forgiveness or even wanting to forgive doesn’t make it easy. This is especially true if the person you need to forgive has not apologized. Even in many religious ideologies, asking for forgiveness or repentance is a prerequisite to receiving forgiveness. But when it comes to earthly forgiveness, apology is not required, and in fact I believe it may get in the way. This is because abusers are not high-vibe, evolved people, and therefore it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to give you a satisfying apology. Instead, I recommend you try some or all of the multi-part technique I describe below:
- Write out your family tree in terms of abuse and effects, like the example shown above.
- Buy a tree sapling or a plant that is meaningful to you. I recommend an olive tree because they are known symbols of forgiveness. These are available on Amazon for $16.99.
- Spend some time writing out the following: “I choose to forgive ___who____ for ___how they treated you and how their treatment affected you. I have compassion for you because as I imagine the child version of you, I know you (must have) experienced ___whatever pain is in their past that caused them to treat others poorly___. Despite the fact that you have profoundly hurt me, I choose to forgive you and send you love anyway.” I know it may be difficult to write, especially the last line, and if it feels disingenuous, let this be a “fake-it-till-you-make-it” exercise. Write one for each person you need to forgive.
- In an old candle holder or bowl, pot or fireplace, burn the forgiveness letters you wrote along with the family tree with the intention of releasing any resentment you are harboring. Keep the ashes.
- Dig a hole outside to plant your tree or prepare to transplant it into a new pot. After you dig the hole for the tree, place the ashes inside then your sapling. Imagine you are burying the resentment you used to feel. Feel the symbolism of allowing the remanence of your used-to-be abusive family tree fertilizing and allowing your new family tree of love and forgiveness to grow.
Remember, forgiveness is more of a practice than a destination. Sometimes people get confused about what “a practice” means. It’s a behavior one does in dedication to a process. For example, going to swim team practice is a behavior in dedication to being a swimmer. The goal is not to reach the destination of being done with swimming. So in the coming days, weeks, months, years, continue the practice of feeding your forgiveness tree all that which you need to forgive. Continue to write and burn thoughts of anger and resentment that come up and allow those ashes to fertilize the soil. When you water the tree, think of it as cooling the inner fires of anger to bring peace into your heart. And watch as the tree grows along with your state of peace.
Wishing you and your new family tree the very best!
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Writer and Coach
Azure Moyna is a writer and coach about issues relating to food, body, mental illness, familial dysfunction, societal treatment of overweight people and the healing journey. Azure is the author of her memoir, Fullness.