Healing the Authoritarian Wound Through Writing: 8 Writing Exercises to Share with Clients

Healing the Authoritarian Wound Through Writing: 8 Writing Exercises to Share with Clients

by Eric Maisel
Experiencing authoritarian wounding leaves lasting scars, but Eric Maisel offers useful therapeutic insight and tips to help clients mitigate its impact.

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A Therapeutic Place for Writing

Therapists endeavor to help clients handle life’s problems and their particular difficulties, including those that have come about because of the way they were treated as children, adolescents, and adults. We deal with people, and we need tools that actually help people grow, heal, and change. One great tool at our disposal is inviting clients to write.

one of the areas that interests me is the consequences of authoritarian wounding
One of the areas that interests me is the consequences of authoritarian wounding, those wounds created by prolonged contact with a family bully, like a father, mother, or sibling, with a bullying mate, authoritarian mentor, teacher, clergyman, boss, or co-worker, or with any other authoritarian who is operating in one’s sphere. I’ve written extensively on this in Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings and Partners (Maisel, 2018) and in scores of blog posts for Psychology Today and The Good Men Project.

A second area that interests me is the value of writing as a useful tool that therapists and coaches can use with their clients and offer to their clients. I’ve advocated for the wisdom of inviting clients to write, most recently in Transformational Journaling for Coaches, Therapists, and Clients (Maisel, in press). In this piece, I’d like to share with you eight writing exercises that I use in my work with survivors of authoritarian wounding.

I think you’ll see how these exercises can also be used with all clients, either as is or with some tweaking. I hope that your main takeaway from this piece will be that clients can make tremendous strides in self-awareness and in healing when they write in a focused way about what matters to them. These aren’t the “describe a tree” or “describe a sunset” writing exercises that you might encounter in a writing workshop. These are therapeutic exercises that invite clients to face their experiences, learn from their experiences, and move past their experiences.

it’s wise to give clients who’ve been wounded by an authoritarian this sort of instruction and permission, since they will have had a long, difficult history with rules and especially with the consequences of violating or ignoring rules
Maybe you don’t currently invite clients to write between sessions or assign any homework. You might want to rethink that a bit. Many psychotherapy clients are smart, articulate, sensitive folks who may well already keep a journal or engage in some other reflective writing or who, even if they aren’t journal-keepers, are likely to be receptive to the idea of doing some writing. If you do decide that providing writing exercises might prove a valuable therapeutic tool, here are a few points to consider:

  • I let clients know that if a given exercise doesn’t speak to them, they can write on a prompt of their own choosing or, of course, not write at all. It’s wise to give clients who’ve been wounded by an authoritarian this sort of instruction and permission, since they will have had a long, difficult history with rules and especially with the consequences of violating or ignoring rules.

  • I explain to clients that perfect knowing isn’t the goal. If they increase their awareness a little bit or heal a little bit, that is a victory and a blessing. We all have the wishful hope that we can get from a muddy understanding of something to a crystal-clear understanding of it, but perfect understanding is more than elusive, it is unattainable. I remind clients that if they get even just a little something of benefit from the exercise, that is a welcome outcome.

  • I warn clients that the exercises may well prove provocative and emotionally difficult, and I give them real permission to stop if the going gets too hard or painful. You can tie this instruction to several of the tips in the tip box provided below, for instance to the ideas of creating a support system and staying alert for triggers. Clients should be helped to understand that this work is not easy and that stopping should be viewed as a self-care strategy and not a defeat.

Before I describe exercises I have found useful with clients who have been impacted by authoritarian relationships, I would first like to describe some of the long- and short-term impacts of authoritarianism on the individual. These include (but are certainly not limited to) lifelong relationship difficulties (including serially choosing authoritarian mates); existential despair rooted in feelings of worthlessness; a pessimistic, critical attitude that makes it hard to give life a thumbs up or people the benefit of the doubt; an anxious nature that plays itself out as indecision, confusion, and an inability to make clear or strong choices; a felt lack of safety, including in the therapy session; obsessive worrying and powerful feelings of overwhelm; and a pull toward addictive behaviors.
 

Eight Writing Exercises

Here are the eight writing exercises. Each comes with three prompts, as I find it useful to provide clients with choices.

