by Bernadette Healy
Have you ever tried writing a letter to yourself? It can be an amazingly comforting experience. About ten years ago, I had a particularly memorable experience of composing and then later reading such a letter.
I had just returned from a very, very relaxing holiday. Back at work on the first day I remember being so relaxed that I floated through most of the day. At some point however, I was in the company of someone who needed me to go with them (metaphorically that is) to a very painful emotional place. This of course is very common in the working life of a psychologist (and many others, including lawyers). On this particular day, however, I was not there with them as they needed me to be. They left and I sat and reflected and owned the fact that I had failed to do my job properly. I recognized that I had been in a sort of relaxed fog that I didn’t really want to get out of and that nothing much could get through it unless a more conscious effort was made by me to make that happen. I can still remember the mixture of feelings I had as I sat and analysed that particular work incident. I thought what can I do about it (in addition to reparation with the individual) to try and ensure that it doesn’t happen next year? I decided to write a letter to myself to be read the following year on my return from holidays.
I wrote myself a letter about how it felt to be back at work and what I might like to be on the lookout for, in terms of avoiding repeating the same mistake. I made suggestions to myself and also reminded myself to be kind rather than punitive in my approach. It was a very easy letter to write and I found myself being very reasonable to myself, accepting responsibility, applying critical thinking and suggesting strategies to myself. I then signed off in a very warm and loving manner. As soon as I had a diary for the following year, I attached the letter to the relevant week. When I came back from holidays the following year, I read my letter to myself and ensured that I took my own advice! Most importantly though, I experienced a quiet and private feeling of comfort that I had not reacted to the mistake in either an overly indulgent or overly critical manner and that I had been able to trust in my own judgement about an effective response for the future.
Journaling (writing to yourself, specifically for yourself), can be a very powerful process. If you will be patient and practice writing in one of the various journaling styles – of which the letter to oneself is an example – you will experience yourself coming up with all sorts of ideas, pieces of wisdom and an ability to identify potentially problematic patterns (amongst much more). There are all sorts of variations of journaling, for example:
Style of Writing: Conversation / script
Helps With: Preparing for negotiation or performance meeting including
“Hi Bob where is that xxx I asked you to prepare?”
“It’s a fascinating project and I have identified at least 3 possible tracks so far and would welcome your input about which one should receive most attention going forward”
“Its still a work in progress – how do you want me to proceed moving forward? “
“So its not finished?”
“That’s correct. I assumed you wanted me to approach it comprehensively. But if you would prefer I give comprehensiveness a lower priority that the timeline I can adapt my approach from now on.”
“That’s right, I am having trouble setting task priorities “
“Just get it done!”
“Of course but is it possible moving forward to provide an indication of the tasks within a framework, that is, level of detail required / priority of task relative to others / timeframe?”
Style of Writing: Stream of consciousness
- Accessing your own ideas and wisdom
- Finding out where you are stuck
- Clearing out difficult emotional material for which there is no real solution but which might be taking up lots of space
Just write whatever comes into your head without any censoring of any kind, preferably first thing in the morning before doing anything else and keep going for 2 or 3 pages – push through resistance to the process! Keep private. Don’t re-read until you have allowed yourself at least a week of writing.
Style of Writing: Letter to self
- Remind yourself of strengths
- Acknowledge effort
- Highlight need for improvement
- Dear self, just want to write to remind you that today you did really well coping with that thing that you have had a lot of trouble with…. And the strategy you used was …
- Dear self, please remember that you are particularly vulnerable to ….. and even more so when x Is around
- Dear self, please remember that today you really stuffed up / hurt someone’s feelings when you behaved …. Said … Next time it would be better to …
Style of Writing: Letter to other (not to be sent)
- Helping yourself to let go of difficult emotions
- Honouring feelings towards another not able to be expressed
- Something you would ideally like to say to someone but know that that is unrealistic
- Something you wish you had said to someone who has died
Style of Writing: Detailed writing about known future anxiety-provoking situation
Helps With: Exposes yourself to your worst anticipated fears which frees you up to handling the actual situation more effectively
Write in detail about the situation that you will be facing and everything you fear will happen including all your worst case scenarios. Re-write daily for at least 4 or 5 days before the event.
Style of Writing: Worry log
Helps With: Manages worrying; helps you to sort out whether your worrying is useful or otherwise; illustrates your vulnerabilities; and over time, and with continued use, helps to break the habit of constant worrying.
A few words jotted on note pad every time you become aware of worrying thought. (Could be a thought to do with a current problem or it could be a ‘what if’ kind of thought. Could be a problem solving thought or could be pointless rumination). Put aside a time at end of day (same time each day) to consult worry log.
 Of course if you become extremely uncomfortable, discontinue and seek professional advice.