Help Yourself Heal With An Unsent Letter

Would you ever consider writing a letter to a body part that was giving you trouble, or to an illness? Or have that body part or illness write a letter to you? Pretty weird, right?

Actually, not so weird. Letters are a wonderful therapeutic journaling technique, particularly the Unsent Letter. This technique is just what it sounds like: you write a letter you will never send. Keeping it personal allows you to express yourself honestly. And, if for some reason you really  never want anyone else ever see it, you can destroy it.

When I was facilitating journaling groups for people with brain injury, participants sometimes wrote an Unsent Letter. Everyone knows what a letter is, and they were able to use it well, sometimes in profound ways. They would write a letter to their brains, delivering a message, such as “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you better,” or asking questions, including “Why did this terrible injury happen to you?” When they shared their letters with the group, we often were deeply touched, sometimes to the point of tears.

Because we are living, breathing Stories, we are embodied Stories—we hold within our physical selves everything we have experienced through our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs, and this process creates our experience of reality. So if we pay close attention to our bodies—if we listen to them with the “ear of our heart” as St. Benedict might say—we can access the vast storehouse of wisdom held within them. This revealed wisdom can help us heal and live in a more joyful, positive way.

When I had breast cancer six years ago, I wrote both to my breast and to the small tumor there. This exercise allowed me to explore my feelings about the situation, and it was immensely helpful for my emotional state, which I am sure enhanced my physical well-being too. Dealing with recent health issues has once again caused me to listen more closely to what my body is trying to tell me with the changes it has manifested. So, I’ve been writing letters to and from my thyroid. Some enlightening information has emerged, and I know it will help me restore my good health.

How to write an Unsent Letter? First, know that you can write a letter to anyone—living or not, real or imaginary—or anything. Perhaps you need to vent your anger or displeasure with someone but do not want to express it to them (letting it all out in a letter you will never send can sometimes clarify your thoughts, so that you can write another, send-able letter to the person or have a conversation minus the anger). Or perhaps the person is no longer in your life or you don’t know how to reach them, yet you have something important to tell them. You can write such a letter to a part of yourself, say your Procrastinator self or your 10-year-old or future 80-year-old self—or write it from that part to you. Or perhaps you have an illness or injury and have a desire to tell or ask it something. The Unsent Letter is perfect for all of these situations, and many more.

Now I’m that exploring this new health issue, as I write and meditate, my body’s deep wisdom is slowly emerging and allowing me to discover information I can use to become more positive about the situation, or perhaps even to heal it.

 

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

I invite you to write an Unsent Letter to a person, a situation, or anything in your life with which you would like to express yourself. Be as honest and sincere as you can, keep your pen moving, and trust that the right words will come. (No one will see this except for you, remember.) Begin with “Dear ____________” and be sure to end with a closing such as “Sincerely,” “Love,” or whatever you feel is appropriate, followed by your name.

Give Up What You Think You Know

Here’s a short version of a story about me I used to tell myself: After getting divorced in my mid-20s, I was single even at age 49 despite some dating and several short-term relationships during the intervening years. I came to believe I would never have a good relationship, and I was often upset and frustrated about it.

One day, as I whined yet again about not having a man in my life, an exasperated friend said to me, “Maybe it’s time to give up what you think you know.” Wow—for some cosmic reason, that was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. The truth of her statement flashed all the way down to my soul and sparked a gigantic shift in my Story.

My first thought was, well, the only common denominator in all my relationships was, um, me, so this must mean I’m not meant to have a lasting relationship or a marriage. Armed with that knowledge, I set about being happy on my own, content with my friends and activities, and even looking forward to living my life alone in the way I wanted to live it. And it worked. I was finally happy on my own and gave up the search for A Man.

Yet, the Universe had other ideas, and within a year I met Ken. Only this time,  I shifted my expectations and stayed true to myself and refused to fall into my old patterns of relationship, like being needy and afraid to stand up for what I wanted. The greatly condensed version: Ken and I were able to slowly build a true partnership based on love and respect, and now we’ve been happily married for nearly 14 years.