Exercise 1. This really went on (you weren’t crazy)

We can almost believe that what happened to us didn’t happen to us, maybe because we did a lot of dissociating, because other people saw the authoritarian in a different light, because we wished so hard that it wasn’t true or that bad, or for some other reason. But it did happen. Please pick one of the following three prompts to write on (they are written from your point of view):
 

1. What exactly went on? Let me pick one experience that still deeply affects me and try to describe it as carefully as I can. I do want to know for certain that what I believe went on actually did go on!

2. I want to think a little bit about how it might be to remember some of those terrible experiences without having to re-experience them and without having to be flooded with bad feelings. Can I see a way to do that?

3. I have long thought that I must be a little crazy to believe that such awful things could possibly have gone on. But they did go on. So how can I completely let go of that feeling that I was “a little crazy” for believing what, it turns out, was completely appropriate to believe?

 

Exercise 2. You didn’t have a choice (you didn’t choose it)
 

if your experience of dealing with an authoritarian happened in childhood, it should be clear to you that you didn’t choose to experience that wounding
If your experience of dealing with an authoritarian happened in childhood, it should be clear to you that you didn’t choose to experience that wounding. But as clear as that truth may be, it’s still easy to feel complicit or as if you deserved what happened to you, maybe because you weren’t “perfect.” Now is a good moment to get clear on the fact that you didn’t choose to be abused by that authoritarian. Please pick one of the following prompts to write on:
 

1. Is there some part of me that still thinks that I did choose my situation? How can I still be thinking that? And what can I do to stop thinking that?

2. If I’m still dealing with an authoritarian today, do I have new choices to make? Different choices to make? After all, I’m not that child any longer!

3. Because I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, I think I may have gotten it into my head that I’m not entitled to make strong choices or maybe that I’m not equal to choosing. I think I’d like to do some reflecting on that possibility.

 

Exercise 3. You didn’t have allies (you had to go it alone)

It is hard to overestimate the extent to which you had to go it alone. Authoritarians can’t function if everyone around them says “No!” For the authoritarian to bully others, those others must be staying silent, not fighting back, tacitly accepting the situation, or even defending the authoritarian. Maybe you were lucky to have an ally in an aunt, a sibling, or someone else, but basically you had to go it alone—the proof is that no one ever successfully stopped the bully’s behavior. Please pick one of the following prompts to write on:


1. Did I or didn’t I have any real allies during those bad times? What was the exact nature of my situation with respect to allies and/or a lack of allies?

2. If I did have a real ally during those times and he or she is still living, do I want to reach out and say something to him or her? Or maybe say something to him or her even if he or she is deceased?

3. I wonder, what are the consequences of having had to go it alone? Did that make me independent or dependent? Did it make me love solitude or recoil from solitude? Let me do a little writing and tease out those consequences.


Exercise 4. You didn’t have power (you couldn’t fight back)

grown-ups possess all the power. Children can dream about being powerful, fantasize about being powerful, and engage in small acts of strength, but they are essentially powerless in the face of adult abuse
Grown-ups possess all the power. Children can dream about being powerful, fantasize about being powerful, and engage in small acts of strength, but they are essentially powerless in the face of adult abuse. This true powerlessness can produce lifelong feelings of powerlessness, even though you are now an adult with all the powers of an adult. Please pick one of the following prompts to write on:

1. I want to think clearly about the ways in which I was powerless in those terrible times, primarily for the sake of making absolutely certain that I do not blame myself for not taking actions that were just not available to me.

2. How would I describe the power I now possess? Surely, I do possess some adult powers! How would I describe them? And how do I use them?

3. What would it take to transform myself into a “real life superhero?” And what would I be able to accomplish then?


Exercise 5. You couldn’t possibly understand (how could you?)

You may blame yourself for not understanding what was going on, for being too innocent, for missing what was right in front of your nose. But how could you possibly have understood? Feeling that something was seriously wrong and fully understanding the complicated dynamics of the authoritarian personality are two different things. Really, how could you have understood? Please pick one of the following prompts to write on:

1. What do I understand now that I couldn’t possibly have understood back then?

2. What intuitions that I had back then about my situation and about what was going were actually accurate? Did I maybe have some understanding of the situation that I couldn’t quite access then?

