What is with the advice, "Write a letter and don't send it?"
February 4, 2014 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes someone does you wrong (most often in a relationship), and there is a desire to call them out, to write a scathing letter. Often it's advised to write it out but not send it. Can someone help me understand why?

Something bad happened to me and I spent some time putting the vitriol into a Google Doc when it came up. Now I have a carefully worded letter that is a fairly accurate expression of what happened. What is the logic around not sending it? I hear the advice so much on here, to write out such a letter perfectly if necessary, but then burn it.

I don't entirely get it. Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future. It might make some positive impact that simply comes from a story being told.

Suppose an extreme case, you're a rape victim and you go to all the trouble of writing a letter about how loathsome the person is, how much they tangibly hurt your life, how you would want it to be undone or corrected no matter what that took, how they are a monster to you and this is the real story of your experiences.
Why burn the letter and not send it?
Why in the less extreme, non-rape cases?

I'm interested in opinions on both sides.
posted by htid to Human Relations (51 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The rationale is that by not sending it, you're refraining from perpetuating a cycle of unhappiness by engaging with the source of that pain. By writing it, one is getting the matter off one's chest controlling the only thing you can control, yourself.

Personally, I think it depends on the situation. Sometimes saying it to the person's face or making sure they hear you is its own catharsis. Just think carefully about what route you want to take and which will help you heal the most.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:55 AM on February 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Actually sending it just stirs shit up with someone you presumeably never want to have contact with again. They respond and then you get sucked into a nasty back-and-forth. It's not worth it.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:55 AM on February 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

By sending the letter you keep all those bad things alive. The letter still exists, the shitty person now has it and therefore has all the power of responding (or not responding) as they see fit. It engages the shitty person and continues their power.

But simply writing things down, organizing your own thoughts, is therapeutic. It's a tangible way of processing your own emotions. And by burning the letter (personally, I like to run them through the shredder), you're symbolically letting it go.

Most of the time, when someone is shitty to you, the healthiest option is to completely move on. And generally, people who are truly shitty are not imbued with a great amount of introspective ability, particularly when it involves criticism from others. So sending the letter would be futile.
posted by phunniemee at 7:56 AM on February 4, 2014 [15 favorites]

I think the idea is that, while writing down your feelings can be helpful to allow you to understand them and vent, very little good usually comes of letting those feelings escape into the world. Maybe in an extreme example it wouldn't matter and totally nuking the relationship is what you want and will always want. But if, for example, you're just really mad at a family member for some slight, committing your right-now anger to the record and letting them know is going to poison the relationship for a long time, even after your feelings have faded.
posted by ghharr at 7:57 AM on February 4, 2014

The point isn't actually to "write a letter" that might be sent - it's really to use writing as an exercise to help you work out frustration/anger/etc, which is easier to do when you "directly" address the subject of your negative emotions. It's a writing exercise, not an actual communication.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:57 AM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

As I understand it, the reasoning is, at least partly, (1) putting your own thoughts and feelings in a coherent form can reduce your own feelings of confusion/guilt/general shittiness, and (2) because in many types of serious interpersonal conflicts, the following is extremely unlikely:
Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future. It might make some positive impact that simply comes from a story being told.

Much more likely is that it would make things much worse, especially if circumstances force you to continue to be involved with this person. Whether it's a lousy-roommate situation or an abusive-family situation. You can't control anything except your own response to situations.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 7:57 AM on February 4, 2014

I find it useful to externalize those feelings and thoughts. Writing a letter is just slightly different from making a list or journaling in that way.

If I'm angry at a specific person, it feels good to direct these thoughts at them while organizing them and explaining the situation to myself. I like to hammer out specific, actionable points from a big nebulous pre-verbal, visceral reaction. It feels good, and gives me a sense of moving forward.
posted by magdalemon at 7:58 AM on February 4, 2014

Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future.

The likelihood that telling someone how loathsome they are will make them straighten up and fly right is VASTLY LESS than the likelihood that the loathsome person will retaliate in a shitty fashion.
posted by mskyle at 7:58 AM on February 4, 2014 [27 favorites]

[below is my experience, not speaking for all people, using the language of generalization, ymmv, etc]

Generally speaking the usefulness of this sort of communication is thought to be getting it out of your system. This is particularly true in a break-up or some situation in which one person may desire closure but the other person is already done. There is a sense in which continuing to keep an open line of communication is actually continuing/extending the relationship (i.e hoping for a response or some other reaction, that there may be some sort of down-the-road redemption or understanding) which is not actually the same thing as moving on.

