This week we celebrate Father’s Day. For some, this holiday is a time when we reconnect with our dads over dinner or at a sporting event to celebrate his life and the impact he had on us. For others, it may be a time of mourning as we fondly remember those dads who have moved on and are no longer with us but left an indelible mark on our hearts and minds.

Yet for some, Father’s Day serves as a painful memory, because the “dad” we had was absent, emotionally unavailable, abusive, or a major reason we struggle with our sense of self-worth and confidence. And unfortunately, this is the case far too often with many of the guys I have worked with over the years who struggle with porn use and sexual addiction.

The truth is I don’t know your situation. I don’t know what Father’s Day means to you. Nor do I know if your memories of your father are entirely pleasant, a mix of bad or good, or a reconstructed narrative you’ve written to help make sense of the pain and abuse you experienced.  

But I do know this. He tried his best.

“Carl, how can you say that? My dad was a tyrant. He was an abuser who only cared about himself. He never cared about me or my mom. He was a complete [insert explicative].”

Right, let me explain… My friend, author, and therapist Steven Luff talked about this very thing in his book Faith and Sex. In the chapter rightfully titled “Dads” he writes,

“Abusive fathers want human connection. That’s why they abuse: to control that which they don’t feel valuable enough to maintain through their own worth.”

In other words, even abusive fathers are trying to cope the best way they know how. That “best way” may be terribly destructive and hurtful. It may mean being distant and stoic because that was their understanding of manhood. It may mean they do things no one can imagine possible; things that you would call evil.  But even then, what they did or do are just the fragmented and highly broken mechanisms they use to approach life because they don’t know how to exist any other way. 

And so the pain they have experienced they pass along to others. Such is the saying, “hurt people hurt people.”

Of course, there’s a wide range of dysfunction that people can experience and operate from. Recognizing that by saying one’s father “did his best” doesn’t excuse how he behaved. No does it mean that we accept those behaviors, excuse those behaviors, or enable those behaviors. It just means we need to recognize that his way of fathering was also his way of survival. And so his actions weren’t because of your shortcomings, but rather because of his brokenness.

This is important to understand, for multiple reasons. Especially for those who are operating out of their own pain and sense of inadequacy and turn to maladaptive ways of coping such as porn and sex. Here are four:  

1. You can stop blaming yourself.

When you understand that your father’s behavior was not a reflection of your personal worth or deserved punishment, but his pain you can begin to deconstruct the self-condemning narratives you’ve constructed to justify what seems irrational and unexplainable. The problem isn’t you. It never was. The problem is/was something else and unfortunately you bore the brunt of it all. And so there is no need for you to continue your unwanted sexual behavior as a means of numbing the feelings of inadequacy you’ve created for yourself.

2. Empathy and Forgiveness

By recognizing that you’ve experienced terrible pain, and that pain is in many ways a mirror of your father’s pain, you can start to let go of resentment and anger towards him. This opens the door to self-compassion and forgiveness, both for yourself and for your father. This also is not an easy thing to do. It seems unfair and unjust. But forgiveness is essential for real healing.

3. Break the Cycle 

Again, hurt people hurt people. As I say in my book, it’s the gift that keeps giving. Victims of abuse frequently become abusers. Those who have been sexually damaged often perpetuate that damage in some manner. But when you recognize the role pain played role in your father’s behavior, you can find the motivation needed to not perpetuate similar behaviors in your own life and relationships thereby breaking the cycle of dysfunction.

4. Personal Growth 

Coming to the realization that your father’s pain and trauma is what led to his abusive or distant behavior can be a catalyst for your own personal growth and healing. It allows you to separate his actions from your self-worth, recognizing that you are not defined by his behavior. By facing this truth, you can become empowered to break free from your own patterns of pain and dysfunction, paving the way for a healthier, more fulfilling life.

In the end, what we all must understand is that ultimately we are all doing “our best.” It’s just because of sin and pain, what’s “best” may in fact be the worst for us and others. This is true of you, your father, and his father. Recognizing this reality does not lessen the pain of what we’ve experienced. Nor does it solve your current problems. But when you can finally separate your self-worth from your fathers’ actions, you pave the way for self-growth, healing, and healthier life choices.