3. What additional understanding is available to me now? Is there more for me to understand?


Exercise 6. You were genuinely afraid (of course you felt scared)

Authoritarians scare us. You may have spent much of your childhood terrified. Of course you were afraid. The question to grapple with now is, do you still have to be afraid today? Please pick one of the following three prompts to write on:
 

1. I want to remember what it was like to be frightened as a child, to validate that experience. I am going to go back in memory, remember what I felt, and honor that I had those terrible experiences. But I am going to go back very carefully.

2. I know that I’ve lived in a fearful way and that I’ve been scared a lot in life. What can I do to feel safer now?

3. I want to live differently. How can I live more bravely? What would such a life look like?


Exercise 7. You were truly harmed (there were real consequences)
 

to say that you were wounded isn’t to speak metaphorically. Something in you got seriously injured
To say that you were wounded isn’t to speak metaphorically. Something in you got seriously injured. Maybe it was your willingness or your ability to deal with conflict. Maybe it was your self-image, your self-esteem, or your self-trust. Maybe it was your ability to trust others or to deeply care about others. The list of possible injuries is long. Please pick one of the following three prompts to write on:
 

1. I want to calmly and patiently identify the consequences of that wounding. That’s the important writing I’m going to undertake.

2. I think it might pay off to describe some of the ways that those consequences played themselves out. This won’t be easy, but I think that drawing a direct line between the wounding and the things I’ve done in life might prove eye-opening—and maybe I can forgive myself a little in the process.

3. I want to write about my strengths, too. I think it might be a good idea to spend as much time writing about my strengths as my injuries.


Exercise 8. Healing is possible (in part, through writing)

You may have gotten into the habit of thinking that nothing can really change in life, including, and maybe especially, your own personality. But healing, change, and growth are possible. Use your reflective writing practice to help you make the changes you identify ought to be made. Please pick one of the following three prompts to write on:
 

1. I think I’d like to describe some daily practice that will serve me as I try to shed the psychological and emotional baggage of the past.

2. I want to create some firm-but-gentle action plans that support my intention to heal, grow, and live well.

3. I want to write about a better, brighter future, one where I feel less burdened by the past and more optimistic and passionate about the future. Let me write about that.


Eight Helping Strategies

In addition to inviting clients to write, you can also make the following suggestions and work with clients on the following issues:

1. Creating physical separation

survivors of authoritarian wounding regularly report that only physical separation between them and the authoritarian in question allowed them to feel safe
Survivors of authoritarian wounding regularly report that only physical separation between them and the authoritarian in question allowed them to feel safe and provided them with the opportunity to heal. And the wider the separation, the better! You can have very productive conversations about the need for physical separation and the practical details of such separation.

2. Creating psychological separation

Survivors are likely to still love, or feel that they ought to love, their parents; be pressured by other family members to continue to deal, psychologically and emotionally, with their parents; and never quite be able to get their parents out of their head. You might try a guided visualization where your client is invited to escort the perpetrator out of her head once and for all.

3. Ventilating and eliminating feelings of guilt

Survivors typically experience guilt. Some feel guilty about not protecting their younger siblings from the family dictator. Some feel guilty about having failed themselves or not having lived up to their potential. Some feel guilty about physically or emotionally separating from their authoritarian parent. You can help your client ventilate these feelings and begin to think thoughts that serve them better, thoughts like, “This guilt isn’t serving me.”

4. Creating a support system

My client Maria explained, “I have to be able to handle things on my own because, growing up, I lost so much power and so much self-confidence that my goal for myself is to be powerful and self-confident. However, that doesn’t mean that I have to handle every single thing alone. So I’ve created a kind of informal support team. I don’t turn to them first thing—first, I want to trust my own resources. But I’m not stubborn, and I do turn to them just as soon as I understand that I could use some help!”

5. Staying alert for triggers

In the language of the 12-step recovery movement, a trigger is an internal or external cue that is likely to cause a person in recovery to relapse and resume the addictive behavior. A trigger might be the appearance of a certain feeling, like feeling overwhelmed, seeing someone in a film or a television show in a similar situation, relationship events that mimic family-of-origin events, or encountering a certain smell (like an aftershave lotion) or a certain sound (like a door slamming). You can help your clients identify their triggers and create a plan of action to deal with those triggers.

