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Crucial Conversations QA

Healing Past Wounds in the Present

Dear Joseph,

In 1995, I gave up my parental rights to a child I fathered so that she could be adopted. At the time, I reasoned the child would do better in a two-parent home. Now, my daughter is twenty-one and would like to contact me. Here are my biggest concerns:

1. Conversing with my wife of the last seventeen years. She feels resentment toward me regarding this situation. How do I reassure her and get her to talk through her feelings?
2. When I do speak with my daughter, how should I proceed? If she asks why I gave up my parental rights, how do I explain it to her?
3. How do I introduce my daughter to my family and friends, and field all the questions that will come?

Signed,
Awkward Reunion

Dear Awkward,

You’re swimming in some deep waters at the moment. I imagine it must feel pretty overwhelming to have so much of the past, present, and future tossing in and around you simultaneously. I’m glad you would reach out for some companionship. None of us makes it alone.

There are no easy answers to your questions, but let me reflect for a moment with you in hopes of giving you friendly support more than simple prescriptions.

1. Talking with your wife. You say she feels resentful. You ask, “How can I get her to talk?” You can’t. All you can do is offer a safe place. It’s up to her to take advantage of it. I’m interested in the fact that you believe she is feeling resentment. I’d encourage you to reflect on anything in your past or present behavior that would contribute to that emotion. Have you been emotionally unfaithful? Does she fear that your daughter will compete for your limited emotional availability? Or is she concerned that you have unresolved feelings toward your ex—and might be drawn that direction? One of the ways you can create safety for your wife is to acknowledge things you have done that might contribute to her resentment (if that’s what she is feeling). By offering that acknowledgement, you will validate her feelings and help her know she can safely share them with you.

It is also possible her resentment stems from trauma or fears she has that are unrelated to you. Your response to that would be the same—to validate her feelings. You needn’t take the “blame” for her feelings in either case. Her feelings are hers, not yours. Even if you have contributed to them. Your actions are yours; that is what you need to own. But in all cases, let her know you care about how she feels and are willing to hear and empathize with her regardless of what she is feeling. Your goal is not to make her feelings “go away.” It is simply to witness them and stand by her in them.

2. Talking with your daughter. Don’t overthink the conversation with your daughter. Just as with your wife, your job in this conversation is simply to begin a relationship, not fix her feelings. You don’t need to defend yourself. You don’t need to control her feelings. You have no idea where she is emotionally. And where she is when she arrives is no predictor of where she’ll be in the second, third, or tenth meeting. She may show up resentful, curious, needy, open, hurt, or compassionate. You need only be vulnerable and honest. Ask her what topics she would like to explore. Let her know if there are things you’re not yet able to deal with. Take it a step at a time. If the time comes that she asks about your decision to surrender your parental rights, be honest. The only truth that could hurt her is her misperception that your decision means anything about her. Tell her what it meant about you. Tell her about you twenty-one years ago. Tell her how you feel about the decision in hindsight. She may choose to personalize your choices—and assume they have implications for her own lovability or worth—but she can do that as easily without you as with you. Give her the best chance of separating your choices from her worth by being honest.

3. Talking with others. Answering questions from others will only be awkward to the degree you are uncomfortable yourself. If you feel a need to project a false image of yourself, you will be anxious about questions. If you have accepted the truth about your past and present, you will show up that way when questions arise. Here’s the truth: You made some right and wrong decisions in the past. You have a precious twenty-one-year-old daughter. Your life is complex. Accept it. Find the beauty and truth in it. When you do, your anxiety about presenting it authentically to others will disappear. If others have judgments about your past choices, you must decide if you are willing to let your peace be a product of their approval.

These momentous conversations offer you the possibility of greater growth and a more abundant life. You have my best wishes to that end!

