Home Boundaries Anger or Empathy towards a toxic parent?
anger or empathy

Anger or Empathy towards a toxic parent?

by Matt Pappas

That might not be as easy an answer as you may think, should we have anger or empathy towards a toxic parent? Or another person in our life for that matter who we could consider toxic?

If you would have asked me this question before the recent realizations and subsequent work in dealing with my mother, I would have told you that easily the answer is anger, resentment, and hostility.

There is part of me that struggles a bit with whether I should I feel empathy for her, or not. There’s that damn guilty feeling that I can’t get rid of. It’s not an easy thing to deal with because it presents such a conflict.

So here’s where I am coming from with this.  I just finished writing up a letter to my mother that covered two therapy sessions. One of those letters you write but don’t intend to ever send. I could have done it one a letter of this magnitude is not something you rush through. It takes time to sit with the feelings and emotions that run so deep.

In that letter I mention how I am angry, resentful, and hurt by the fact that she told my story of abuse to anyone at all, much less telling more than 1 person. It hurts me that she would share something so private, so personal, so earth-shatteringly terrible, and put me through that.

Whether or not she meant any harm is beside the point. That was my story to tell when I was ready.  I mean how can you not have the common sense to keep something like that yourself and realize how hurtful it would be to publicize those tragic events?

I’m angry that she ever found out in the first place, partly because I don’t remember how she found out. Did I tell her, what frame of mind was in and how old was I? Did the therapist I saw back then for a short amount of time tell her, and if so she had ZERO right to do so.

However she found out she should not have shared it! Those are questions I don’t know if I want the answers too now or if I ever will, but I know it fuels some serious rage towards her and that therapist back then. It’s a wonder I ever had the guts to seek out therapy again in early 2015, but I’m glad I did. 

I also have anger towards my mother for the invalidation during my years of being bullied, and the lack of a relationship that she had with either of my spouses during those times of marriage. I was always on the defensive in support of myself and my family in the wake of her relentless judgmental attitude.

So I can see where the anger emotion is valid but is there an empathy emotion that I should be exploring instead?

Should I feel empathy and think that she didn’t mean harm to me intentionally by telling however many people she did? Maybe she needed support and someone to talk to since it had to be hard for her finding out that her youngest son was sexually abused by a teenager.

Perhaps she just didn’t (and still doesn’t) realize how much it would hurt me? After all she never physically abused me. Is it better to look at this with that mindset, would that help me heal more efficiently? Feel free to comment, please!

If you knew my mother and thought of her the way so many people do in the church and in her circle of friends, you’d likely gravitate towards the empathy side. I was pretty certain that if I ever spoke of this to my siblings, they would not even remotely believe me.

As it turns out though, having spoken to one of them, I was pleasantly surprised at the validation and understanding that I received.

So why do I have this guilty conscience then so often? Am I really just so nice of a guy that I should just brush this under the rug? Should I just resign myself to the fact that this is just how my mothers is, and move on and not let it bother me?

So many questions that don’t have any cookie cutter answers. After writing this and spending some time reflecting on how I feel, I can tell you that I’m not ready to play the empathy card yet. I don’t know if I ever will, but I suppose I won’t completely rule it out.

Either way, I have to learn to be OK with either decision.

I’m pretty satisfied with feeling this anger and resentment at this point. I’ve never gotten the chance to express and embrace that side of me before in virtually any circumstance. It’s important to spend some time processing the resentment, and understand how it makes me feel.

I have no idea how long it will take until I come to grips with a decision. Either let this go and move on with life, accepting what I can’t change; or hang on to the resentment and build up my boundaries against her to the point of not seeing her at all. At this point, I rarely see her at it is anyways.  

The answer will lie in a combination of radical acceptance and healthy boundaries if I’m willing to embrace it.



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Joy Richardson May 30, 2016 - 8:14 pm

My parents did the same to me but on an international scale. It took me several years to decide to forgive them. The hurt does not go away. Your mother may not deserve to be forgiven. Forgive her anyway, if not out of love for her then out of love for yourself. Don’t confuse boundaries with bitterness. Bitterness is the easiest thing to feel when you are a survivor, it is also the ugliest thing to see in a person.

