When I was in my early twenties, I boasted about my ‘foolproof ’ method for dealing with pain and anger – stuff them into my mental self-storage unit and forget (not really) by focusing on a new love interest, on partying or on work, only revisiting when I’d stopped caring.
Several years later, I visited a kinesiologist (that’s an acupuncturist without needles) due to a mystery illness that was killing me.
I was expecting advice on healing foods but instead found myself being asked about trauma from childhood and adulthood. “Fine,” I replied breezily, when asked how I felt about events like the abandonment by my father, then I quickly feigned an excuse to leave (which she didn’t buy).
Within minutes, I broke down from the pent-up grief. I left there exhausted, but lighter.
Along with nutritional instructions, I had homework: to write as many letters as needed to each of my parents and, in fact, anyone who I had grievances with. But, most importantly, they were not to be sent.
Anger, like all emotions, is helpful. It is our body’s way of letting us know that we’re experiencing an injustice (or believe that we are) and that an active response is needed. This might mean speaking up or taking action with someone, but it also means checking our perspective and ensuring that we’re not doing ourselves an injustice.
Suffering comes from ignoring anger, along with pain that communicates that we feel sad, hurt and in need of self-care. We tell ourselves a crappy story in response to what we’ve experienced and our subsequent choices reinforce it.
Suddenly, we find ourselves in a situation long past its sell-by date or putting up with something despite our discomfort, and hating ourselves for it.
Many of us have negative associations with anger due to societal messaging – girls must always be good, kind, sweet, accommodating and other such guff that makes us afraid of looking bad, rude, dramatic or even like a ‘psycho’. Each time we feel angry, we then feel ashamed.
Maybe we grew up around people who didn’t have healthy responses to conflict and criticism, who either suppressed anger or seemed to go ballistic (my family are silent treatment on one side and Armageddon on the other), leaving no middle ground and consequently creating fear of our feelings. Maybe only ‘good’ feelings were allowed, or someone else’s took priority, and now that we’ve denied our feelings for so long, people-pleasing seems easier.
We can be very judgemental, seeing ourselves as the masterful architects of our own demise. Anger is then treated as a sign of being attacked; of weakness, that we’re a ‘fool’, or that, because someone has responded inadequately to something we wanted, we are somehow inadequate.
Feelings aren’t a switchboard, so if we avoid a few, or even just one, it affects them all. That joy we pursue is going to feel muted if we’re telling ourselves that we’re above anger. We can’t neglect our needs, expectations, desires, feelings and opinions with the aim of being seen as ‘pleasing’, and not expect it to take a toll.
Buried anger and pain always find their way out, hinting first and, if ignored, sending increasingly hard-to-ignore messages – think resentment, anger eruption(s) or finding it hard to get over something small. They’re all being triggered by conflict and criticism that forces you to confront your feelings and create some boundaries, or you risk your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health falling into crisis.
You might think, “Well, what’s the point in letting rip in a letter if I can’t send it to them?” Um, everything. Writing out your feelings stops the past from holding you hostage. It’s a safe space. Journalling takes you from causing havoc in your body and your life due to buried and unprocessed feelings and thoughts, to healing you with the self-care that comes from perspective.
If you then go on to raise the issue with the person in question, you can stay in your own lane and make your points without being hit by an onslaught of unprocessed feelings that may not even be entirely related to them. You are conscious, aware and present.
If you’ve been telling the story of those feelings and events in the same way and feeling increasingly hurt and/or numb, it’s time to put pen to paper. Releasing doesn’t mean that you condone whatever it was that went down. It means that you’re ready to grow, by having some self-compassion for your younger self, and to acknowledge the truth, including the ‘humanness’ of those involved, to liberate yourself from suffering.
Start by putting aside at least 20-30 minutes where you can write undisturbed. Settle down with a comfortable pen along with some paper (typing just isn’t as emotive).
Begin with “Dear [their name]”, then introduce your reason for writing. It’s best to start with outlining the events, behaviour, or whatever it is that has been on your mind for some time, then to delve deeper into the specifics of why you feel as you do and how you’ve been affected.
It’s important to acknowledge your feelings without censorship, which is the beauty of the unsent letter – there are no interruptions. Don’t edit and please don’t be polite; us grown-ups have a habit of rationalising away our feelings while our younger self may feel very differently. Just try writing from the perspective of the age you were when the event(s) in question happened and you will see a difference in your writing.
Read the letter out loud a couple of times when done, with as much emotion as you can muster, and then say, “I forgive you. I love you. And I’m sorry”.
Either tear up the letter and dispose of it or, log burner permitting, burn it (safely) after reading. As confrontational as it might feel, write as many letters as needed. Twelve years and many letters on, I’m happier and healthier, and unsent letters are one of my most powerful self-care tools. Giving a voice to your anger can, and will, change your life for the better.
How to stop being a people pleaser (podcast)
Do you find yourself saying yes whenever someone asks you to do them a favour? If so then you could be a people pleaser.
In this episode of the In The Moment Magazine podcast, Natalie Lue shares her tips to help you be more assertive.