Helping People Develop Letters to Integrate Difficult Experiences

by Deborah Grassman
OpusPeace.org

This is an example of how to facilitate the letter-writing process. I usually work with people on drafts of letters, rather than encouraging them to send a letter written on their own. Giving someone “a piece of my mind” is seldom received amicably and can even perpetuate hostility. Although it’s important to vent anger so the writer can acknowledge it and set boundaries, anger often covers up more vulnerable feelings like grief, fear, or rejection. Until the underlying feelings are abided, integrity is not gained. One way to bypass the experience of feelings, such as grief and rejection, is to delude ourselves into thinking we have forgiven someone when we haven’t; it spares us from having to do the work of abiding with hurt feelings and integrating the part of self that is generating those feelings. “False forgiveness” prevents reckoning with the changes we need to make to discover aspects of exiled self that are hurting. This was the case with Lindsay who was estranged from her brother after their father’s death. She longed to reconcile their differences and she fooled herself into thinking she had forgiven her brother. Her “forgiveness” covered up feelings of anger, hostility, and arrogance. Here is the first draft of her letter:

Dear Donnie,

This letter is a long time coming. It comes with much thought and consideration. After decades of hurt feelings and wishing things were better, I have at last come to forgiveness. It’s amazing what happens when you come to an understanding of what true forgiveness is.

I was never the favored one in our family. You were the fair-haired boy and the one most expected to succeed. As much as I tried to win Mom’s favor, I was never able to do so. You were it. Although Dad was my hero, I didn’t seem to be his favorite either, although he came to my defense as often as he could. Living under such a suppressive and controlling mother, took most of “me” away. I was just too busy trying to please and receive some sort of positive recognition.

Your attitude toward me was very difficult to accept. I know now you didn’t understand my inner struggle to escape the suppression at home. I know you thought me weak, but the everyday struggle to live in the house was not easy. I became successful in my careers, and each time that I achieved a new plateau, I was pushed down by a jealous, controlling mother.

When I finally took a vacation to California with a friend to see you, you completely destroyed the vacation for your own personal gain. That was really a turning point for me with our relationship. It took me a long time to get over the hurt.

Dad appointed me trustee to the estate; he was convinced that I was the better head for business and more competent to manage the estate. Donnie, Dad did not trust you or your wife to be fair with distributions or manage his care. At that point in our lives, I had become more successful than you. I did not say anything to you because I wanted to preserve what little relationship we had as a family. The trust states the reasons I was appointed trustee and the reasons you were not. These are Dad’s unsolicited opinions to his attorney not known to me prior to the reading of the will.

Dad was extremely upset by the way you removed him from one home and took him to DeSoto County without his consent or my knowledge. You and your wife, in essence, kidnapped him to try and make your gain. All of the details are stated in the trust. When I went home to sell and clean out the property that he had lived in for 53 years, your complete refusal to help with the exception of a couple of hours was inconceivable. The neighbors were furious with you, Donnie, and Dad was at wit’s end. I know you stole items from the house and lied about it because the neighbors told me what you took: the Indian stones from the castle, the tool chest, and the patio set that was Grandma and Grandpa’s. I have a letter written by Dad giving me the patio furniture. He did not want you to have the furniture, yet I didn’t say anything because I wanted to maintain the peace. I will send you a copy of the trust and the letter if you wish.

Donnie, we are all that is left of our family. I can understand what happened in our family. I am free now in my heart and head. I forgive you for the past and want to move forward from here. I am at last at peace and wish the same for you.