Lyric May 30, 2016 - 8:46 pm

Oh trust me Joy I know that I am bitter towards her for sure, but when I’ll be able to get past that I can’t say for now. To me her actions were toxic so I need to work through this until I can come to some type of decision either way and just be comfortable with it.

jaklumen June 3, 2016 - 11:33 pm

Eh, I dunno. My mother WAS my primary abuser.

Johanna June 22, 2016 - 4:01 pm

I am dealing with much the same thing now. My mother was my primary abuser. She set me up for sexual assault when I was a teen by inviting a known sex offender to the house and making me model a bikini for him. When he assaulted me, she told the cops I led him on and I deserved it. That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what she did to me.

My mother was violently abused herself by her father. She managed to escape, marrying my father and moving 200 miles away. But then my sister was born severely handicapped. When my parents split up (my sister was 9, I was 11) they put my sister in a nursing home for handicapped children because they couldn’t care for her. My mother became more despondent and abusive because, IMHO, she couldn’t face the fact that she couldn’t care for one of her children. She died by suicide 10 days before my 26th birthday.

One of the primary things my therapist tells me when we talk about potential empathy is it is NEVER an excuse. But thinking about the possible explanation has helped me. I am still angry. Whether I forgive her actually depends on the day and what else is going on. In a way, it’s easier for me than you, I think, because my mother has died. I am now 51 so it’s been many years that I have lived without her abuse or interference. I think a person really can’t say you feel just empathy or anger — I think you can feel both. I acknowledge that it can be confusing, though.

Just take it one day at a time. If you haven’t had time to process the anger, by all means, do so. IMHO, forgiveness is not a chore to be done, like the laundry or dishes. It’s a process that starts with acknowledging your anger and hurt.

Best wishes.

Matt June 22, 2016 - 7:08 pm

Thank you Johanna for sharing some of your story. I’m so sorry for what you have gone through, but I commend you so much and admire your perseverance in healing. You make very valid points and I hadn’t considered very much, the possibility of feeling both. My world is usually so black and white, one extreme or the other, that anything in the middle is confusing and triggering. I’m definitely on my way to acknowledging my anger and pain, processing it is another story. I will get there though.

Please comment anytime, I would enjoy reading more of your insight 🙂

The Real Truth is that we were abused! - Surviving My Past July 9, 2016 - 10:07 am

[…] So the Guilty Gremlin dances around in my head and sends out these messages like, “Hey you had all this cool stuff, just be grateful you weren’t like so and so”.  “Your life wasn’t all THAT bad, you got to go on vacations and eat out”.  Those types of thoughts, which are true, do not minimize the fact that I was invalidated and ridiculed constantly by my mother. […]

Michele August 28, 2016 - 9:49 am

I don’t feel empathy for my mother. What I feel most is pity. I pity her for her having to be miserable all the time. I pity her for driving everyone out of her life by her abuse. I pity her for missing the chance to see how I’ve grown into a loving and supportive person, albeit with ptsd and socialphobia. I’ve let go of the anger because I want more than that for MY life. Thank you for sharing your story.

Barbara Joy Hansen February 7, 2018 - 9:25 am

Matt, I’m so proud of you being able to write so beautifully about your feelings. You may not realize it but you are on your way to a healthier life! As you know, I’m a writer who has put so much of what I experienced in my book, Listen to the Cry of the Child. I also help survivors as a facilitator work through soul healing in the wonderful course Beauty Out of Ashes. In this course, we learn that NOBODY has the right to tell your story except you! Everything that’s shared in this support group must be kept confidential because as a sexual abuse survivor our trust has already been taken away from us. When your mother took that from you, your trust has been broken. In order for that trust to be restored, although that may never happen between you & your mother, she must be willing to hear your heart & how that was robbed from you. Not only be willing to hear your hurt & anger but acknowledge her part she played in how you feel & how that has affected your whole life including your marriages! Abuse not only affects you, Matt, but everyone around you. If you or anyone reading this needs help in your journey out of darkness & would like to order my book & Beauty Out of Ashes I’d love to hear from you. You aren’t alone. God saw & heard all that happened to you & wept for all His children.

Barbara Joy Hansen February 7, 2018 - 9:54 am

This post is so powerful, I’ve posted it on Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn! Thank you!


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