In co-dependent relationships, in particular, having your own actions/reactions entirely wrapped up in someone else's reactions or how you feel they will interpret and feel about your actions/thoughts is a bad cycle to be stuck in. Moving on and healing is often better done on your own and not by feeling like you can make some sort of final blow/injury to the other person. Often people hurt us and our feeling that we'd feel better if we were able to hurt them back is a false consciousness.

Telling a rapist you think they are a rapist (when they may not think they are a rapist, for example) has some utility. Generally speaking, however, the content of what you are trying to get across is often not helped by wrapping it up in layers of emotion that are yours alone. If someone has violated a law or a very serious social norm, sanctioning them within the actual system (getting that creep at the office brought up on harassment charges, not telling them how much they hurt you) is often a more effective way of getting them to stop. Therapy or talking to friends/loved ones is a better way of getting closure and/or working on your own emotions and not keeping that anger/bad feeling inside you.

If you want to do the best thing for you, personally, it is usually to just get away from the lousy person and not continue the relationship in any way. Sending a letter prolongs the relationship in some basic way even if it's a "fuck off I never want to see you again" letter. Because then what if they write back? End the cycle. Don't send the letter.
posted by jessamyn at 7:58 AM on February 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

I've always thought this advice was aimed at people who might otherwise just bottle up their feelings, not at people who are on the verge of actually mailing a letter for the purposes of having an effect on the other person. There's a ton of evidence that writing about your thoughts and emotions has therapeutic benefits.

Of course there may well be many specific instances when saying something to someone or to relevant authorities etc may be a very good idea.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:59 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

It allows you to get your feelings in order, and validates, acknowledges, and lessens some of the feelings/emotions/anger. In a good relationship, it can help you identify what you do, in fact, need to talk about, but subtracting a lot of the anger and hurt that can change it from a productive discussion to an argument/fight/scene.

Sending said vitriol filled letter about how loathsome someone is can do a lot of harm. For example, a meddling mother in law will probably not receive said letter in a good light, and can use it against you. Sending something like this to a demonstrably un-safe person can also open yourself up to more hurt. What if they find you, from the letter? Etc.

Maybe instead of sending to said rapist, you send it to survivor support groups, women shelters, magazines, etc, that can have a wider effect, and help others?

As for burning, the symbolic and actual release of it can be extremely positive and cathartic.
posted by Jacen at 7:59 AM on February 4, 2014

You write it to get it out of your system and to help yourself in understanding the issues and the problems. You don't send it because sending it will do nothing at all to change the person and will absolutely, definitely cause drama and problems and nobody wants that.

One scenario, sending that letter verifies to the asshole in question that what they did to you worked and they were able to exert that tiny bit of power over you. Another scenario, it opens the door to argument and more pain when the asshole starts defending their assholery.

It would be nice if sending that letter opened the eyes of the asshole and made a big change for them, but honestly if they were capable of that level of introspection and forethought, they wouldn't have been an asshole in the first place.

Rule #1: don't touch the poop. That includes telling the poop that it is poop.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I get personal clarity without fighting with people, which I don't enjoy if a relationship has devolved to that point. You can figure out what went wrong and move on. Conversely, I've torn up/burned letters people it's over with have sent. I don't want to know.
posted by Lardmitten at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2014

Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future.

How? Even a letter full of constructive, supportive criticism that wasn't specifically requested will be ignored at best. A letter full of vitriol isn't liable to give someone the desire to change themselves for the better, it will just make them upset and think that much less of the person who sent it.

I mean, if you were to open a letter you didn't expect and it just had variations on "you're a horrible human being" in it, would you think "oh, hmm, I wonder how I can be a better person so as not to receive such a letter in the future" or would you think "why is a crazy person sending me unsolicited hate mail"?
posted by griphus at 8:00 AM on February 4, 2014 [16 favorites]

The idea of writing it is to vent, and to help you compose your feelings about this. There are only really two possible outcomes if you send it:

1. They take offense and respond aggressively back listing all the ways in which your feelings are not justified, upsetting you further and thus intensifying the bitterness.

2. They realise they've got under your skin, and gloat that they've won, upsetting you further.

In the rape case, I would not want my rapist debating with me about why they were totally justified in raping me, neither would I want to reveal the depths of my vulnerability to them if they were out to "punish women for being bitches".

