The letter you will never send

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? A love-letter to the person you couldn’t reveal your feelings to, or a heat-of-the-moment scrawl letting out all the anger you felt towards someone who caused you pain?

Unsent letters are a widely-used tool for helping people to process emotions. They are one variation of a treatment method called expressive writing, which has been the subject of more than 200 academic studies. One particular researcher has produced a huge body of work on the subject: James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who is currently the Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas.


The beauty of writing unsent letters is that it allows you to vent all the frustration and anger you might feel towards a certain person or group, without causing any damage in cases where confronting the person in question would be unhelpful or harmful.

There are other forms of expressive writing: some involve writing down feelings about or memories of traumatic incidents, some just entail writing a paragraph about your day. ‘Journaling’, which has become increasingly popular of late, is also a form of expressive writing.

I often advise clients that they might find expressive writing exercises helpful. This can come in any form, but there are three key components which I advise. Firstly, the writing should be done by hand. This differentiates the activity from work, which many of us do on a laptop or computer. Not involving your phone will also help you to write with fewer interruptions, and have less of a negative impact on your sleep, if you choose to write before bed.

Secondly, you should destroy the piece of paper after writing on it. This doesn’t apply to all forms of expressive writing – journaling, for instance, relies on keeping the pages instead. But I find that writing and then destroying what you’ve written can be a wonderful aide to letting go of unhelpful thoughts, whether you scratch a line through the words on the page, crumple it into a ball, rip it up, throw it in the bin, or even burn it, if you have a safe method of doing so!

Finally, writing sessions should be regular. I don’t advise carrying a notebook around and jotting thoughts down as they occur to you throughout the day, rather the point of this exercise is that you set time aside regularly to do it. I find it best to dedicate a few minutes every day, which quickly forms a habit. It’s important to give yourself a time limit, of perhaps ten or twenty minutes – this encourages you to start writing immediately, and that way your thoughts are expressed without being filtered.

Good luck with your writing, and let us know how it goes in the comments!