If you’re feeling angry or upset with someone, you may have seen the advice ‘write a letter to them expressing how you feel, but don’t send it’.
Apparently (I found out when I was researching it), there isn’t one single name for this practice. I’ve seen it variously called an ‘unsent letter’, ‘expressive letter writing’, or a ‘Lincoln letter’.
Why a ‘Lincoln letter’? Apparently Abraham Lincoln, when angry at a colleague, would write a letter ‘venting’ his pent-up rage – but rather than sending it, he put it to one side and re-read it maybe a day later, when his mind had cleared. Usually, he didn’t send it after that, but threw it away (incidentally, he called this practice ‘Never signed and never delivered’.
Benefits of the Unsent Letter
Opportunity to reframe: putting your feelings into words already means that you’re processing them through different neural pathways than if you leave them swirling around as unexpressed emotion.
Safety: of course, expressing your thoughts out loud to the person you are upset with would also put them into words. But writing them in a letter that you don’t send avoids the very real possibility – probability even – that your angry words would inflame defensiveness and anger in turn in the recipient, leading to an escalation of the conflict.
This is also why you don’t send the letter. Compared to talking to someone in person, the recipient is more likely to regard the written word with suspicion because it lacks the accompanying voice tone, body language, and facial expression that gives context and provides additional information about how the speaker really feels about what they are saying, and about the relationship.
Perspective: writing the words on paper gives you more distance than saying them out loud. Once they are on the page, outside of you, you can gain some distance and perspective on them – and you can re-read them and reflect on them as many times as you want.
Recognising the possibility of change: there’s a reason Lincoln didn’t sign his letter before putting it in a drawer. As long as he didn’t sign it, the letter remained a work in progress, open to change.
Some coaches and therapists recommend throwing the letter in the bin or the fire as soon as you’ve written it – but if you did that, you’d be missing out on what you’d learn from re-reading it later when you’ve calmed down.
Here’s What Could Go Wrong
Just expressing a feeling doesn’t necessarily get rid of it. The whole notion of ‘venting’ and ‘catharsis’ is based on the ‘hydraulic theory of emotion’ – the idea that anger builds up inside you and the pressure needs to be released by venting.
Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t hold up. Psychology experiments have found that acting out the anger (e.g. by pounding nails with a hammer) actually increases aggression. Even if people report feeling better after venting, on objective measures they are still more aggressive. Whether you express an emotion or repress it, the emotion may still be there.
You could talk yourself into feeling worse. The more you talk or write about episodes in your past, the more you associate into those memories and the emotions you felt at the time, and you might lose whatever insights and perspectives you’ve gained over time (admittedly this is less likely when writing than when talking about things, especially if the other people in the conversation were agreeing with and encouraging all the complaints expressed).
You don’t get feedback. Since you’re writing a letter that no-one but you will see, there’s no-one to offer alternative perspectives or ask questions that might give you a reality check. So if your emotions are a response to the worst possible interpretation of events, your belief in the story that you’re telling yourself might be strengthened.
These are all fairly minor points if writing an unsent letter saves you from expressing rage and making a bad situation even worse, but it’s still worth thinking about how we can mitigate these potential downsides.
How to Write an Unsent Letter That Avoids These Potential Downsides
Ideally, you could write the letter in a way that recognises our own fallibility, and has the recognition that the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of what’s happened to us are just that – stories based on one possible interpretation out of many, rather than objective truth.
Fortunately, there is an easy-to-follow model for making sense of our experience and communicating what we think and feel about it that does just that. It’s called the ‘Experience Cube’, first outlined in Gervase Bushe’s excellent book Clear Leadership.
The Experience Cube has four components:
Observations – this is what we can see and hear, as a video camera might record it
Thoughts – this is what we believe and what we tell ourselves
Emotions – what we are feeling
Wants – what we want to happen, what we want to do, goals etc.
Here’s how using the Experience Cube to describe what you’re feeling and why in an unsent letter helps you avoid any potential pitfalls:
- As we all experience the world through our own mental filters, it’s not easy for us to be aware of our own blind spots and cognitive biases – especially if we suffer from ‘Naïve Realism’. The ‘Observations’ quadrant invites us to stick to the facts and suspend judgement when describing a situation or incident.
- We still get to describe our best guess at what we think is going on in that situation, in the ‘Thoughts’ quadrant. The difference is that we’re invited to remember that these are just our own thoughts, beliefs, and judgements about what’s going on, and not objective truth. We recognize that alternative explanations and evaluations are possible, and as we write, we may even consider some of those alternative explanations and admit their possibility.
- In the Emotions quadrant we can describe what we’re feeling. But we’re not leading with emotions. By the time we are talking about what we feel, we’ve already been through a factual description of the situation or event, plus outlining our ‘story’ about what’s going on in way that explicitly requires us not to confuse the story with objective reality, so we are more able to distance ourselves from our emotions and not have our judgement clouded.
- Finally, the ‘Wants’ quadrant invites us to consider how we want things to develop, what we should do next, and maybe what we would like the other person to do. It invites us to find a way out of the upsetting situation, rather than just leaving it there as if we could do nothing about it. It makes us think about the future and how to move on, rather than endlessly rehashing the past.
If you’ve tried writing an ‘unsent letter’ using the Experience Cube as a guide, let us know how you got on in the comments!
I highly recommend Gervase Bushe’s book Clear Leadership. Although it’s written as a guide to how leaders should communicate to reduce anxiety and cut through ‘interpersonal mush’ in the workplace, you can use the Experience Cube for all kinds of other applications (as in this article). I’d say it’s a must-read for coaches.