What's the good outcome you envisage? How likely is that to happen given that person you're writing to is your fucking rapist?
posted by tinkletown at 8:01 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I received a letter one time that a friend's ex-wife had sent to all his friends to let us know what a terrible person her ex-husband was. Presumably it made her feel better to write it, but to the reader it made her seem crazy. So that's one reason not to do it.

Also, the reason people typically send letters is to make someone feel bad who has hurt them. But the truth is that you can't control how somebody else feels about their own actions or about you, and the likelihood that the letter-reader will respond in the way you want them to is vanishingly small. Somebody who hurts you badly enough to inspire you to write them a letter detailing the hurt is not someone who is likely to suddenly see the light and accept the wrongness of their actions.
posted by something something at 8:01 AM on February 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Writing out the letter helps the wronged party clarify their thoughts and feelings around what happened. It can be cathartic.

Sending the letter re-enages the writer with a harmful person. It's unlikely to have any positive result. The receiver is unlikely to apologize or attempt to make amends. They aren't likely to read a letter about how loathsome they are and think "Whoa, I'm really on a bad path here. I should try to be a better person."

They may accuse the writer of lying, they may argue over what really happened, they may claim that the writer drove them to it, they may insist that they are just misunderstood. None of those outcomes are beneficial.
posted by bunderful at 8:01 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I get the desire to tell someone off. And, sometimes, people probably do need to hear it. But generally, I've become wary of what I put down in writing. I don't like giving people the ability to directly quote such sensitive material, until the end of time. For me, that's as good a reason as any, to just not send my perfectly-crafted annihilation letters.
posted by Coatlicue at 8:02 AM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

As someone who learned this lesson the hard way, I wholeheartedly agree that the "sending the letter keeps the unpleasant feelings alive" is completely true. Also, even when I write things down and construct the perfect letter or other communication that I think reflects my feelings accurately, I have found in the past that after I sent it, upon reconsideration some of the things that I wrote were unfair or actually didn't accurately reflect the situation and my feelings about it.

Overall, I think there is something to be said for recognizing the difference between just letting your feelings out on paper (which feels good, and so it is tempting to hit the send button or stick it in the mail) and making a thorough analysis of how what you have written will make the recipient feel or react and how it might change the situation and then writing something with that in mind if further communication seems like a good idea.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 8:02 AM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

And from the writer's point of view, if the letter gets sent, the writer is handing over all the power in that dynamic. Now they are sitting around waiting for a reaction of some kind. The whole thing is left open.

That's why the burning/shredding or whatever. You get it out, you destroy the paper, you hopefully finish the whole mess.
posted by gaspode at 8:06 AM on February 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future. It might make some positive impact that simply comes from a story being told.

In doing this, you're trying to control the situation or affect the outcome of something you have zero control over. What happens if the person laughs in your face or completely denies the truth? it'll probably leave you feeling worse, not better.

If the goal is to move on and put something behind you, then do so. Continuing to engage with the person or people is no surefire recipe for moving forward.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:06 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

neither would I want to reveal the depths of my vulnerability to them

Yes. Letting someone know they were able to hurt you is to make yourself vulnerable to them. That's something you do in good relationships, with people you trust, who didn't mean to hurt you and who will try to make it right and do better. (And in that scenario hopefully you wouldn't start by telling them they are loathsome).
posted by bunderful at 8:07 AM on February 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

Once you've sent the letter you're sitting around waiting for a response, or acknowledgment, or something, from this person (which you may well never get) instead of healing and getting on with your life. Imagine feeling that you crafted this letter over weeks, and they just thought "pfft" and binned it. Or worse, laughed about it and handed it round to people. Will that really make you feel better?
posted by tinkletown at 8:16 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

First of all, I'm sorry that happened to you.

From my own experience, a couple of things. First, sometimes the act of writing clarifies it enough in your mind that that's really all the result you need. I've set out to write human relations AskMes a couple of times; each time, the writing has been enough to sort out what is going on for me.

Second, practical considerations. People will ask, "What are you hoping to accomplish by sending that letter?" The type of communication that involves telling people what you REALLY think of them has a number of possible pitfalls. Among them-- this sounds horribly cynical-- knowledge is power. You are almost always giving the other person power with this kind of communication. You may think that if they only knew what effect they were having on you, they would stop acting that way but sadly, in many cases they either don't care or they actively want to hurt you for whatever reason.

