Symbolic Letter Writing

Have you ever wished you could say something to someone else, something so raw, potentially hurtful, and heartfelt, but knew if you did it would damage your relationship? These emotions that are inside of us, these words that are yearning to get out are looking for a voice.
A great way to immediately get some feelings out and to connect to what you are feeling is to write things down. When I am working with people and they are having a hard time expressing what they are feeling a lot of times this means that they need to connect deeper into the feeling so they can understand themselves better. So I have them get out blank sheets of paper and write what I call a symbolic letter to someone they know, or someone distant whom they have never met. And after they have written their feelings out, they can read over the letter, but then just tear it up or burn it. It is meant as a clearing out exercise not as a journal entry or diary.
This process sounds simple and it is. This letter writing process does many things at the same time and works on many levels. So often we want to say things to people, but because the relationship may be dysfunctional or chaotic, it is not possible to have a reasonable discussion with them. By writing a symbolic letter you can let that person “know” what you are feeling and you can have a feeling of unloading all of this energy from inside of yourself. It is not as if this process clears up everything and now things are good between you and the other person, but you will know more clearly how you feel about the situation and this clarity brings a calmness to our inner selves.
I know when I write these symbolic letters many times I am connecting to my feelings in a different way than I am when I just think about things, or even when I express them verbally. What happens in this process is that we are giving ourselves permission to fully and freely express that which has been bottled up or unexpressed. This activity gives us a safe outlet to transfer this contained and bottled up energy and put it out there.
To begin, I have my blank sheet of paper in front of me and I then connect to the feeling or the intention of what I want to say. But, I’m not pre-thinking or pre-writing, I’m just sitting down and doing it. Many times I will write so fast and furious that I cannot read the words and there certainly isn’t any spell check or editing going on. I’m just letting it all go. As I do this I can feel this meter of sorts inside of me decreasing in intensity as I release these emotions into my words. What I also find is that by putting my emotions into words I am coming upon the exact emotion that I am feeling. For instance, so often we will say or feel that we are angry, but in reality we are really hurt, sad or feel lonely.
Once I wrote out a symbolic letter and the feeling of bewilderment came out and immediately when I wrote that I was “bewildered” a light bulb went off inside of me that YES, that’s what I’m feeling. That’s the sort of clarity that comes through with this exercise where we are able to illustrate the best feeling word to describe what is going on inside of us at the moment. I felt relief when I wrote bewildered, as I connected to the feeling, the energy of what was inside of me and I acknowledged to myself that this is the exact feeling I am having.
Writing these feelings out quickly doesn’t give us much time to edit, as we are just transferring what we have been feeling and thinking about maybe obsessively onto paper. I find that this process works well for all ages and can even work if the person is typing out their feelings, but I personally think pen to paper is the best as it is a more personal expression.
But sometimes people will put off doing this very simple exercise.
What I find is that some people will get in their own way with this process. This may be their own resistance to connecting to their feelings as they will say “I haven’t gotten around to writing that letter yet” or “I don’t know what to say”. Gently and patiently I encourage them to not overthink the letter, afterall, this information is not going to be sent to the person they are writing the letter to. I also find that they will pre-think out what they want to write, and this is not the intent of the letter. When we pre-write the letter we tend to edit and not connect to what we really need to express. I find that people who do this are still protecting the other person from their feelings, and they are protecting themselves from really connecting to what they are feeling. Sort of, if I feel it or write it out then it’s real and this is what get’s them scared and they shut down. They are also the conflict avoiders who don’t want to upset others and have trained themselves to not express things because in their experience it just makes things worse.
Then there are those who may have a lot of feelings towards a parent let’s say, but they are protecting the parent and don’t want to be ungrateful or hurtful towards them. I know when I first entered therapy I was protecting my parents and could not imagine saying anything bad about them to someone outside of my family. But my work with clients is never about blaming the parents, it’s about recognizing that they did their best in raising their children and that usually there was no conscious intention to hurt. Most parents are just reenacting their own childhoods and their own wounding onto their children – they are doing what they know to do and most don’t know better. This explains the situation, but the adult children are still left with the battle scars of this learning process for all involved. Because of this, it is so important to let your inner self express what could not be expressed as a child. To tell the parent that when they said or did something that this hurt or was painful. This is not about dishonoring the parent or blame, this is about owning feelings and not taking on responsibility for the parent’s “stuff”, but only owning our own issues.
We can all imagine trying to express a very a painful emotion to a person out of the blue. “Well I’m in therapy and I realize how mean you were to me”. Any person who gets this message will be defensive and shut down and a parent will usually feel guilt and anger. So that’s why symbolic letter writing works well because we can express what we can’t express directly to that person because usually the emotions are so raw and non-clarified. I often have to write several letters before the rawness goes away or calms down so I can get to the core of the feeling. It’s like breaking through this hard loud outer shell to get to the vulnerable core of the emotion
Once we are able to get the emotion out on paper we can see the feelings in 3-D. We can know better how we feel because we have given our emotions a voice and we are validating ourselves in the process. We can then take this more clearly identified emotion and ask ourselves what do we need to do next to help ourselves in the healing process. Do we need to write these feelings out some more? Do we need to talk about this with a therapist or someone who can be objective? We can then take this to the next level towards understanding and healing within ourselves.
Know your feelings are your feelings and are valid, real, have great meaning and are a treasure. Honor yourself by giving your feelings a voice and expressing what needs to be expressed in a safe way.
Robert Jackman, LCPC

Helpful Resources:
Expressing Emotion: Myths, Realities and Therapeutic Strategies – Watson


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