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Finishing Unfinished Business with Unsent Letters

by Dr Sam Tan, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Centre for Human Potential

Chris hated how he automatically cringed and stepped back when someone like Arden walked pass him on the road. Arden had been Chris’ tormentor for the 5 years he was working. He found out that Chris was gay and started to taunt him, insult him openly and even turn colleagues against Chris. Arden had since left the company. However, nowadays when his friends mention Arden, Chris is still filled with a mixture of dread, fear and intense anger. “Why does this happen to me?” Chris asks himself. He has also started to blame himself for being “mentally weak” and “deliberately dwelling on the past”. If this sounds familiar, read on…

From a psychological point of view, emotionally-evoking interpersonal incidents tend to leave a mark in our memories. Sometimes, it is difficult for us to let go of these memories and “move on”. We might find ourselves reacting to these memories in strong ways like how Chris did.   We call this lingering emotional baggage unfinished business. It is characterized by an on-going reaction to another person based on what had happened between them and us in the past.

What can be done about it? The first step is to stop blaming ourselves for not letting go. Remember that it is a memory problem and our memory systems tend to become overly efficient when emotionally aroused. The next step is to use various psychological exercises to help process those memories so that they no longer evoke strong emotions.

One such exercise is called an unsent letter. If you have experienced substantial trauma in your life, please do not try this exercise without the guidance of a therapist or psychologist. In this exercise, you write to the person you feel strongly towards about how what they did made you feel, how you felt towards them and what you needed in that situation. Some people find this to be a very powerful tool to help them let go of those memories. Most people find themselves writing to this person multiple times and not sending the letters. What seems to be most important is to write with emotions and not merely your intellect.

Should you choose to engage in this psychological exercise, it is important for you to keep what you have written confidential. Also, remember that if you have experienced substantial trauma in your life, please only do this exercise under the supervision of a psychologist.