On the other side, I have maybe twice in my life "sent that letter." Actually it was a matter of communicating to an abusive family member exactly what I thought of their behavior. Most of what I said was stuff I had in fact written at some point, but it came out when the other person started conversations. When you have an ongoing relationship that you can't completely get away from-- say when it is a relative you feel you can't ignore because of your relationships with other members of your family-- there may come a time when complete honesty works out well. In my case it did, sort of. But I think it helped that I didn't initiate it at a time when I was just bursting to say these things; rather, the person seemed to want to know what was wrong in our relationship. All too often, you never get that opening. (By the way, the person I ended up talking to still went around to our relatives repeating parts of the discussion and trying to put spin on them, as I always suspected they would. If I'd thought I was doing this to make big changes, I would have been disappointed. Still, there was a measure of clarity and even reconciliation.)
posted by BibiRose at 8:19 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Writing the letter can be cathartic and clarifying.

Sending it - well, it depends. What do you want? What do you expect?

If you want or expect that your rapist/abuser/jackass of an ex will suddenly realize the great wrong they've done you and feel remorse, you will almost certainly be very disappointed.

If you want or expect that they will respond thoughtfully, you will be disappointed.

If you want or expect that the letter will have no repercussions except for you getting to feel catharsis, you will be disappointed.

If you want to be right, you may well get that, but what's the cost? You can be right without sending the letter, and you won't have to engage further with them or let them continue to invade your existence.

It may also burn bridges you don't know about or can't see yet - there was a recent askme from someone who wanted to know if they should send a kind of scolding letter to an academic search committee. Everyone who answered said no, and gave excellent reasons.
posted by rtha at 8:21 AM on February 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

This advice is e modern equivalent of "go punch a pillow".

It lets you internalize whatever you're going through, and you can resolve it by your lonesome self. And not affect anybody else.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:24 AM on February 4, 2014

I don't entirely get it. Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future. It might make some positive impact that simply comes from a story being told.

Imagine you break up with someone and you believe you've done it as kindly as possible and you're both leaving on good terms. Two weeks later, you get a three-page letter from your ex going into excruciating detail about what a horrible person you are and you deserve to be miserable and by the way your toes are ugly and everyone laughs at that one shirt you always wear. Would that help you at all? Because that's the kind of angry letter most people write and don't send.

Most events, especially emotionally charged ones, don't have an objectively correct interpretation of what happened. It's hard enough to make other people see things from your perspective, and impossible if you wrap it in insults.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:25 AM on February 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Telling someone how loathesome they are will not make them change their ways. Ever.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:27 AM on February 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I once wrote The Letter -- brilliant! scathing! visceral! totally cathartic! he will see the depths of my pain for what he was done to me! he will see how terrible he is! -- and sent it anyway, against all advice.

A few days later the cops contacted me for questioning.

Lifelong lesson learned: never send The Letter.
posted by scody at 8:30 AM on February 4, 2014 [21 favorites]

Think of it more as directed journal writing than a letter and you get the idea.
posted by wwax at 8:31 AM on February 4, 2014

I actually have written the letter, and sent that letter, and (still) have no regrets about it.

However, I don't think that every time a letter is (seemingly) called for, a letter should be sent.
posted by sm1tten at 8:36 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Typically the trouble is that the reason this person is loathesome is that they are the kind of person whom a letter like this would not affect.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:39 AM on February 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I first encountered this suggestion 25 years ago in the context of dealing with childhood sexual abuse. It was considered it an ... intermediate step, I think, encouraging people to express what they wanted to say while not just going off on the abuser. And then, once written, the person could assess whether they really wanted to send it, and if so, plan for how to deal with any and all foreseeable responses, from nothing at all to violence. I think I knew people who had outcomes everywhere along that spectrum; some regretted sending the letter, some didn't. It was simply meant to be a way to deal with things and possibly take back some power.
posted by worldswalker at 8:47 AM on February 4, 2014

Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future

Because this simply isn't how people work. The negative outcomes just so drastically outweigh the potential positives. The letter is to help you process your feelings because that is what you can control. You can control your feelings, not their actions. Only your feelings have to change, because they are the only thing that can.

RE: Rape victims, they talk to the police, not the rapist. Rapists need to be arrested not scolded.
posted by French Fry at 8:56 AM on February 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

steinsaltz: Typically the trouble is that the reason this person is loathesome is that they are the kind of person whom a letter like this would not affect.