6. Communicating with and enlisting “healthy” family members

survivors often express that maintaining contact with family members who saw the situation the same way that they did was their number one healing and survival strategy
Survivors often express that maintaining contact with family members who saw the situation the same way that they did was their number one healing and survival strategy. A client and her sisters might support one another in validating their memories (“Yes, Anna, it was that bad!”) and standing together in mutual defense and in ongoing defiance of the authoritarian parent. You can help your client identify allies and begin the process of reaching out to allies.

7. Not accepting the vision of family members who do not see the situation as your client sees it

Other family members may have had a very different experience of Mom and Dad from your client’s experience. They may have entered the family later than your client did; maybe the authoritarian had mellowed by that time, and the younger sisters and brothers did not receive the same authoritarian wounding as your client did. Maybe her siblings were in fact just as abused and traumatized as she was, but they are currently in denial about their experiences or have followed in the authoritarian’s footsteps. You can help your client deal with her siblings’ demands that she be “nicer” to the authoritarian parent and with their accusations that your client is being disloyal or ungrateful.

8. Limiting contact

Your client may still be living with the family tyrant or may have returned to live with that parent, perhaps because the parent has become infirm. If complete physical separation is out of the question and complete psychological separation is unlikely, the questions you can pose to your client are “What’s the least amount of contact that you can have with your mom?” or “How can you stay out of your dad’s way most of the time?” You can help your client think through the practical details of limiting contact and the emotional consequences of remaining in contact.

Clinical Case Applications

Let me briefly describe two client situations where reflective writing helped my clients grow in awareness and make important life changes.

one client, John, a British professor of history, had never finished writing any of the many books that he’d begun
One client, John, a British professor of history, had never finished writing any of the many books that he’d begun. I invited him to get some thoughts down on paper about why this might have been the case. He shared the following journal entries with me:
 

I grew up with mean parents. After years of therapy, I think I’ve come to identify a kind of demon who comes into my consciousness and does not want me to be productive or successful. That demon was born in childhood. It somehow has to do with safety. It did not feel safe living with my parents, plus they told us that the world wasn’t a safe place. They filled our lives with continual anxiety and catastrophizing.

Here’s how that all plays out now. My creativity starts to flow and then anxiety floods in. I tear up the work, I tear myself down, and I abandon the project as no good. I’m also flooded with feelings of intense dread all the time, especially at night; and during the day, I’m always finding ways of avoiding entering my writing space. And my writing space is easy enough to avoid, as I have classes to teach, committee meetings, a bit of a commute, and all the rest. It’s supremely easy to avoid my study. And my study is so lovely. I wanted to write, ‘lovely and inviting,’ but it never does invite me.


In another session, he shared the following journal entries:
 

Those demons. The demons have made it harder for me to keep meaning afloat in my life, they’ve made it harder for me to keep despair at bay, they’ve made it harder for me to live my life purposes, and they’ve contributed to my anxiety and depression diagnoses. It’s all a piece. I’ve come a certain distance in all this and I can function, but I’m still searching for answers and I’m still wanting to finish some damned book.

I think that the bottom line for me is that the demon just won’t budge, because it is about core safety. Maybe I have to celebrate lesser forms of creativity where the emotional stakes and pressures are lower. An article, maybe, though articles aren’t easy either! I haven’t found ways to conquer the demons of darkness, but I do intend to continue to work on this block through some kind of inner demon work. I haven’t quite given up. Not quite!


John and I worked together for the next three years, chatting via Skype once a month. There were many downs, but also enough ups that John did manage to finish a draft of a book, deal with its several revisions, send it on its journey into the world of academic presses, tolerate the criticisms and rejections his book initially received, enjoy the moment when it was accepted for publication, and so on. I kept reminding him, “This is the process,” and at some point, he began to laughingly beat me to the punch and become the first to announce, “I know, this is the process!” And throughout the process, he used reflective journaling and writing prompts to hold important conversations with himself and deal with the demons that were never going to fully go away.

