keep a journal

To complement the article “Journaling as an Emotional Anchor: Retrain Your Inner Critic” in the February 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine. Summary: Keep a journal, and write in it as if you were writing letters, to better understand your emotions, express your feelings, and decrease negativity in your life.

There was a time, before tweets and texts, when a handwritten letter was the most common form of correspondence, and the sight of an envelope waiting in the mailbox, plump with pages of news and intimacies, would send me dashing to the nearest cozy chair, to settle in and savor the words of a dear friend. 

Letters are a rare gift these days, but their direct and intimate quality can be recreated in your personal journal, offering a unique and powerful way to communicate with your own inner world. An unsent letter is written for your eyes only, and allows you to pour your heart out with complete, and sometimes brutal, honesty—without fear of offending your audience. As you allow your uncensored words to fill the pages of your journal, you become acquainted with the full spectrum of your thoughts and feelings, perhaps even exposing unconscious emotions you were completely unaware of. 

Write to someone

An unsent letter can be addressed to someone from the past, living or dead, to clear up unfinished business, or express feelings of gratitude or affection you never had a chance to share. You can use this journaling technique to vent your feelings to a current boss, parent or child in a risk-free way that helps you get unstuck, clarify and even transform your perceptions.

One student of mine, who was grieving a years-long estrangement from his brother, expressed his rage and regret in an unsent letter. After writing and rewriting his letter several times, and contacting the deep sadness and compassion he felt underneath his anger, this man was able to understand his complex feelings, and eventually risked sharing them with his brother, bringing them back together after many years. 

Write to something

Unsent letters can be written not just to people, but to anything that calls forth strong feelings that deserve your attention, such as a missed opportunity, a body part that pains you, or an annoying habit you want to be rid of. In your letter, your goal is simply to let your unedited emotions flow toward their object without holding back. By doing this, you gain a certain power over the situation and focus on your own process rather than passing on or bottling up negative energy.

Try your own unsent letters the next time you work in your journal. Start off by making a list of people or things you have struggled with: a former teacher, a sore neck, a boring job. Alternately, you could write to express positive feelings to a loved one, communicate with your higher self, offer gratitude to the earth, or advise your future self.

Write your truth

Start your letter with the usual salutation: “Dear ______.” As you imagine writing directly to your recipient, challenge yourself to share your deepest truth. Don’t censor—after all, no one is ever going to see it. By conveying all of your feelings, even the forbidden ones, you expose them to the light, where you can examine and sift through them, choosing what to keep and what to throw away. You decide which thoughts benefit you, and which ones hold you back.

Always try to approach your personal writing in the spirit of self-compassion. Be gentle with yourself and the full range of your feelings. The more you can hold a space in your journal for all facets of yourself, the more progress you will make toward integration and wholeness.

After you’ve written your letter, re-read it, and ask yourself some questions: What is missing? What have I left out? What still needs to be said? What did I learn about myself? What surprised me? Does this writing point to something I need to do or express? What do I want to do with this new awareness?

Take time to keep a journal and write unsent letters to the important people, places and things in your life. In the process of this honest and liberating exercise, you will create a deeper intimacy with your own soul.

About the Author

Ann Hawkins, M.F.T., is a marriage and family therapist and a former massage therapist for 13 years. She uses personal writing with clients in her psychotherapy practice, and teaches journal-writing classes through her company, The Journal Workshop, in the San Francisco Bay area. She wrote “Journaling as an Emotional Anchor: Retrain Your Inner Critic” for MASSAGE Magazine (February 2015).