How my dad’s forgiveness freed me from perfectionism

betty ming liu Relationships 4 Comments

I

used to to think that sex and finances were the toughest topics to write about. This post beats them both because I struggle so deeply with unresolved daddy-daughter issues. But I recently said something to my father that represents a complete shift in our relationship. My adult life might finally be in my own hands.

First, full disclosure. Since my dad died 41 years ago, the conversation I’m about to share took place in my head. Talking to him this way feels completely normal because he’s been in there all this time anyway. But my tone and content were new. Here’s what I said:

Dad, I know I failed your expectations. Please forgive me for being imperfect.

Big exhale. Free at last. Yes, I am.

What I’m describing is totally counterintuitive. In fact, asking for forgiveness was NOT my idea. Then I read a great book about saying four things that can change a relationship: I love you, thank you, I forgive you, please forgive me. (Read the blog post HERE.)

One by one, I worked through saying the first three sentences, mowing through a lifetime of bile and bitterness. By the fourth one, I was stumped. If my control freak Chinese immigrant father relentlessly bullied me, why do I need to be forgiven? Forgiven for what? Being a victim??

Asking for forgiveness: a new outlook

Gradually, I worked through emotions that were my second skin. This is what happened for me:

  • I finally saw my father for who he was. No blame, rage, regret, or even much sadness.
  • By getting past my feelings, I felt his disappointment, frustration — and fear.
  • As an immigrant dad, fear dominated his life as he worried about our survival.
  • My ability to ask for forgiveness means I feel his pain without judging his behavior.
  • Once I stopped being judgy about him, I stopped caring about how he judged me!
  • In asking for forgiveness, I understand he felt hurt by me going my own way.
  • In acknowledging his pain as his, I’m also owning my pain as a separate issue.
  • My pain came from trying — and failing — to please him as Little Ms. Perfect.
  • I can let go of people-pleasing now, because I no longer care about being perfect.
  • I’ve already forgiven him. With him forgiving me, we can put the past behind us.

Does this make sense?

Dealing with Dad in therapy

I took everything I’ve just tried to explain to my shrink. Intrigued, he wanted to know more about Dad’s response to this unusual outpouring from my soul. After all, I described the experience as a conversation. How did I know that my father forgave me? Did I hear him say it?

Suddenly, I had to imagine my dad sitting with us. To my surprise, I could no longer conjure up the man who died of a fatal heart attack when I was 19 and he was 70. For crying out loud, I’m about to turn 60 and no longer feel or look anything like my 19-year-old self.

And if I’ve changed, what about him? My father would be 111 right now. Surely, with more than a century of wisdom, his priorities would be different too. Surely, he would forgive me for being an academic slacker who never went to med school. Surely, my updated version of Dad would have better things to do than yell at me for these and a multitude of other “failures.”

I feel a little ridiculous writing so frankly about my inner life (or lack of one). But in a world gone berserk, I go on with hope because forgiveness detoxifies both my dad and me. We can move on to conversations we never had before.

We’re done with striving for perfection. Perfection is the enemy of love, creativity and happiness.

perfection_mantra

In the month since our conversation, I am much more carefree (although my family says I seem the same to them). I stop now, to sit around and feel and talk and write. I put much less pressure on myself to hurry up, do more, do it better.

I stop to  smell the roses along with these other flowers in my garden.gardenHow about you? Feel free to comment as little or as much as you want. If you need a writing prompt, here’s one: Give us five words or phrases that come to mind when you think about you and your dad.

My answer would be this: Complicated. Edgy. Vacuum. Peaceful. Buried.

What five words flash through you at the thought of “Dad”?

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Comments 4

  1. Ginger

    Thanks so much for this posting. It helped me immensely. I too (being 57 years old
    and having the eerily ‘same’ Chinese immigrant father die when I was 24), had similar experiences with my father. I will try your method of conversation with him. And perhaps I will take the results to my shrink as well. Thanks for being so transparent and up front with your private life. It has helped me resolve much. You are appreciated for your courage and strength, insight and foresight….Aloha from Hawaii.

    1. Post
      Author
      betty ming liu

      Ginger, I’m so glad to hear from you. Happy to be helpful, too. You are not alone. And by dropping this comment, you are reassuring me that I’m not alone either. Thank you! xo

  2. P

    Betty

    You actually described “the” immigrant experience. The fear thing. It’s real.

    Took me years to decode. My American partner looks at every day as: how to enjoy. I look just to survive.

    Keep writing! – please do not publish my name or email. Please! some reference material you might find of interest:

    1. When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures by Richard D. Lewis – no longer in print, but can find used. Worth it.

    2. Immigrant INC by Richard T. Herman & Robert L. Smith
    “Immigrant” achiever traits which have helped the US and may drive success are:

    1. A Keen Sense of Adventure

    2. A Reverence for Education

    3. Love and Respect for Family

    4. Eagerness to Collaborate

    5. A Tolerance for Risk and Failure

    6. Passion, Often Borne of Desperation

    7. A Tendency to Dream

    3. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua (author of Tiger Mother) and her husband Jed Rubenfeld

    “Three unlikely traits” they think explain why people of some cultural backgrounds are more successful in the United States than people of other cultural backgrounds:

    • A superiority complex
    • An inferiority complex – insecurity
    • Impulse control (Marshmallow Tube video?)

    1. Post
      Author
      betty ming liu

      P, I agree that the fear thing is real. And it’s something that cuts across all races and cultures. Thanks, also for sharing your book list. I have not read any of them. The only one I have an opinion on is Triple Package — which I consider totally racist because of the author’s point of view: http://bit.ly/2a73gU7 But I appreciate you taking the time to post your thoughts in such detail!

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