A second client was a Parisian painter, Anne. At the time we began working together, Anne was hiding out in Provence, licking her wounds after an unsuccessful show of her paintings at a prestigious Parisian gallery. She was barely communicating with the world and painfully wondering if she should continue as an artist. The fact that she has sold paintings previously, that she had had successful shows previously, and that she was still something of a darling of the art world seemed to amount to nothing. Not in the aftermath of what she dubbed “that monumental disaster.”

at the time we began working together, Anne was hiding out in Provence, licking her wounds after an unsuccessful show of her paintings at a prestigious Parisian gallery
We chatted over Zoom. One of my goals was to help her change her perspective. Her career certainly had taken a hit. But for her to dwell on that “disaster” amounted to a serious mistake and a recipe for despair. Focusing on that event was only one lens through which to look at her career. I quietly and carefully explained to her that she was fortunate to have had the successes she had had, that this one event might or might not signal anything in particular or auger anything in particular, and that her best path was to get on with her life and get on with her art-making—the act of which, fortunately, had lost none of its luster for her.

I asked Anne to detach from the show results. I also asked her to invite a postmortem from the gallery owner. How brave that would be, to ask him why he thought the show had produced no sales! She wasn’t sure if she was equal to that. I explained that she might get “more equal” to that bit of bravery by doing some reflective writing, maybe on her turbulent childhood, maybe on her bullying father, a famous painter who always belittled and minimized her efforts, or maybe in a more “in the moment” way by writing about her feelings about communicating with Claude, the Parisian gallery owner.

We chatted a week later. It turned out that she had journaled every day that week using the prompt: “Do I dare write to Marcel?” She explained that she had learned a lot about herself in the process, especially about her habit of fleeing at the drop of a hat. In childhood, she hadn’t been able to flee. She had been watched, controlled, commanded, and punished for taking even the smallest step out of bounds. Now, as an adult, because she could physically flee situations, that’s what she did—and far too quickly, she now understood.

Indeed, she returned to Paris, bravely met with Claude, and had that painful conversation. It turned out that Claude had very little to offer by way of explanation. People “loved the paintings.” People were “wild for the paintings.” Many expressed what Claude felt was a completely genuine desire to make a purchase. Yes, nothing had sold. But, Anne explained to me with relief, Claude was not down on her, had no intention of reducing her presence in his gallery, and in fact expressed his intention to redouble his efforts on behalf of her and her paintings.

Over the months, I learned that several paintings from the show had sold for fancy prices and that her new suite of paintings were progressing nicely. She still had to endure all the challenges that creatives must regularly endure; but her “monumental disaster” seemed clearly behind her. “And I now have a sturdy tool in my tool kit,” she explained. “I now have conversations with myself in writing where the part of me that wants a good outcome can coax my wounded self in the right direction. I now have a friend who is nicer to me than I usually am. And that friend knows all about my tendency to flee! She knows all about it—and she knows how to talk me out of running away.”
 

***


It’s likely that many of your clients have been adversely affected by an authoritarian: by a close family member like a father, mother, sibling, or mate, by someone else close, like a mentor, teacher, clergyman, or boss, or by authoritarian leaders and others in high places.

it’s likely that many of your clients have been adversely affected by an authoritarian
What ought you try if your client is suffering from an unhealed authoritarian wound that has produced adverse consequences? You can try any of the tips I’ve provided, any of the tactics and strategies you routinely use, and the writing exercises I’ve described. By working in this way, you will help increase your clients’ personal power, aim them in the direction of useful daily practice, help them envision and plan for the future they want, and, in the process, help them upgrade their personality, heal, and grow.


References:

Maisel, E. (2018). Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings, and Partners. New York: Routledge
 



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Bios
Eric Maisel ERIC MAISEL, PhD, is the author of more than fifty books and a noted thought leader in the movement known as critical psychology. His books include Overcoming Your Difficult Family, Rethinking Depression, The Future of Mental Health, Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings and Partners, Humane Helping, Helping Parents of Diagnosed, Distressed and Different Children (Routledge, 2019) and Unleashing the Artist Within (Dover, 2019). Dr. Maisel is a retired family therapist, active creativity coach, and critical psychology advocate. He writes the Rethinking Mental Health blog for Psychology Today, provides keynotes for organizations like the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry, and lectures and delivers workshops nationally and internationally.