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Feeling guilty for not visiting abusive parent during the holidays

DEAR CAROLYN: My family of origin is broken. My siblings and I were emotionally and physically abused as children. My parents would of course dispute the word "abuse." They did the best they could, but they didn't have good parenting/coping skills. Fast-forward, decades. The "kids" all live far from a place we never call "home" and rarely visit. Sole surviving parent has a wide circle of friends but has become increasingly quirky and difficult to be around. As a result, elderly parent gloomily spent the last Most Important Holiday alone. I feel torn between: A. a sense of responsibility to ease another human's pain by visiting during Important Holiday; and B. protecting myself from a person and place that causes me anxiety and crushes my sense of self. Choice A would mitigate my sense of guilt for not visiting; Choice B doesn't. How does a healthy person make this decision?

My Parent, My Self

MY PARENT, MY SELF: I'm sorry you have to wrestle with this.

You owe nothing to your abuser.

You owe yourself compassion, patience, self-knowledge and creativity in finding ways to be at peace.

If you think you need to make a holiday overture to your parent in order to find peace, then do it. If you think that will cost you more peace than it gains you, then don't do it. That's the healthy person's reckoning.

For what it's worth, it sounds as if such an overture would be destabilizing for you.

If you're not sure of the math — it is all or mostly projection, after all — then take a look at the reason you've even considered this: Your parent is pushing the emotional burden of a bad holiday onto others, and expecting others to fix his or her feelings.

Isn't that just another iteration of the abuse? Healthy people don't do that. They handle the responsibility internally: "My Most Important Holiday was terrible. I need to make plans for the next one so I don't go through that again." That can include inviting others to visit, or hosting local friends, or making plans to travel somewhere interesting, or lining up volunteer gigs, or even just making the solo holiday purposeful by choosing the right streaming binge and laying in the proper snack supplies.

It's also healthy, or health-building, to ease another human being's pain, yes — but it doesn't have to be just this one human being. It's also worth considering whether the point of the pain is for it never to be eased, the better for drawing attention.

If, again, the cost for you is too high, then you can contribute pain relief at arm's length, by letter for example — or to someone else entirely. For example, you don't visit your parent but you visit or coordinate the delivery of care packages at a nursing home, which would be far less emotionally problematic for you. Call it a universal donation — and leave it to the universe to step in for your parent. Generosity for its own sake can be a compromise with yourself. Think of it as repurposing the guilt you can't quite reason away.

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