And thus, the therapy of venting your feelings is the best you will get from the experience, and to expect anything more is to set yourself up to be let down, or tangled in something worse than before.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on February 4, 2014

My dad actually sent me The Letter once. Did I suddenly realize he was right about everything and take it to heart or did it validate that he was a crazy asshole and I was right to cut him off and further justified in never talking to him again? It was the second one.

Look, everyone's the hero in their own narrative. That boss persecuting you unjustly and being an asshole? Hero in his version of the story. Coworker doing everything dangerous and almost killing you? Hero in her version of the story. Everyone's life narrative revolves around them being the good guy. The movie version where someone gets a heartfelt letter pointing out what they've done wrong and they gasp and go "My god, I've been a fool!" and resolve to change their ways? Doesn't happen. Instead, you look like a ranting lunatic and they get the double win: they were right in their opinion of you and they are therefore justified in persecuting you further.

I left a job once and gave a detailed writeup to HR of why I left including a very-satisfying several paragraph takedown of one person in particular who I outright said "HE is the reason I am leaving this job. Otherwise I would be staying." Several other people have said the same thing and were willing to put it on paper. Management has seen all those papers. He still works there.

By writing it down, you get the catharsis and release. However, by not sending it, you also don't get the frustration of your presumed outcome not happening.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:29 AM on February 4, 2014 [12 favorites]

This advice stems from several assumptions. One, that you need to write out and express your feelings, and this will be healing and cathartic to you. Two, that your feelings and what happened have nothing to do with the other or others involved and is merely a "subjective" experience. Obviously this is often incorrect. Three, that there are no "truths" regarding the matter of the situation and merely your feelings about them, therefore it is not really the concern of the other what you might write in the letter. This is tied to the above. Four, that it is a weakness to be related to truth and to have the need to have that truth expressed along with others and understood by others. Five, our extreme sense of "individuality" in our cultures teaches that we do not need others in any way, and showing a need for a relation to others is always a weakness, therefore to send someone a letter trying to clarify any truths of bad treatment is a show of weakness, because it shows you "need" the other. Five, since it is morally bad as a display of weakness, sending the letter will merely indicate you have "stooped to the others' level". Obviously this is bullshit. Six, therefore never send a letter, just burn it. It's merely your issue.

Also, people love to repeat what others say about all things, without thinking any of it through, but believing that they have, and that the evidence is "clear".
posted by Blitz at 9:34 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I couldn't disagree with Blitz more. I think you could absolutely write down the objective truth in an angry letter. I think the person you are writing to could have objectively done you wrong. I think being committed to the truth is fine, great even. I just think that if the other person is indeed objectively horrible they're going to ignore the truth and continue to be a dick jerkface asshole. And while there's nothing wrong with depending on others and wanting their love and approval, it's better to save those feelings for people who are worthy of your trust and approval.

It's not about morality, it's about pragmatism. You wouldn't be *bad* if you sent such a letter. You just wouldn't get what you want.

(Also, I think sometimes in the heat of the moment we *do* get this stuff wrong, and then that has its own set of problems.)
posted by mskyle at 9:53 AM on February 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's a brain trick.
The angry/hurt/raging emotional part of your brain remembers unloading both barrels of the flaying that the person deserves, and is mollified by this because it's largely a different part of your brain that retains the rational awareness that you never actually sent the letter.
You use that cognitive disconnect to ease emotions you want eased, without suffering the consequences of acting out on them.
posted by anonymisc at 10:29 AM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

In some cases, where you believe that the transgressor is a basically good person who is not aware of having done something hurtful and wrong, who would want to make amends and change if they realized they had done something that would cause harm, it might be worthwhile to bring that to their attention.

It doesn't sound like that's the case here.

How to best approach that should be the subject of a completely different ask.me. Or better yet, undertaken with the assistance of a trusted therapist.
posted by bunderful at 10:30 AM on February 4, 2014

I am the reigning queen of annihilation letters (h/t Coatlicue) so I feel very confident in my anecdotal assertion, albeit a few years out from the height of my havoc, that actually sending letters like this almost always does much more harm than good.

Why burn the letter and not send it?