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

12 thoughts on “Healing Past Wounds in the Present”

  1. Always sound advice – always. Crucial Skills have helped me many times – I have so much more to learn! Thank you…

  2. That is quite a plot twist, isn’t it? A couple of other complexities to factor in: are your daughter’s adoptive parents living or deceased? If living, they need safety, too. As does her birth mother if your daughter has looked her up or is planning to do so. My birth daughter got in touch a couple of years ago. We had a cautious start and the relationship is now going exceptionally well and the rest of my family loves her (applying the Crucial Skills helped a lot, but we also had a fairly low level of complexity – her adoptive parents (who gave her a happy childhood) were deceased, she has no interest in looking up her birth father, I have no other children, and my spouse was not resentful (I’d given him a heads up before we married), but you can indeed wade through this successfully). Good luck with the relationship and all the best…

    1. And yet, the adoptive and birth parents’ need for safety is theirs to define and to meet, no one else’s. I hope this goes well for all!

  3. Well said – well said! What insightful thoughts here that we can apply to so many difficult and very real human situations. Gentle reminders to own your own state, let others own theirs, and show up authentically with vulnerability, humility, and compassion. Be prepared to journey through!

    I appreciate ‘Awkward Reunion’ for their courage to step out for help in this forum for us all to learn and to the insightful support and advice from Joseph. Thank you!

  4. Great advice. I gave up a child for adoption too. Being a woman, I couldn’t hide my pregnancy so everyone knew and also knew Igave him up for adoption. When I eventually married, my husband knew and also knew that if this child ever looked me up I would be willing to meet him. When he was 18 he contacted me through the agency. We have a lovely relationship. He has loving parents and I am not replacing his mom, I’m his birth mother. My kids love him, he loves us. The relationship is not the same as with my children who were with me but it is a loving relationship. He’s 29 now. He calls me by my given name and his children call me Grandma. We occassionaly talk on the phone, visit each other. No one feels threatened. I just want to encourage Awkward that your entire family can be blessed by this new relationship.

  5. Wow! Joseph, your thoughts were inspiring to me, and I’m not the one trying to cope with a tough situation! I have helped to present personal growth workshops for 20+ years, and I found your information really appropriate and thought provoking. Thank you for reminding readers that we are only responsible for our actions and for being honest about our part in situations. It is freeing to relaize that I can allow others to have their feelings, without trying to fix it or alter their expereince. Just witnessing and being present is alot of what we do in the workshops I have done as well.

  6. This is a beautiful line and thought: ” If others have judgments about your past choices, you must decide if you are willing to let your peace be a product of their approval.” Bravo!

    In response 1, you say, “It is also possible her resentment stems from trauma or fears she has that are unrelated to you. Your response to that would be the same—to validate her feelings. You needn’t take the “blame” for her feelings in either case.”

    What if she doesn’t understand that her resentment comes from trauma or unrelated fears and, in order to alleviate her own anxiety, is blaming/accusing him of things he didn’t actually do or intend? How can he validate her feelings without assuming blame?

    1. A good question! I would respond by saying something like “I’m sorry you feel that way. My intention was to…” and then share my motivations and felings. I would end with “I understand you feel that I…… But that doesn’t feel true to me”. That way, he shares his true motivations, acknowledging that it might not look like that to his daughter, but he doesn’t have to “accept the blame” if he feels like what she is saying wasn’t true.

    2. Great question, SMC. And one I’m sure is relevant to most of us. All of us carry past wounds–often without realizing how they are filtering our present experiences. If I am in relationship with someone and see this pattern coming up – I must find a way to talk about that pattern in a safe way – a way that invites inquiry and offers support without loading it with blame or judgment. Tough to do – but in the end we are all the key to one another’s healing.

  7. Thanks to Awkward for opening this dialogue. I love reading these scenarios and responses to keep me thinking about Crucial Skills and how to apply them to all situations.

    In reading this scenario, I wonder if Awkward’s history about this child was news to his wife, or if he had disclosed this when first building his relationship with her. If it’s news, there might be broken trust in this relationship that warrants apology and rebuilding of trust.

    Regardless, opportunities abound for building and strengthen relationships! Best wishes to Awkward and his loved ones.

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