How Writing Letters Can Help You Heal
NOTE: Although this post is very positive, it does talk about trauma and healing from it. There are mentions of abuse, miscarriage, abortion, and parental abuse/neglect. If any of these topics may trigger or upset you, please think carefully before reading.
Also note: this post was co-written by Ashton Rose and Rebecca Letterman.
Everyone knows how to write a letter. We often practice them at very young ages in school, and many kids are taught to write letters to Santa. Some people still use them as a method of casual communication, sending letters back and forth. And emails are essentially just a speedlined version of letters.
But there can be other benefits to writing letters that aren’t talked about enough. Writing letters, or even emails, can be a great way to help yourself heal from trauma, wrongs, or any other emotional issues you struggle with. Read on to learn more about how writing letters can help you heal, and what to do with them once you’ve written them.
Writing letters to others
When we write letters, they are usually for other people: friends, family, employers, Santa Claus. And when dealing with trauma or hurt, writing letters to others can help.
It’s important to note that these letters don’t have to be sent. Even if you’re writing them to other people, you’re really writing them for yourself. So you only have to send these letters if you want to. The purpose of letters like this is usually for you to be able to work through your own struggles, only sharing that with the other party if you feel it is safe and desired.
Writing letters to others helps us get all of our complicated feelings— all of the things we wish we could say, but can’t— out of our head and in a physical form. It’s a way for us to let out our thoughts and feelings with very minimal risk.
There may be many reasons why we can’t just say these things to the other party. Perhaps the things we want to say would upset the other person, and we want to avoid that. Or the person we want to talk to is dead, or out of our lives in some other way, and we don’t have the option to talk to them.
A common use of letters like these is to write to a past— or even current— abuser, such as a parent or ex-partner. In these cases, the person may not be willing to hear what we have to say, or would take it personally— which they likely should, since they are the ones at fault— and get upset. Writing letters, with or without sending them, allows us to say the things we might not feel safe to say otherwise.
There are many, many other situations where writing letters to others can be helpful. Some of the most common ones are:
Letters to a friend or family member addressing a wrongdoing that may be too difficult to face
Letters to a child saying all the things you feel are irrational
Letters to an employer, teacher, or other authority figure that negatively impacted your life
Letters to an ex that express your feelings, or confront wrongdoings
Letters to lost loved ones, including pets, grandparents, friends, fellow service members, etc.
Letters to lost children, including abortions or miscarriages
Writing letters to yourself
This one may seem a bit less obvious, and perhaps ridiculous. Why do I need to write letters to myself, when I already know how I feel and think? Well, sometimes people use this technique to write to younger versions of themselves, or other versions of themselves, to say the things they wish they would have been said to them.
When dealing with childhood trauma or other past issues, this practice can be especially helpful. It allows you to take the place of the caring adult you might not have had, and to tell yourself all the things you wish you could have heard. This can also be used to help you move through some of that trauma.
I have used a variation of this with my own younger self, to help that younger part of me accept what happened to me, and to almost act as a parent to replace the one I lost. And Rebecca has used it as well. She says:
“I personally have used this technique to write to younger versions of myself that have gone through traumatic experiences. I say all the things that I wish someone would have said to me at the time. It helped me gain some sense of peace around that time, and allowed me to finally move through and even beyond it.”
What to do with your letters
Once you’ve written your letters, there are a lot of things you can do with them. What you choose to do depends on your own needs, wants, and the situation. But there are a few general tips you can follow.
It’s also important to note that you can choose to actually send these letters. However, you should almost always revise them first, and possibly share them with someone else first. The first draft is usually quite raw and unfiltered, and when sharing with others you may wish to refine some of that a bit first.
A good starting place is to put them aside for a while— a week, a month, even a year. When you feel ready, come back and reread them. This gives you time to process the feelings involved, and to let what you wrote just sit there. When you come back to it, perhaps some of your feelings have changed, or you realize there are parts of it that you might want to revise.
You can also choose to rewrite the letter. Knowing that you plan on rewriting allows you to be as raw and emotional as you want in the first draft. Then, as you revise, you can be more clear, specific, and filtered, and maybe even prepare to share. Even if you don’t plan on sharing your letter, revising it can be helpful, because it gives you more opportunities to explore your feelings.
Processing them in therapy is also a very helpful option. These letters often carry a lot of heavy emotion and experiences. Bringing them into the therapy space, where you have a safe outlet to explore all of your feelings, will help you move through those feelings and perhaps begin to let them go. And if you don’t or can’t have a therapist, a good friend, mentor, family member, or other loved one can also help with this.
Once you’ve revised them and sharpened them up, or even after the first draft, you may want to destroy the letter. This can be especially helpful when trying to let go of specific emotions, attachments, or experiences. Destroying the letter— through burning, shredding, or other means— can act as a physical symbol for destroying your connection to that experience, or the part of it that is holding you back.
Lastly, you might want to send your letter. Again, you don’t want to send a letter that is entirely raw and unfiltered, as it might not be received well. It is generally good to work through multiple drafts, to ensure that your feelings are clear and concise. As many authors have said: “The first draft of anything is shit,” so work through multiple drafts.
Additionally, only send your letter if you are prepared for whatever outcome it may bring. Talking to your therapist about it can help you explore how the letter might be received, and what you should be prepared to deal with.
Writing letters isn’t for everyone, but it can be a very helpful thing. And once you have written one, it gives you a concrete way to explore your feelings, and you can choose to use it however you wish. You can symbolically destroy it, or send it to the person in question, or even just share it with others so your feelings are known. Writing letters is a great way to move through trauma and other tough feelings.
Do you have any other tips about writing letters to help heal? Any questions? We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or mention us on social media (@llctherapeutic on Twitter and @therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram).