Sample text for Letters home : how writing can change your life / Terry Vance.

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Counter Chapter One: Benefiting from the Ease and Safety that Writing Allows

In a more perfect world, we might have the opportunity to be in family therapy or in a similar situation where we are encouraged to confront the truth and are supported for being authentic with the people who are most important to us. But even when parents or significant others are alive and available, it is unusual for everyone in a family to be able and willing to come together for this purpose. In rare cases, the parents can travel and take the time to come to therapy and are not afraid to talk openly, but the resources required in terms of money and therapy time make such a practice prohibitive for most people. Individual or even group therapy is a luxury many people cannot afford or would never consider.

Most people, though, can put their feelings on paper, write a letter to parents, have a friend or spouse or sibling read the letter and give feedback, or put the letter away and reread it later with the enhanced perspective a little distance can give. Although writing letters to deal with important emotional issues is easier with the insight and support that therapy gives, writing an up-front letter does not usually necessitate being in psychotherapy. In cases of abuse, however, the guidance of a qualified therapist is essential. Letter writing (especially when the letter is sent) can help accomplish what family therapy or couples therapy often does. It can bring the significant people together and help the writer separate his contribution to the problem from his parents' or spouse's in a way that is documented and can be gone over and over in different states of mind.

Writing letters is an ordinary activity; it is a tool we all know how to use. When I assign a letter as a part of therapy, it usually does not feel artificial or awkward for the client. The writer can write a letter and wait to show it until he is comfortable with it. Feedback on the feelings that emerge in the letters and the feelings that remain hidden can provide the material and push for the next draft. It feels good and reduces stress to get clear on feelings with specific examples of events and situations that have been suppressed or repressed. Getting out feelings, memories, and thoughts often allows other previously unconscious feelings, memories, and thoughts to emerge. It starts the juices flowing.

Many people who can write a very frank letter are paralyzed by the thought of an in-person confrontation with the most important figures in their lives. For these people, direct expression of feelings may have been punished violently or less blatantly with constant criticism or humiliation. Feelings may have been consistently ignored or discounted. Often there has been no modeling of how to express a feeling appropriately. Such early patterns make any emotions, especially negative or critical ones, difficult to acknowledge, much less to express to another person.

People who do not feel safe making mistakes or expressing their feelings in person are usually willing to write a letter that does not have to be sent or even shown to anyone. It can be full of mistakes. It can be revised. If I am afraid to test my perceptions and feelings about what happened because I am afraid of being wrong or of getting mistreated or attacked for expressing feelings that are taboo in my family, I might be willing to see what happens when I express them in writing.

We may hope that if only we express them the "right way," our feelings will be recognized as valid, understood, and appreciated. Or we may fear that if we express ourselves honestly we will be disinherited, hated, or irrevocably harmed or that telling our feelings will destroy a parent--that he or she will have a heart attack or go crazy. These fears and hopes prevent us from letting go of a bondage that can keep us mired in the past. Too much is riding on the communication when the consequences are seen as so momentous. Writing letters that do not have to be sent can create a sense of safety for the writer in the same way that a child can create a sense of safety by using make-believe to pretest, to try out something before it counts for real. Pretending is like a partial reality test that does not require leaving the safety of nonreality. Throughout the history of psychotherapy, many theorists and practitioners have used forms of pretending to help clients change. Increasingly sophisticated studies demonstrate that pretending, "acting" an action, merely acting happy or sad, for instance, can create immediate changes at even the cellular and chemical level.

Margaret Kemeny, a psychologist trained in immunology and psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that when actors acted either happy or sad, this affected the actors' immune systems, increasing the number of natural killer cells in their bloodstreams. Her conclusion is that expressing any feeling, positive or negative, is healthy. Such research demonstrates that expressed behavior can change a person even if the behavior is at a practice or pretend level.

In addition, expressing feelings and thoughts in a letter has the potential to change the letter writer (even if the letter is never sent) by increasing the writer's recognition that she can behave differently. Writing a draft of a letter creates a temporary responsibility shift similar in its results to the exploratory quality in children's pretending. Exploration works best when trials are felt to be just that; they do not count for keeps. This is why an assignment to write a letter will often get carried out only when the writer is reminded that she does not have to send it even if it is a great letter.

Often the letter feels right once written and revised. It authentically expresses what the writer feels. Barriers to sending it melt away. The process of composing the letter, going through the stages to create impact, throwing out the debris, working through the feelings, and getting at the truth is so compelling that only rarely does the letter not eventually get sent. It may still be scary to send it, but the fear is generally manageable, especially when the writer uses techniques to control both the content and the response. One such technique is to start the letter with a statement of the writer's intent. For example, he may write: "I am sending this letter so that we can get rid of the barriers between us. I want to be closer." He may then become restrictive if the response to his letter shows that the recipient is not taking him seriously or is mistreating him all over again. Another technique is to end the letter by giving instructions as to what the writer wants the receiver to do: "Please write, don't call. This way it will be easier for me to think about your response." Giving instructions to the parents creates an automatic shift in power. The writer is saying what he requires, shifting the focus of the relationship. The parents have to deal with the writer's request and the writer's feelings and perceptions.

Letter writing reduces the vulnerability of the person trying out new behavior and increases his ability to stand back and analyze what the respondent does; at the same time, it helps the respondent get the distance necessary to be undefensive. For the letter recipient, the distance from the accuser that a letter provides can help prevent impulsive and defensive reactions. The fact that it is the written word rather than the spoken cry or scream gives the well-intentioned parent the opportunity to consider his feelings, his experience of the events or feelings referred to in the letter, and ultimately what seems to him to be true and what seems to be false. The responder as well as the writer has the letter to look at and ponder for future discussions. This means a future talk need not be based on misunderstandings because of strong emotions, which can easily prevent either party from communicating honestly. Not spoiling the chance to communicate in person becomes a crucial advantage of the letter home.

Honesty and openness do not ensure a good response. My new open behavior may not get treated with respect. I need to be prepared for a bad response. I need to try the new behavior for my own sake, not because I expect specific responses from someone else. People are extremely vulnerable when they try a new behavior for the first time. Preparatory work is important. The more safeguards that can be built in, the better the chances of establishing a solid foundation for change.

A caution is important here: Letters confronting abuse are obviously not appropriate to send when the recipient is homicidal, violent, psychotic, or psychopathic or in any way poses a physical threat to the writer. In less dangerous situations when the writer can't assume goodwill on the part of the recipient, the writer can protect herself from anticipated threats by building in a counter-threat technique. The writer can decide to send copies of her letter to everyone in the family and explain in her letter that she is sending copies because she is no longer willing to keep secrets. Or, she can give the parent fair warning that if the parent distorts what she says and communicates that distortion to the other family members, she will send copies of her letter to them. The writer can announce that she intends to break off a bad relationship and give instructions to cease all future contact unless certain conditions are met. She can stipulate that she no longer wants any relationship but wants to say why she has been avoiding the parent and why she feels the way she does.

If the writer writes her parents and honestly and openly expresses to them what she has always secretly blamed them for, she is freed up. Writing letters is less frequent in these days of easy phone access and electronic mail; its rarity makes letters all the more potent. If the writer's parent is not accustomed to getting letters that communicate real feelings and request real responses, the letter will grab attention. Having articulated her feelings, and knowing that the letter will get read and attended to if sent, the writer starts to gain additional perspective; she can start to see what she contributes to being treated badly or to not stopping the bad treatment before she even drops the letter in the mailbox.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Letter writing Therapeutic use, Psychotherapy