Write An Angry Letter
But for God’s Sake Don’t Send It
Recently two of my friends got into a shouting match. They both said things they wish they hadn’t, going for insults instead of talking about the real issues underlying their pain.
The situation reminded me of a simple, well-known, and powerful technique: Writing a letter that you never send.
Write a Letter—in the second person.
Address the person who has been bothering you, and write it as if you were actually communicating with them.
You can do this when someone has incited anger, a feeling of unrequited love, jealousy, a desire to help—any strong emotion. They can be a best friend, an enemy, or even someone you do not personally know, such as a political figure. I recommend doing this on paper, instead of the computer, because you are less likely to “accidentally” send it, and will therefore feel freer to fully express your emotions.
Write Out Exactly How You Feel.
Give yourself permission to truly express your feelings without judgment, regardless of how crazy you think they are. You might even pay attention to those judgments as they arise, and let them go. You are exploring the emotion in its fullest, most monstrous version. You are digging into the underlying themes, the emotions you might not realize underpin the original emotion.
Let it Sit for 24 hours.
Give yourself the space to cool off. In this letter you shook up the dirt at the bottom of the cup; now let it settle. This will give you the space to look at what you wrote with a more objective viewpoint, and separate out the things that you really need to share from the those that are only meant to hurt someone.
Re-Read What You Wrote.
Read it as if you were consulting a friend, advising them on the most salient themes to share. What is important here? What is really going on? Is this a pattern that you see in other areas of your life, in the past, or with other people? Are there ways you can express the information without loading emotion onto it? Can you find skillful means for communicating with the “offending” person, without triggering a defensive reaction in them?
Another way to think about the last question is—if you were the one receiving this letter, how would you feel? Would you actually be able to listen to it? How could the same information be conveyed in a way you would be willing to hear?
Sometimes the writing and reflecting is enough, and you will no longer feel the emotion. You can simply let it go. If you have truly let it go, you are done with the process.
Step 5: Contact the Person, From a State of Gratitude.
Most people, even when the emotion has subsided, will still want to communicate with the other person, if nothing else than to make a few requests (which the other person may or may not agree to).
By now you should have a clarity around the issues that is not clouded by the strength of your emotions. This allows you to contact the other person for a civil conversation. You might need to apologize to open their ears, and you may tell them that you are asking for their help.
It is useful to approach these conversations with gratitude: No matter how much you might think they are wrong—and you may need to tell them that—you are still doing it for your own reasons. Hopefully you can do it for your peace and happiness. Hopefully it allows you to let go of the frustration and upset that led to this conversation, and you will be less likely to experience it again. That is a gift. Getting in touch with the gratitude of receiving that gift from the other person will help you communicate with greater love, and increase the likelihood that they will actually hear what you have to say.
Some Issues Take Time
If you cannot let the emotion go, it will still keep you from experiencing happiness and peace. You may wish to try the process again—before or after your conversation—but it is important to note that large, endemic problems will require consistent application of a variety of tools over long periods of time to fully accept and fully let go. These issues may require professional help in all four quadrants of mindset, behavior, culture, and systems. If you discover one of these issues, you do not need to shy away from it—you can certainly get the process started by writing a letter. You have to get started somewhere.
So what of my friends? One of them called me to vent, and get some advice. I told him about the letter, and then I realized that I had some emotions about the issue. So I whipped out my journal and wrote them both a letter. It helped me shine a light on some deeper issues in me that I had projected onto them. Now I am ready for a deeper conversation with them, coming from a new perspective that embraces more ferocity of truth and more compassion.