The Healing Power of Letter Writing
Each week I come into the field and, as I walk into the group, I usually have a number of dirty teenagers clustering around me. They approach at varying speeds and rates of enthusiasm, but almost without exception, they pause what they are doing to come over. I am their therapist and they want to talk to me and tell me about their week, yes. But I am also the letter carrier and Tuesdays are mail days—the one day of the week when therapists bring out letters to students from their parents and immediate familes.
Once these missives are handed out, camp often becomes muted, the quiet broken by random exclamations, tears, kids reading out bits and pieces, or showing off the included pictures to their peers and staff. These letters often spark deep emotions that result in students calling standing “I Feel” groups to discuss what they’re feeling in response. In this information-saturated day and age, the wilderness is a complete break from all outside stimuli with the exception of these weekly letters.
Often times, the relationships in the families we work with have eroded until they’re almost unrecognizable from what they used to be. Conflict, miscommunication, and pain typically characterize the conversations and interactions of our students and their parents before coming to wilderness. Someone’s tone, words, body language, or implicit messages in conversation can all be quick triggers to a reaction. Furthermore, these communication styles can become entrenched in the family system.
It’s normal to struggle to be empathic and hear others when we’re in conflict. Research shows that, as humans, our physiological response to relationship conflict decreases our ability to take in new information or consider a different perspective. When in this aroused state, it’s harder to listen, to empathize; and the fight or flight instinct can lead to aggressiveness or withdrawal. Our human physiology makes it difficult to resolve conflict well, even with—or especially with—those we love.
The letter writing process is powerful in that it slows communication down significantly. This can be key in breaking cycles of conflict. Even when triggered, letter writing creates space to have an intense emotional reaction, process, cope, and then intentionally choose how to respond. Writing letters back and forth removes tone, body language, environmental factors, and boils the communication down to words on a page. The slow pace, which allows both students and their parents to sit with what was said and process it before choosing how to respond, can transform a relationship’s signature communication style. The distance that letter writing creates can also create space between parents and their children to be brave and step into vulnerably sharing with each other.
I am passionate about this element of our program and providing coaching to parents through our letter writing process. Letter writing is often an intervention for parents that mirrors some of the interventions that their children experience in the backcountry. Letter writing often highlights for parents areas for their own personal work that they can choose to step into in their own therapy.
When we write, the words that we use show us the way we interpret and perceive the world. Putting our thoughts on paper highlights the way we express ourselves, our core beliefs about the world, and sheds light on our unconscious perspectives. Once seen on paper, it is much easier to notice the “shoulds,” the attachments to certain outcomes, the tendency to shift blame, how pain manifests into secondary emotions, and so many other minute ways that we see the world or communication breaks down. In the field, students are immersed in constant coaching around these pieces of communication and emotional awareness while, in letters, parents experience a parallel coaching process from the therapist they are working with.
Each week, parents receive feedback on the letters they write their children and coaching on how to more effectively express themselves. Increased communication skills and the ability to hear each other creates safety. This, in turn, allows families to step into vulnerable conversations in a beautiful, powerful, and healing way. The families I work with have voiced finding deep meaning in being equipped to be more assertive, to hold space for each other, to listen in order to understand, and to feel seen and heard by their child in an entirely new way.
It’s no surprise then, when bringing letters to the field each week, that students eagerly circle in to hear their parents’ thoughts, their feelings, their vulnerability, and news of home.