The date was July 14, 1863, and President Abraham Lincoln wrote what he called a “hot letter” to George Meade. Lincoln was angry at Meade for not pursuing and destroying Robert E. Lee’s army. According to historians, writing these hot letters, when he was angry, was a coping strategy of the former President, and he wrote many. I didn’t know anything about Lincoln’s hot letters when I penned my first angry unsent letter. To whom it was written, I don’t even remember - maybe a teacher or a former friend or my mother. I know I likely ranted. I know that after getting it all out of my system, I was probably better able to put whatever the problem was at the time, into perspective. And of course, being an unsent letter, written never to be seen, I was free to say whatever was on my mind without the burden of an actual confrontation. It must have felt good or provided relief because, over the years, I’ve written hundreds of unsent letters.
I had always been a letter writer - writing to cousins who lived in different states and local friends when they were away at camp during the summer was a regular occurrence. Like many kids in the 70s and 80s, I also wrote to penpals, whose names and addresses could be found in the back of any teen magazine. (Who remembers those lists?) Letter writing was something I did every week, so perhaps writing an unsent letter for therapeutic purposes was no real stretch of the imagination. The idea of it came to me organically. It is the perfect blending of personal writing and correspondence writing, public and private writing, and I’ve done both since I was a little girl.
Over the years, I’ve adapted the “unsent letter writing technique” to meet different needs when working through a variety of different types of personal issues. I have written unsent letters to others. I have written angry, ranting letters, compassionate letters, letters asking for and granting forgiveness, and letters of thanks and gratitude. I have written unsent letters to myself, to younger versions of myself, and to my future self. I have written posthumous unsent letters to my ex-husband and my grandfather in efforts to resolve unfinished business and allow for closure, or in the case of my godmother, just to say “hi,” “hear” her voice, or to get her advice.
As recently as this week, I realized I needed to address someone new in an unsent letter, someone whom I’d surprisingly never written in all of these years, and that is my inner critic/ my negative internal voice, an amalgamation of a number of negative external critics in my life, which brings me really to why I am sharing this with you this week. I know I am not the only one with a hypercritical internal voice, the result of negative and critical thoughts and values that were instilled in you, perhaps when you were younger, and which over the years you have come to believe are true. And, even if you don’t believe them to be 100% true, you do struggle not to let their weight affect you. They cause discordance and confusion.
Most recently this internal voice, triggered by harsh external criticism, made me want to lash out at the perpetrator, which would have only resulted in an angry exchange of words, which would have only left me feeling broken. Ultimately, the exchange would have been unproductive and ineffective based on past experiences, and so I found myself stewing. I revisited the recent conversation in my head over and over again, causing me to ruminate about what I should have done or said at the time, or what I should go back and say. Every urge has been suppressed, and wisely so I might add, because no good can come of it. One thing I know for certain is that I cannot control the thoughts or actions of others. However, I am responsible for myself - my thoughts and actions, as well as my responses to other people’s thoughts and actions that are directed towards me. I’m telling you this because I think, in this case, the same would be true for just about everyone.
I imagine that the internal negative voice is being vocalized by someone I consider to be a dear friend because what I am aiming to do is offer myself compassion and to treat myself as kindly as I would treat someone else who was special and dear to me. I allow this friend to say all of the negative things that I am internalizing and that she has either come to believe or is struggling to get out of her head. I write all of this down as a brain dump. And so, the letter is a response to this brain dump, making this as much a dialogue as it is an unsent letter. I’ve done this three times in the past four days, and each time is has provided me with greater perspective and a sense of calmness.
I’ve put aside two essays that I’ve been working on this month, which I could have submitted for the BK Love Letter, so I could share this technique with you instead because I know that someone needs to hear this and someone out there needs to use this technique as much as I have needed it this week. Be as loving, compassionate, and kind to yourself, as you would be to someone you loved dearly and as you would expect to be treated by someone who holds you dear. Ultimately, that is the very meaning of self-compassion. Let this kind of unsent letter be a manifestation of that.
By the way, I am continuing to focus on being unproductive, resting, leaving toxicity in 2021, and practicing radical self-love in 2022. I hope you are pushing forward on your personal journeys as well. Love yourselves.
Hello Trina. I wanted to let you know that I very much needed to hear this today. I have a lot of anger over an exchange that occurred yesterday, and much of it is directed toward myself for not standing up for myself in the moment. And I have a lot of self-directed anger that I don’t know what to do with. Perhaps this method will help me be more kind to myself. Thank you so much for choosing this essay this month.
Trina, I have used this technique for years. It’s a wonderful way to get frustrations out before they bubble up and result in a personal explosion at someone that I may regret. I always feel better after writing one even though it is never sent.