Dealing with toxic parents is an all too common struggle.
Quite often in the course of therapy, people tell me about difficulties they’ve experienced—or still experience—in their relationships with one or both of their parents.
And when I say, “quite often,” I mean most of the time.
In my experience, the “I had a perfect childhood” accounts are few and far between.
But even though negative experiences with our parents are not at all uncommon, many of us struggle to talk openly about those experiences in therapy, much less outside of therapy.
This is where therapy letters can help in a big way. And in this two-part blog post, I’m going to share with you how to write three different therapy letters with huge payoffs when it comes to dealing with toxic parents.
What makes dealing with toxic parents so difficult?
As I see it, one of the biggest barriers for many of us when it comes to talking openly about our experiences with toxic parents is not so much about disclosing our painful experiences and feelings with someone else. More often, our real hang-up has to do with giving ourselves permission to feel and express emotions we’ve kept hidden even from ourselves.
Of course, when we’re younger, having a way to avoid distressing feelings like sadness, anger, shame and embarrassment can be useful and adaptive. This is especially true when you grow up with a toxic parent.
(Ever wonder just how toxic your parent really is? Take our toxic parent quiz now and find out.)
Trouble is, the longer you go on suppressing these difficult feelings, the more they tend to build up and weigh you down. There’s a burdensome, heavy feeling that begins to hang over you, “de-pressing” your energy, your joy, your excitement.
Edward Teyber and Faith H. McClure describe it this way:
“So many of our symptoms and problems in life stem from our inability to feel what we feel: to be sad about what was lost or missed, afraid of what really once was frightening, or angry about what actually was harmful.”
The question, then, is how do you go about feeling what you really feel? How do you access the difficult emotions you’ve kept concealed deep down inside yourself for years or even decades?
Two words: therapy letters.
What Are Therapy Letters?
Simply put, therapy letters—sometimes called therapeutic letters—are letters that you write to someone with no intention of ever sending. The therapeutic value of the exercise involves the experiencing of difficult emotions that takes place in the writing process.
In the act of putting pen to paper and allowing yourself to write an honest, uncensored letter to your parent, feelings that you’ve learned to suppress and sequester deep inside of yourself inevitably come to the surface. You begin to feel what you really feel.
Why is this important? Research tells us that affective experiencing—feeling what we feel—is necessary for therapeutic change to occur. Analyzing and making intellectual sense of our struggles certainly have a role play. But for real change to take place, we must ultimately confront, experience, and feel our struggles on an emotional level.
To quote Cherrie Moraga,
“The passage is through, not over, not by, not around but through.”
Tips For Writing Effective Therapy Letters
Before I describe the three therapy letters I recommend writing to your parent, let’s talk briefly about what you can do to make this exercise its most effective.
Schedule a time to write. For starters, I recommend finding a private space and time to write your letters. If you live alone, this shouldn’t be much trouble. However, if you have a family or live with roommates, I highly recommend setting aside at least an hour for each of your three letters, making sure you won’t have to contend with any interruptions.
Write your letters by hand. Next, I recommend writing handwritten letters as opposed to typing them. The point of the exercise is not about writing the “perfect” letter. Instead, you’re simply trying to capture the memories, emotions, images and other material that come up for you as you write. When we type therapeutic letters, it can be tempting to revise our otherwise unvarnished sentiments, making them sound less harsh or “mean.” In this way, we end up holding back the thoughts and feelings that need expressing.
Writing your letters by hand can also make it easier to get in touch with younger parts of yourself. If some of the feelings you’ve struggled to let yourself feel relate to early-life experiences, think about how you would have written your letter at the age you were at the time. Would you have used pen? Pencil? Crayon? Letting the “age” of your emotions inform your choice of writing utensil can help you tap into—and feel—emotions that date all the way back to your childhood.
Expect difficulty. The last tip I have may be the most important: expect this exercise to be difficult. Having guided countless therapy clients through this exercise over the years and having written my own therapy letters, I can tell you that it’s not an easy process. Often, we start our letters but struggle to finish them. As we discover and confront our feelings of anger, resentment, and vitriol, our fear of these and other similar emotions can become overwhelming.
But we must find a way to give ourselves permission to feel what we feel, letting ourselves know that, no matter how scary our emotions may be, they are valid, and we have a right to feel them. I think Lindsay Gibson captures this point well in her book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: “Hate is a normal and involuntary reaction when somebody tries to control you for no reason.”
Should feelings of fear, guilt or shame prevent you from expressing what you really feel in your letter, imagine these emotions as being “parts” of you, and ask them to leave to the room. Let them know that you appreciate their efforts to keep you away from difficult emotions they fear will harm or overwhelm you. But also let them know that, now that you’re an adult, you possess the courage and strength needed to process and work through these vulnerable emotions.
The goal here is to make space. Once you’ve reassured your protective parts that you’ll be okay—and that they too will be liberated in the process—you’re ready to begin.
Ready to write your therapy letters?
If so, head on over to Part 2 now where I walk you through the steps of writing three highly effective therapy letters for dealing with toxic parents.