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the gunny sack image

Posted Sep 15 2010 6:04pm

First of all, let me just say that how I"m spelling "gunny" doesn't look right at all to me... but the spell-checker isn't complaining, so... onward we go.

I was talking with a family the other day and the daughter mentioned feeling like she was carrying around a gunny sack with old stuff- issues, feelings, etc- packed inside.


I thought this was a fabulous image. I quickly proceeded to use it throughout the rest of the meeting- and then even gave them all homework related to it! Pretty sure the daughter didn't plan on all that when she mentioned her gunny sack!

Here's one of the things I was trying to help the family with, where the gunny sack image came in quite handy. One of the main things each of the family members wanted to talk to me about was the way they communicate. They all agreed it often ends badly- with hurt feelings, resentments, misunderstandings, and with not much of what really needed to be communicated actually having gotten communicated.

I asked them for a recent example, and all three of them instantly started talking about the same incident. We slowed down and each of them recounted what had happened.

As they told the story, I could see why they got into so much trouble sometimes. This particular incident started harmlessly enough- with the daughter asking the mom if she could help the daughter with something. But right away, the conversation between them seemed to become dense, complicated, messy- like it had a lot of weight resting on it or something infecting it. Things went south fast, and not only weren't they unable to talk directly about the question that had been asked, but they both left the scene feeling confused, misunderstood, manipulated, and sad. 

I explained to them that each of them brought their own gunny sack to the conversation- we all have our own private gunny sacks, filled with a history of experiences each of us have had, and all the thoughts, beliefs and emotions that have accompanied these experiences.

A conversation might not seem like it has anything to do with things in our gunny sack, but rather quickly, our sacks can "open" and the contents spill out and take over the conversation. This inevitably results in rapid and dramatic deterioration of the conversation.

In this family, the daughter has in her gunny sack, things like: feeling her parents don't understand her or her behavior; having a really hard time asking for help and being terrified she'll be turned down; worrying that her parents will become burned out after years of an ED in the family, and that they'll not love her anymore. 

The mom and dad have things like: years of chronic fear and anxiety about their daughter's health; constant worry that something they might say will be the "wrong thing" or trigger their daughter's ED behaviors; helplessness and powerlessness regarding the ED; resentment and anger about how tired the family is as a result of the ED and trying to deal with it...

These gunny sack thoughts and feelings can really complicate, and really make a mess of, a seemingly innocent discussion!

The homework I proposed to the family is something I wanted to propose to you guys also. I suggested they take a piece of paper and draw the outline of a gunny sack (or any kind of sack, bag, duffel, backpack... whatever you want). Then, inside, write all the words you can think of that describe what might be in your gunny sack. 

It may be things like fear, worry, sadness, mistrust, hurt, anxiety, anger, beliefs about how people are and how they behave and what they think... Gunny sacks tend to carry around things that are difficult (and often unresolved and/or unconscious to us) for us- the sack doesn't carry around fun, easy things (since those don't tend to be difficult to fear/experience or things we consider "bad" or 'unacceptable" and therefore they don't get "stored" in our sack).

The gunny sack can be your own private drawing. Don't feel like you need to share it with anyone. You can, of course, share it, but only if you want to and if it's helpful to you. It might be one of those things to take to therapy and talk about :)

There's another couple of ideas I have for this gunny sack thing, but they'll have to wait till tomorrow, since I've run out of time! Hope you guys find this image helpful and interesting. See ya :)

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