Have you ever written a letter to yourself? The only time I have is when I was 15, and did so as part of a summer wilderness experience. We wrote to ourselves at the end of two weeks hiking through the Rocky Mountains, before we went home. The letters were sent to us at Christmas of that same year, and it was a strong and strange reminder of what we had done and how we had felt months later.
But even though that was a great experience, I never wrote to myself again. But I'm going to this weekend, and plan on making it a yearly, pre-holiday task. Why write a letter to yourself? Because even though we spend 24/7/365 with ourselves, we spend precious little time actually taking time to build that into a positive relationship.
And that's important, because dealing with our feelings about our lives, reflecting on how we truly feel about ourselves, and encouraging ourselves to be kinder and more compassionate can lead to healing, happiness and even better health. Experiments done by James Pennebaker in the 1980s at the University of Texas Austin showed the connection between writing about difficult personal issues and visits to the doctor.
Those who wrote about their experiences in letters to themselves felt a sense of relief and also helped some understand their emotions and where they came from. And in the months after they wrote, they suffered fewer health issues that needed care from the student health center and they also felt more optimistic.
As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes in his book (excerpted here), "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma":
"As functioning members of society, we’re supposed to be 'cool' in our day-to-day interactions and subordinate our feelings to the task at hand. When we talk with someone with whom we don’t feel completely safe, our social editor jumps in on full alert and our guard is up. Writing is different. If you ask your editor to leave you alone for a while, things will come out that you had no idea were there."
So grab a pen and paper (studies show that we are able to access deeper emotions when handwriting as opposed to typing on a computer keyboard), set a timer for 15 minutes, turn off your phone and close your laptop, and write a letter to yourself. If you write in the format of a letter, it will give you a known framework for the task, and though it may feel strange at first, just keep going.
This is a freewriting exercise, so let whatever comes to mind make its way onto the page. You can keep a couple of prompts in front of you, if you wish, such as: What do you want yourself to know? What have you done well this past year? What are the things that have challenged you? What are you looking forward to?
Finally, ask yourself what you love about you, as if you were writing a love letter to someone else, but in this case the subject is you.
You might think you know already what will fill the pages of a letter to yourself, but you'll probably be surprised what comes out when you sit down to write. Take some time for yourself. It may be the best 15 minutes you spend this season, and may even make your winter healthier and happier.