I was furious with someone today. On my high horse, I sat down at my laptop and trotted out an email, imperiously setting out why I was right and they were wrong. As the rage flew from the keys, I felt so much better about the entire issue.
I was just about to press ‘send’ in triumph when I paused, took a breath, and pressed save instead. Might I regret it – big time – if I sent it?
It reminded me that creative and therapeutic writing courses frequently recommend the ‘unsent letter’ as a way of expressing your feelings about or towards someone who’s made you mad, bad or sad.
The unsent letter is a form of writing therapy that encourages you to address a letter to someone you don’t feel you can talk directly to – perhaps a former lover, a friend you’ve fallen out with, or perhaps someone who has died. It’s a way of putting into words a deeply held thought or feeling that has somehow been damaging you in some way, or holding you back. The idea is that you write about your feelings openly – so they’re ‘out there’ – but you don’t have to send the letter. The point is to articulate and process your feelings rather then openly hurt someone else by sending the letter.
There’s even a blog, ourunsentletters.com, where people can post the things they wish they could say, but can’t – and so express it in anonymously instead. It’s interesting to note how many of the letters are addressed to parents or siblings or lovers – hinting that it’s more difficult to say how you really feel to someone you’re meant to feel close to.
And so, during the course of bashing out my vexatious email, my anger gradually lost its momentum and subsided into something more meditative, thoughtful and creative.
1. The very act of finding the right words to express my feelings became a journey in itself. Crafting my phrases, shaping my thoughts, and giving them rhythm helped give a constructive voice to a destructive energy.
2. Like dancing while no-one’s watching, and singing while no-one’s listening, writing that unsent letter allowed me to express barely and brutally how I was feeling – with no fear that someone would creep up behind me and admonish me for having those thoughts in the first place. There was no shame and no anxiety, and no need to hide.
3. Letting my demons come out of the shadows, and seeing them in the brightest of lights, made them look much less scary and sinister. Instead of the wish to wound, I saw that my demons had a beating heart, too.
4. By writing without censoring – as I did – I was able to spot when I was using what I call ‘victim vocabulary’. In other words, the ‘should, must, ought, had to’ kind of language. That made me think about deeper issues that were going on, and I rephrased many of them to say ‘I feel hurt’ when you do that, instead of saying ‘you hurt me’.
5. It brought to consciousness a realisation that I was also complicit in this fractious situation. I wasn’t the innocent, wounded party after all. Not easy to admit, but writing it all out helped me become much more objective about my role in this disagreement.
6. The unsent letter, for me, was a process of recognising the feeling, naming it, owning it – and then letting it go. Instead of holding onto it and letting it distil into resentment, the feeling lost its power over me, and its meaning became insignificant.
So, I may have pressed ‘save’ on the email, but I didn’t need to press ‘save’ on my anger.