Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Beyond the Finger Pointing

“It was all your fault.”

“Yeah, right, you were such an angel!”

“Both of you always ganged up on me!”

“Well, you were always asking for it.”

“Mom always …“

“Dad never …”

Stressful conversations like this are common in many families, and even more families would have them if it weren’t for all the elephants in the room. Despite — or perhaps because o­f — their obvious potential for escalating stress, these conversations offer rich opportunities for reaping healthful benefits from expressive writing.

One major key to unlocking these benefits lies in the opportunity to practice exploring the situation from alternate perspectives. In his book, Writing to Heal, James Pennebaker identifies the ability to adopt multiple points of view as a key component predicting positive health outcomes from the four-day writing process he describes, based on his original ground-breaking research and all the  succeeding replications.

You can break the pattern of finger pointing and blaming, at least for yourself, by writing about your siblings’ points of view as you imagine them to be. You might also write from the perspective of one or both of your parents. As you write, you may discover angles you’d never thought of. Be prepared for the possibility that you may, at least on paper in the privacy of your journal, realize that some of their allegations are true, and you weren’t quite the angel you’ve always believed yourself to be. Equally likely is the possibility that you’ll realize that you were not actually responsible for things you’ve been accused of.

The bottom line is that by writing about such family dynamics, your personal lifestory will eventually emerge in more focused form, your past will make more sense, and you'll develop more empathy and compassion — two traits linked with health. These are the factors that can strengthen your immune system, improve your general sense of well-being, and generally lower your stress levels.

The best way to begin this written discovery process is to use freewriting, perhaps using Pennebaker’s process. If you are writing about stressful memories, it’s best to limit your writing to no more than four consecutive writing sessions, turning to lighter topics for a couple of weeks or longer before revisiting the topic, perhaps from another angle, or using another journaling technique such as unsent letters or dialogues with absent others such as Kathleen Adams describes in Journal to the Self.

Once you feel the situation is resolved, you may want to write a story and share it with family members as a point of discussion. Of course they may see things quite differently, but you may be able to help them see that there are many ways to look at things, and they may all be equally right and true.  As I explain in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, my sister and I once discovered that we grew up in different families. While that discovery did not involve writing, it has been enormously helpful in smoothing discord in our relationship, and subsequent stories I’ve written have added to the understanding of our “different families.”

Whether your writing results in better understanding with family members or simply allows you to understand and accept things as they are, you’ll surely find value and satisfaction in the process of exploring the various perspectives.

Write now: think of a family member you feel some tension with and write about your understanding of that person’s point of view. Contrast this with your own point of view, and that of other relevant family members. Summarize any insights you develop.

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