In my twenty-five years of pastoral, prison, and personal transformation work, I have come face to face with this reality—the most difficult piece of assisting men to heal from the past is actually just recognizing the need. We men tend to be a proud and often stubborn lot. It is not fashionable (yet!) to admit that our dads wounded us and that the wound continues to affect us today.
It’s a wildly popular theme in Hollywood films (note the recent impact of The Judge , the touching film, Real Steel , the powerful and painful, Warrior , or a classic in this genre, Field of Dreams ), but it’s dramatically unpopular to identify with the wounded son.
Instead, we were told as kids, “just suck it up,” “real men don’t cry,” or other critiques our dads likely heard as they avoided their own sense of inadequacy and shame. The result? Very few of our dads knew how to get close to us, say the loving and affirming things we wanted and needed to hear, or were able to be physically affectionate with us. That cycle has repeated itself long enough. It’s time for real healing and change.
In my first post on this topic called The Best Way to Build Strong Children, I noted Fredrick Douglas who said, "It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Though this quote is well known in fatherhood circles, I suggested it may not tell the whole story, or point us ultimately in the right direction. In my first post, I proposed that, "The best way to build strong children is to heal wounded fathers." This post helps us implement practical steps we can all take to become more engaged, more emotionally present, and more loving fathers.
Implementing the Solution
In my book, How to Be a Great Dad: No Matter What Kind of Father You Had, I openly and honestly tell my own story of healing as one example. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern for how we men heal, but reading my story has proved helpful for many men who have commented since the book was published.
In the book, I have space to explain, expand on, and tell real stories about the six important steps I took to overcome the pain in my past with my dad, and to finally become for my three sons (now all teenagers) the dad I always wished I’d had. In the limited space here, I’ll briefly share the steps and encourage you to go deeper.
1. Identify a Father Wound.
Begin noticing the feelings you experience regularly beneath the surface of your life. Are you often sad, anxious, or lonely? Is it difficult for you to identify what you are feeling or to connect with others in a sincere, open, even vulnerable way? Do your relationship patterns indicate something is amiss? Is it hard for you to feel or stay close to people, to your wife, to your children? If any of this feels true for you, there may exist a wound that likely traces back to how your dad fathered you.
2. Embrace Your Father Wound.
Once identified, one of the most challenging steps for us men is to live with it instead of avoiding it. It is sometimes excruciatingly difficult for men to admit, “My relationship with my dad was not all I hoped it would be.” Or in some cases, much worse and more wounding. This step of embracing is one we often tenaciously avoid because it is so damn painful. But it is the key to healing. Alcoholics Anonymous brilliantly places an admission of the addiction as its very first step to overcoming and healing. Until we honestly embrace our wound and admit the difficulties it’s ongoing pain cause us, we cannot move forward. But when do this, healing and freedom are not only possible, they’ve already begun.
3. Grieve the Father Wound.
I wanted to bypass grieving, and did for many years. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by my own sadness. Grieving is not a skill I learned as a child, nor as an adult. Who teaches men to grieve our losses? We avenge them, ignore them, replace them, drown them in booze, sex, or success, but rarely do we feel our way through the pain to the other side. The only way to the other side of grief is through it. I had to learn how to grieve. It’s one of the skills I teach other men in my coaching. Once a man starts to grieve, he is well on his way to the healing and freedom that will allow him to emotionally engage with and stay close to his children.
4. Forgive Your Father.
Though we intuitively know the importance of forgiveness, few of us are good at practicing it. We were taught otherwise in the world of hard knocks. Its substitutes were often modeled by our dads—revenge, anger and outrage, cold neglect or rejection of the offender, or simply ignoring the offense and pretending it doesn’t matter. None of these work. So we attempt to forgive, usually too early in the process, because we know we should, or because we believe God wants us to, but it usually isn’t deep or restorative of relationship, or healing of our own soul because we are not forgiving from the real place of pain. How can we if we haven’t yet identified it, embraced it, and grieved? We try to forgive but it doesn’t do much, and often doesn't last. We stay angry, resentful, cold, or distant. It’s hard to love our children well when we are stuck in this place. We aren’t ready to forgive and move on until we have properly identified the wound and its effects in our life, and until we have grieved. Then forgiveness isn’t all that hard. It grows from a place of empathy and compassion. I illustrate this in my book as I tell my story of forgiving my father.
5. Love Your Children and Heal Yourself.
I teach men how giving the love to our children we may have not received from our dads is actually an extremely powerful means of healing our own wounded hearts. It is exceedingly difficult to give away what we do not possess, but when we reach beyond our past to choose to love our kids, while working out the first four steps above, it truly is remarkable how that act of giving brings healing in our own hearts.
6. Father Yourself.
This may sound a bit strange at first, but I tell my story to men who are moving through this journey that as we re-build a sense of ourselves as men who are healing, and as we learn to give away to our own children what we may not have received from our dads, we can actually learn to father ourselves in ways that we needed and bring further healing now. It’s remarkable. And it’s one of the key pieces of the coaching I do with dads who want to grow.
Has your relationship with your dad affected the way you father your children today? Do you see any impact or perhaps repetitions? Feel free to comment below and I'll respond.
Post by Keith Zafren, founder of The Great Dads Project > Men who want to be great dads love the stories Keith Zafren tells, the practical skills he teaches, and the personal coaching he offers. Keith has spent seventeen years learning firsthand how to raise three great teenagers and stay close to them, no matter what. He coaches busy dads to not repeat the mistakes their fathers made, but instead, to create fantastic relationships with their kids. Check out his free video training course for men who want to be great dads.