I feel so blessed to have been so immediately and intensely struck by those few words from a friend, so that I truly was able to make the shift and give up what I thought I knew. It’s not often that such an amazing thing has happened to me. Usually, when I am able to make a change in myself or my life, it’s more gradual, even grudging. But no matter how change has come about, my experience of reality has been altered and my Story changed accordingly.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL

Recall a personal experience that was not so positive at first but which you were able to turn in a more positive direction when you thought about it in a different way–when you were able to give up what you thought you knew. It need not be a life-changing or lightning-bolt kind of experience; even a small one will do. Write about your story before the shift and then about what caused you to give up what you thought you knew and create a new way of thinking about it. How did your life change as a result? Write for at least 15 minutes.

 

You Are Not a Mind and a Body

You are a mindbody. Or a bodymind. The point is, your mind and body are not two separate entities sort of stacked on top of one another. They exist together as one entity, with inseparable connections:

“There is a complex relationship between thoughts, moods, brain chemistry, endocrine function, and functioning of other physiological systems in our bodies. While an in-depth discussion of this relationship is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that our thoughts can actually trigger physiological changes in our body that affect our mental and physical health. Basically, what you think affects how you feel (both emotionally and physically). So if you increase your positive thoughts, like gratitude, you can increase your subjective sense of well-being as well as, perhaps, objective measures of physical health (like fewer symptoms of illness and increased immune functioning).” http://www.umassd.edu/counseling/forparents/reccomendedreadings/theimportanceofgratitude/

It’s so easy to let our thoughts get the best of us, for better or—usually—worse. We get so trapped in our thought loops and ruminations that we frequently don’t realize we’re having the same not-so-positive thoughts yet again. But I as said in the previous post, if we can learn to recognize physical feelings connected to certain thoughts, we can use that recognition as a signal that there’s something we need to be aware of.

Years ago when I was still working in Corporate America, my job was so stressful I started having agonizing headaches that knocked me flat (along with being horribly depressed). But one day I realized I was unconsciously tensing my neck and scalp muscles so tightly, a pounding headache resulted. I learned to recognize the physical feeling when it started and immediately consciously relaxed those muscle. Headaches gone!

But I was still working there and still intensely stressed. So next I unconsciously began tensing my neck and shoulder muscles so tightly I could not turn my head. I had to turn my entire torso to look behind me—not so good for driving! I went to physical therapy for a while and felt better–for a while. Thankfully, I soon was able to leave Corporate America behind and become self-employed.

Sometime after my liberation, I read through one of the journals I kept during my last years at that job. During the time of the physical therapy, I flowed right through writing a sentence that did not strike me as significant until I re-read it years later: “I think I’ll just sit tight until something better comes along.” Wow! I almost yelped in recognition! In hindsight, I could see how this unconscious metaphor sent my body a message I did not recognize until much later and how my body acted accordingly.

Since then, I’ve learned to recognize certain physical signs that I’m stressed, and once that happens, I can (often) consciously relax whatever part of my body is sending the signal. Amazingly, this calms my entire mindbody; even if the stressful thoughts are still present, they feel more distant and manageable. I also meditate regularly, to encourage my brain toward more calm feelings more of the time.

Now, I don’t mean you should use this skill to ignore or squash painful or difficult thoughts. They do have to be dealt with in healthy ways—and if they are not, they will find a way to bite back! But if noticing certain physical sensations tunes you into your thoughts, you have one more tool to help you stay happier and healthier.

FOR YOUR JOURNAL     

It’s so easy to live in our heads and be disconnected from our bodies. It’s more common than we realize. Once you get the hang of recognizing the connections, though, you will be surprised by how deep those connections are and how telling they can be about your well-being.

See if you can recall a time when you realized your physical state was a reflection of your thoughts. For instance, when your thoughts were angry, what was going on in your body? When you were happy, what were the physical sensations you felt? Write about this for 15 minutes or more, doing your best to describe your emotions as well as your physical sensations.