Writing a letter as part of your therapy
I believe in the power of verbal communication. I also believe that we communicate a tremendous amount by what we don’t say - through our body language and facial expression - and it is through this combination of verbal and non-verbal communication, we connect, and use our therapeutic relationship to explore, to learn, to develop and grow.
Sometimes, however, even in the safety of the therapeutic relationship it can be extremely hard to put things into words - to express ourselves, our deepest feelings, our thoughts, our secrets, and say what you really mean. Sometimes the person that we really want to express our thoughts and feelings to is not available, or we are not able to reveal this part of ourselves to them for fear of consequences and recrimination. Sometimes, this ‘person’ may even be yourself. This can leave us feeling stuck, isolated, frustrated and saddened. If your therapist suggests that you write a letter as part of your work together, this can be an immensely powerful tool that enhances the ‘talking’ that you do within sessions.
Therapeutic letters are intended to extend the work of the therapy beyond the session by continuing the ‘meaning-making’ that has occurred in the therapeutic conversation. Writing a letter encourages you to stand back from trauma, creating perspective and providing you with an opportunity to analyse what has occurred. It can help to harness and process strong emotions. Aspects that have not been dealt with you either independently or in the therapy session can be brought into conscious awareness to explore your personal schema (your way of thinking about things) and explore the feelings, in order to develop alternatives to your story
Letter writing often forms part of a programme of recovery, particularly relevant in grief and loss. We experience loss in many forms, through the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship, shifts in friendship, or life events that change our lives. There is recognition of the importance of self in this process; an awareness of internal conflicts that have resulted in a fragmented self. The ‘self’ is defined through such emotional blockages, yet we are capable of achieving happiness through both acceptance and change, by working with the newly conscious aspects that arise, changing the way you think.
Allowing you to consider the reality versus the fantasy of your circumstances, you can ‘move forward’ whilst feeling supported and held as part of the reparative relationship with your therapist.
A letter written, but not sent
The letter is centred on open, uncensored communication that will never be sent, with both an emotional and cognitive function. It should contain all your emotions, your needs, your demands and your condemnations towards the person or object as the letter forms an internal dialogue. You can be explicit, truthful and express whatever you want to say in a raw, naturalistic and crude form. Written from past, present or future, letters are often written as a way of seeking closure, saying goodbye, or searching for acceptance in the client’s journey.
The letter can be used as a personal unshared exercise, or brought into the therapy room to be read to or read by the therapist, used in a range of ways and contexts, then explored within the session. Importantly, therapeutic letters can be re-read and the story reconsidered at different stages of the therapy, providing a concrete means for evaluation of progress and change, both during the session and afterwards. However, the use of a letter should always be dependent on your therapeutic process and the clinical judgment of the therapist. The therapist should be aware of the challenges or ethical considerations of its use, and not just the benefits. So you need to use it carefully.
Ultimately, writing gives you a voice, particularly if you find it difficult to put your experience into words, it can become a medium for someone who is reluctant to open up face-to-face. It also ensures that you have been accurately heard, providing you with the freedom to define your own experience, uninterrupted, and at your own pace. A letter written, but not sent, not seen by anyone else, is yours. Just yours. All yours.
Jolly, M. (2011) What I never wanted to tell you: therapeutic letter writing in cultural context. Journal of Medical Humanities 32 47-59
Wright, J.K. (2005) Writing Therapy in brief workplace counselling. Counselling & Psychotherapy Research 5(2) 111-119
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About Anne-Marie Alger
Individual and Couples Counselling, Clinical Supervision, Anxiety, Depression, Relationship Issues, Grief and Loss.One in four of us experience mental health problems at some time in our lives. If you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, low in mood, having difficulty coping, having relationship issues, not knowing who you are anymore, then help is available. Anxiety and depression are common, but ta… Read more
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