The Hopes and Intentions Letter: Evoking with Compassion
It has been over twenty-two years since I first began working as a wilderness therapist. While the spirit and dedication of practitioners remains the foundation for quality wilderness-based therapy, many things have changed in that time: family support services, clinical sophistication, whole health curriculum, and a dedication to outcome research. Twenty years ago, when we began on our own adventure to establish the new standard in wilderness therapy, we knew that many would follow suit. We often stated, what makes our program great is not what we did yesterday, but what we are willing to imagine for tomorrow. At Evoke, one of our founding principles is our commitment to continually innovate where we see a need.
Recently, I was having a conversation with an alumni parent who had sent her child to our program and another of her children to a different wilderness program. In each, she was asked to complete an “Impact Letter.” For many wilderness programs, this assignment is the flagship assignment for parents. It asks parents to spell out why they sent their child to the program and how their child’s behavior impacted the family. This particular mother was coached by the therapist at the other program, and was asked several times to rewrite her letter, to be more “confrontive” and tough. She, like many parents, may have struggled to be honest and direct, fearing the child “would not handle” the contents of the letter. She had become accustomed to “walking on eggshells,” a common dynamic for many of our parents. She admitted that one of her liabilities is her aversion to allow her child to struggle or deal with natural consequences.
As we talked about her communication and relationship with her 4 children, it became apparent to me that she may have misinterpreted the coaching. While honesty, directness, and courageous communication are essential in healthy relationships, change may not be best served by traditional notions of confrontation. Colloquially, “calling people on their crap” takes little capacity or insight and tends to shut down communication and openness. Furthermore, child development and the research in the treatment field does not suggest that motivation for change and healing mental health and addiction issues is fueled by “how my behavior affected others.” As one heals and awakens, their empathy and compassion for others increases, but telling someone how they have impacted others will make little difference unless the individual awakens to their own emotional world.
Fostering morality and developing empathy arise out of the awakening of a person’s emotional world. Simply put, when you learn how to feel, you recognize it in others.
Shame and guilt are not effective fuel for sustained, healthy, and authentic healing. Shame and guilt are more likely to lead to resistance or denial as they create the impulse to hide for the fear of being rejected or abandoned. Many times, guilt is the cause of doing the wrong thing. So often, in talking with parents about their parenting decisions, they confess, “I knew the right thing to do, but I just didn't do it.” When I ask why, they often reply, “Because I felt guilty.” In her landmark book on boundaries, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner illustrates the problem with guilt in a case study where the client finally realizes,
No matter how long I’m in therapy, I’m still going to feel guilty if I say no to my father. But if I keep saying yes, I’m going to feel angry. So, if I’m going to change, I guess I will just have to learn to live with some guilt for a while.
In Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change, Miller and Rollnick (2013) explain how practitioners, in many spheres of life and leadership, encourage change in those that they lead or serve. In the third addition, they added an emphasis on compassion, another one of Evoke’s core principles. They describe the practice of Motivational Interviewing and the research that supports its effectiveness. Prior to the development of Motivational Interviewing, Rollnick observed that denial and resistance could be evidence of a fractured rapport between practitioner (we can also infer parent). While professionals and parents have labels like “resistant” and “unmotivated,” perhaps these characteristics were maintained by relationship dynamics.
This leads us to a simple but profound change in our programming. After more than 20 years, we are changing the “Impact Letter” to the “Hopes and Intentions Letter.” While we have discouraged parents from shaming and guilting, emphasizing the impact their child’s behaviors have had on others, we felt the need to make a greater shift. The spirit of the letter mirrors what we believe to be the summation of the parents’ motivation to send their child to Evoke. This essence is in the heart of every parent who makes the courageous and difficult decision to send their child to out-of-home treatment.
We love you. We are concerned about you, your safety or your well-being. We don’t think we can provide you what you need at home, so we have enrolled you in this program. We hope you will benefit by participating at Evoke in the following ways…
We still ask parents to be courageous, honest and specific in their concerns to their child, but there is a de-emphasis on how these issues are affecting others. We don't want children to change because they are hurting others, but because they themselves are suffering. We believe the approach represented by this shift and this small change in title highlights the most effective way to encourage healthy changes in others.
Some parents note that the Impact Letter was enlightening and even cathartic. “It was a time to express outside of the story.” They ask, “When and where do we get to be heard?” It is important and even critical that parents’ feelings be felt and their stories be heard, but it is also important to understand that we don't hand our feelings to our children for them to hold. That is, we don't ask our children to be responsible for our feelings. Parents are encouraged to share their feelings with other parents, with therapists, or with trusted friends. In Al-anon, a support group for loved ones of individuals suffering from alcoholism, members often recite the following slogans,
“What you think about me is none of my business.” &
“My serenity is my responsibility.”
These two slogans highlight the healthy differentiation and detachment needed in order to deal with a loved one suffering from self-defeating behaviors and the wounds those symptoms serve to cover up.
Most importantly, Evoke knows that the solution is not in the technique, but the techniques and the language we use can help make a difference to improve the relationships and more effectively evoke change. As Miller and Rollnick note, “Motivational Interviewing is also not a ‘technique,’ an easily learned gimmick to tuck away in one’s toolbox. We describe MI as a style of being with people…” The Journey of the Heroic Parent suggests that there is not a generic solution but rather a new kind of sensibility to participate in the relationship with ourselves and with our children. That is the invitation to a new journey with the children we serve. We engage our clients in Buber’s I-Thou relationship. We own our own journey and make our own lives our project. And we create with our children a more authentic and meaningful life together.