For many years writing to a younger version of yourself has served as a highly useful treatment strategy within the mental health and recovery communities. Now, it appears to be mainstream. A mini, mini-memoir of sorts, since you are the person and writer, having the most intimate knowledge of life events based on experiences in the first person.
Recently, I have read such letters from celebrities and famous athletes like Oprah, Maya Angelou, Kobe Bryant, Henrik Lundquist to their younger selves. I’ve read the book, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, edited by Ellyn Spragins. In it, several women write letters to themselves at a younger age, offering advice about life. There’s even a song by one of my favorite Christian Pop Bands, Mercy Me, titled “Dear Younger Me.”
During my own recovery journey, from sexual and physical abuses endured as a child, the entrapment of addictions and destructive behaviors in my adulthood (many of them referred to by professionals as “trauma reenactments”) and labors for a lifetime with bipolar depression and anxiety, the series of letters I wrote to my younger self at various ages served as one of the single most effective therapeutic techniques I have encountered. I have learned that I must now feel my emotions after so many years of hiding them not-so-neatly away, deep within my core.
Writing to your younger self helps unlock events and the feelings that they evoke. Another helpful strategy I experienced involves drawing or painting various “life scenes” from the past and sharing it with someone. In talking about it, you ‘feel’ it. Feel it all again. Both of these healing endeavors can be best described as cathartic. Purposeful. Meaningful. I can finally say that I have reached a semblance of closure regarding long ago periods of my life. I have felt a tremendous sense of empathy and compassion towards myself. I heard the experience of letter writing described as a means of ‘reclaiming an orphaned part’ of oneself. Emotional, yes, but a feeling of being made whole.” Agreed.
May I share with you one of the letters I wrote to my 8-year-old younger self, perhaps the most trying times I endured in childhood? Here goes …
Dear My Little Self at 8 (Spring 1978)
How are you? I miss you. But think of you often, now more than ever. I tend to reminisce about life quite a lot these days, mostly replaying long ago events so as to keep my good and even not-so-good memories alive. It is a journey of healing for me, your mid-40s self, helping me to feel the pains from my past, your present, to finally stop running away from emotions or burying them deep within. Thank you for joining with me on this path I must walk.
I want to reassure you that things are infinitely better where I stand today, than where you are now. At the moment, I know, it feels like nothing is going right, with lots of crappy stuff happening to you. It takes its toll on you. You feel unlovable and out of control. Much of your life stings right now. This will pass, Little One. This will pass.
I am looking at a photograph of you in your homemade (by mom) Philadelphia Phillies uniform. You are so proud to wear it, and you absolutely love baseball. It is so nice to see you smiling in that photo since you rarely do so at the age you are now. I have to admit, that makes me awfully sad. I know you feel lonely and wish you had more friends and better school experiences. I remember so vividly of you at eight is a little boy who plays hard, always with skinned knees and elbows raw from scrapes and burns, cuts and wounds stained red beet red coated with mercurochrome. Your dirty-ish face, mud on your sneakers, and torn socks. I remember how mom scolds you to not enter the house in such a state, commanding that you strip in the mud room, scolding you as she stares in vain at the latest shade of green grass stains or new knee holes in your jeans, growing tired of such daily all-boy shenanigans of clothing destruction. I remember it was around this time—mom marches you into Sears to buy two pairs of $10.00 (a lot of money back then) Toughskins jeans that were advertised to be indestructible.
You’re going to face some real challenges over the next couple of years, ones that will leave you sad, confused, curious, and angry.
I know Dad spanks you way too much, too hard, and too long. Oh, how I wish I could fix that fate somehow. If I could rescue you know that I would. Dad has his own issues, and unfortunately, his temper is vented on you mostly. Someday, you will forgive Dad for such mistreatment and vow to not repeat this cycle with your own children. His rage scares the holy heck out of you. Even today, I sometimes still feel the very same exaggerated ’shudder reflex’ (that a former therapist calls it) you do now. You love Dad; he’s still your hero. Albeit, a mysterious one. Oh, how you long to be closer. But you’re naturally wary. I know that you prefer to stay out of his way, especially when he’s tired from working so hard at his jobs. I wish Dad was around more for you, but understand full well that that could spell more trouble.