Lindsay

I worked with Lindsay to help her see that her anger and resentment remained strong, signals that she had not yet forgiven her brother the way she thought she had. I told her that the letter was important because it helped her see that she had justifiable anger. I encouraged her to use her anger to take a stand with her brother; if she took a stand, she would no longer need the anger. We also examined whether she truly wanted reconciliation with Donnie. It was clear that she did, so I crafted a second draft, leaving some blanks for her to complete. She could then further modify it as she saw fit. I also softened some of her dramatic either/or language (“never,” “completely destroyed,” “kidnapped,” “furious,” etc). Note how this draft opens possible perspectives for Donnie and also includes Lindsay’s feelings that her anger was hiding, as well as her role in contributing to the conflict in the relationship:

Dear Donnie,

This letter is a long time coming. It comes with much thought and consideration. After decades of hurt feelings, I want to make things better between us. I hardly know where to begin after all this time. I can only tell you how I feel and give you my perspective. My hope is that we can come to understand each other more and maybe start talking.

I always thought that I was not the favored one in our family. You were the fair-haired boy and the one most expected to succeed. As much as I tried to win Mom’s favor, I was seldom able to do so. You were it. Although Dad was my hero, I didn’t seem to be his favorite either; however, he did come to my defense as often as he could. Even though I knew this situation was not your fault, I couldn’t help but feel jealous and angry. No matter what I did, it didn’t seem good enough; it seldom got me the attention that you got. This neglect left me feeling sad and inadequate. I thought something was wrong with me. Living under such a suppressive and controlling mother, took most of “me” away. I was just too busy trying to please and receive some sort of positive recognition. In your shadow, I felt like I was a nothing. I know now you didn’t understand my inner struggle to escape the suppression at home. I know you thought I was weak, but the everyday struggle to live in the house was not easy for me. My struggle to survive was important at the time. You may not be able to understand my attitude because from my viewpoint, life in our house was not a struggle for you. On the other hand, I realize that you probably had a different set of struggles, and I was just too consumed with my own survival to notice.

I became successful in my careers and each time I achieved a new plateau, I was pushed down by a jealous, controlling mother. (How? Explain so Donnie can understand. Also, is some of your anger toward your mother getting directed toward Donnie? If so, you might want to tell him that.)

I took a vacation to Texas with a friend to see you. I was hoping to _____ (what did you want to accomplish?) Instead, I ended up feeling hurt and devalued because you had other things to do and didn’t seem interested that we were there. Although I hate to admit it, there’s part of me that is still angry about that. I realize now that I probably didn’t _____ […check with you about whether you wanted us to come? …or maybe I should have been more sensitive about ____ (plans you already had?) … or maybe I should not have assumed _____. Lindsay, try to use the above section to take more responsibility for what happened.] At any rate, it was a very big disappointment to me, and although I’ve tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter and that I didn’t need or want a relationship with you anymore, I realize now that that simply isn’t true. The fact that I still feel hurt and angry about it helps me realize how important you are to me.

I know there are also hard feelings about Dad’s appointing me trustee to the estate. Donnie, this was Dad’s decision. It was not my fault nor was I the cause of his decision. I did not say anything to you because I wanted to preserve what little relationship we had as a family. I don’t know all that happened with you and Dad’s property, nor do I need to know. I know Dad was upset with you, but that is between you and Dad. It does not involve me. The neighbors said you took some of Dad’s things. Donnie, if you did things that were less than honorable, then that is on you. My hope is that whatever happened, we will both be able to let those things go and start fresh because we are all that is left of our family.

Sometimes, I can’t quite understand what happened in our family. I realize that in many ways, we don’t really even know one another. As children, I was too jealous of the attention you got to see who you really were. Now with these many years that have separated us, I’ve missed knowing you and your family as adults. I hope we can move forward from here. I wish you peace and offer my love.

Lindsay

I had no further contact with Lindsay, so I’m not sure how this story ends, but I know that the second letter has a greater probability of producing her desired effect than the first because false forgiveness seldom yields authentic results. I also think that Lindsay would benefit from writing a letter to her mother and then doing some inner work to develop a nurturing “internal mother.” It’s also quite possible that Lindsay never mailed the second letter if she wasn’t yet ready to be more vulnerable with her brother and also herself; only she would know.

(For more information about therapeutic letter-writing to achieve personal healing, see Deborah’s book: The Hero Within on this website).

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