The Unsent Letter

Most of the writing techniques I use when reflecting or journaling are nothing new, nothing that I invented or conceived. But I have collected and used many, and as a writing professional, concerned myself, to some extent, with the processes involved, their history, and their usefulness. Having different tools in your toolbox or arsenal allows you to be prepared for a wide breadth of circumstances for which you might put pen to paper.

The Unsent Letter has been around for as long as I can remember. Long before my existence. Research tells me that Abraham Lincoln used them and called them hot letters, and he wouldn’t have been the first to write one either. I can recall writing notes as a kid and then tearing them up into tiny pieces and burying them deep in the trash can. I can recall, even now, the sense of relief I’d feel after getting my feelings off my chest, while at the same time avoiding a real-life confrontation.

There are a number of reasons why we might not want to say what we feel we need to say.

Managing Unkind or Angry Words: Sometimes what we feel we need to say isn’t always appropriate or necessary. Many times, when I have been angry, I have wanted to lash out, using my words as weapons, but then when anger has subsided, I realize I cannot get those words back. That hurts everyone, myself and the person I have used my words against. It can have a long-term negative effect on relationships, sometimes inflicting permanent damage.Having gained greater emotional maturity and wisdom over the years, I realize that not everything that I feel needs to be announced or said, and yet, some feelings are better out than in. That’s where writing a letter that I never intend to send comes in handy.

Needing to Say/Needing to Hear: Closely related, is the process we experience. We might need to say something, but the other person doesn’t need to hear it. Getting our emotions off our chest, diffusing, blowing off steam, all of these actions and reactions can be healthy releases of emotions. But, they become unhealthy when our words hurt others, and we and the receiver of our words have to deal with the repurcussions. Everything we need to say isn’t something that needs to be heard. However, the act of saying it, or in this case writing it, can be a healthy, carthartic release.

Impossible Conversations: Some conversations or dialogues are impossible to have because of death, distance, estrangement. We might have unfinished business with someone with whom we can no longer connect. Unsent letters work as a kind of continued connection. In reality, we know the person on the receiving end isn’t actually receiving our message, but in our hearts, the message is sent.


  1. Simply get a piece of paper and pen, write the appropriate opening to the person with whom you need to connect, Dear __________, and write.

  2. When you are done, decide whether you wish to keep the letter, or if it would be best to destroy or discard it.

  3. Reflect. What did you learn from that experience?

  4. Action. Decide if further action is needed. Do you need to talk to the person? Do you need to make amends?

  5. Let go. Once you’ve released your emotions about an issue, make an effort, if possible, to let go.