This summer, some older neighborhood boys invite you into the woods to play some games. You love that others notice you, pay attention to you, and invite you to play. You’re curious, feel honored, and you go. Proud and happy to hang with older boys, like you’re joining their club, you’re a big guy now. But, what happens in the woods and later in a treehouse and finally in a basement of a neighborhood home under construction, are not games, and it is not the kind of club for you to be in. Those boys take advantage of you, your innocence, for their fun and pleasure. Their teasing because you’re smaller and not yet developed is unfair. You will need to forgive the boys. What they did. Did with you, did to you, and what they made you do to them. I could never excuse their behavior, but with the help of professionals, I have learned to better understand how things like this may happen in life. These times will cause you great confusion and conflict. Yes, of course, you can still like your friend and classmate down the street, because you think she is pretty. Yes, she can still be your girlfriend and you can ‘play marry’ her. That’s perfectly natural. But, it’s also okay that you begin to notice and like boys. Think they’re handsome or cute. You want to be like them; be with them, even though you have difficulty understanding why. Let me tell you, that is perfectly normal too. It’s okay that you don’t quite understand what you feel and why you feel it. Just feel what you feel. It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re more than okay. I wish I could make things great for you in the here and now. But you will survive, even thrive in so many ways.
I know that you will be sad when summer ends. Sad that it is over and sad that you have to go back to school. You get like this, melancholy when things end. You feel loss very deeply. As for school, the next two years are going to be an even rougher ride. You start out 3rd grade so excited to have Mrs. ‘W’ as your third-grade teacher. She reminds you of ‘Nanny’ and everyone says that she is the best of the best. You feel lucky. And she is. Awesome, that is, but only for a week. The second week of school the class is broken up and groups are sent to new classes. Mrs. W suddenly retired. No goodbyes. You are heartbroken. For some reason, your new teacher doesn’t seem to like you from the start, as if you are some intruder. She picks on you, sends you to the corner, the hallway, or summons you close to her desk, keeps you in for recess to write 200 lines, or makes you stand nose to the brick wall outside. To this day, it makes me cringe how she treats you. All because you were a little antsy or inattentive or silly, you’d forget to write your name on your paper, or you played a little too hard and rough at recess. You’re tall for your age, so maybe adults expect you to act older. You feel like the bad kid who can’t do anything right. When you go home the first report card says you, ‘create classroom disruptions’, you know you are dead meat. Your worry is so great on the bus ride home, you nearly wet your pants. You climb your special tree and don’t come down. For hours. You pray, you cry, you never feel so alone. The birds and squirrels and chipmunks that you spot are worry-free; you envy them. Dad’s wrath on your behind is delayed for only so long. This is the very first time you feel the sting of his belt. When will it ever stop? Will it ever stop?
I want you to know that, no matter how unbearable it all seems, and how lost you feel, you will get through it, you will find your way.
• You don’t have to be perfect.
• You don’t have to please everyone.
• Worry less, pray more, play more.
• Stop beating yourself up. Everyone sins. God is forgiving.
• You don’t have to feel all of the shame that you do. Ashamed of the way you look (you’re a beautiful child of God); what the teen boys did to you, with you, and had you do to them; that you discovered masturbation at your tender age; that you like pretty girls who won’t like you back; think that some guys are cute. Ashamed that you feel unloved, unworthy, ugly, fearful, not brave. Ashamed that you cry yourself to sleep. Ashamed of all the criticism for mistakes, failures, and imperfect performances.
• As for friendship, you long for it, and it will come.
• Praise, yes, you crave it (think 5th grade).
• Be kind to yourself. You are so worthy of love and respect, but it starts with you.
• Ask for help. Your pride gets in your way far too often. You’ve been a survivor and self-reliant. Any type of help that you need, just be brave and ask for it. Have the courage to raise your hand.
I Love You My Dear Little One! Stay strong and brave! Always & forever,
~ Me (Yep, it’s you 38+ years forward)
Photo Credit: Getty Images