Most of the reasons have already been covered, but here are my top five:
1. No takebacks! Your emotions will be crystallized in this moment, so if you fuck up, or make a typo, or they read something into your words that isn't there... well, sorry! Once you've sent the letter, your decision is permanent and irrevocable regardless of the damage or good it does. In addition, the recipient is now free to quote you completely out of context to any and everyone with whom either or both of you has ever been acquainted, and you will never have the ability to change that ever, ever again. Like many other decisions made in a split-second, sending a letter like this can literally haunt you forever. And if you send them an email or Facebook message, they can copy, cut, paste, and remix to their heart's content, and that shit can and probably will get forwarded to every single one of your mutual friends in the blink of an eye.
2. Many moons ago, a (mercifully-now-ex-)friend stole my cell phone -- I thought I'd just misplaced it -- specifically so she could call the dude who had just ripped my everloving heart out and give him what for. She left the straight-up craziest voicemail of all time, and he extracted that voicemail into a .WAV file and used it as the opening track on his band's album, which came out over a year later. The message she left is adamantly and obviously nuts, so it's not like it was some intensely personal or heartfelt thing, and I can laugh about it now, but TRUST ME: You do not want something like that to happen with your painfully earnest and meaningful recollection of wrongs visited upon you and the feelings those wrongs inspired. But once you send the letter, it can.
3. Sending the letter is proof positive that you were significantly more emotionally invested in the outcome and affected by the fallout than the recipient, and continuing to let someone you don't even know anymore wield that kind of power over you and your path forward is unnecessary at absolute best.
4. You cannot change or even really inform someone else's behavior no matter what you do. You could hire a plane to skywrite FYI, you're a worthless piece of garbage above your rapist's house every day while dropping an entire mail bag full of righteous letters into his backyard and I promise you, he's gonna sleep just fine, like he always has. Reading an exquisitely-worded personalized recounting of your pain will not cause him to have an epiphany. At the same time, it is absolutely not your fault if you stay silent and he continues to cause grievous harm to others. Writing or not writing the letter is not going to change this. Do whatever you need to do to survive.
5. The kind of people who need to get -- and "get" -- these letters are the exact same people who will never, ever listen to them.

With all that said, I almost sent a letter like this when I found out the dude who sexually assaulted me wound up having a child with another woman less than a year after the assault, I didn't, and I'm so, so glad. Fuck that guy, he's a lost cause, incapable of remorse, I'm sure he'd just keep blaming me for everything while simultaneously accusing me of lying because he was already doing that any damn way, and people who behave in that manner don't deserve an ounce of my time or attention. I've also never sent or even written any letters to any of my relatives, from whom I've been most righteously estranged for years, and I don't ever plan on it because again, people who seriously hate me and undermine me at every turn just don't deserve my time or attention. So if you're wanting to send a letter to people who have treated you with such unequivocal disregard, do yourself a favor and save it. Let 'em twist, the miserable bastards.

With all that said, the entire trajectory of my life hinged on sending a letter like this, although the basic gist was definitely "we're both horrible people" as opposed to "you're a horrible person, and here are the reasons why" -- and it was also sent to a third party, although I was operating under the (incorrect, as it turned out) assumption that it would be intercepted.
I drafted, redrafted, and painstakingly tweaked the letter for months, waiting until I was not so constantly incensed, waiting until I felt so secure in my decision to write it that I did not even care who the hell read it, if it got lost in the mail or turned into a billboard in Times Square, whether or not the intended recipient would tear it apart or dismiss me as a liar or call in a restraining order. Basically, I verrrrrry slowly peeled away the bitterness and hatred and left only a variably delicate recitation of my own lived experience, ensconced in apologies and regret. Then and only then did I put a stamp on it and allow the USPS to do the rest. It was hands-down the best decision I've ever made in my life and I'm grateful to my past self every single day for having the presence of mind to have waited so long before I sent it.

Overall, you should do only what makes you feel the most whole, self-supported, resilient, and strong. Never willingly show your soft, vulnerable underbelly to anyone you are certain does not have your best interests at heart. If the letter involves accusations of misbehavior or impropriety, even if the accusations are 100% true, or if its contents might otherwise reasonably invite or encourage adamant denial, finger-pointing, and/or a volley of return fire? Keep that shit in your diary so you can remind yourself why you don't talk to that douchebag anymore when you start to miss them or wonder how they've been. But if the letter involves an earnest admission of shared culpability, an apology, or a simultaneous callout of your own heinous behavior, and you can imagine Future You feeling totally safe, confident, and secure when you think back to your decision to pull the trigger, well, you might just want to wait a few months and let it fly.
posted by divined by radio at 10:37 AM on February 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

First of all, as other have said, the writing is a way for you to process your feelings. And that's it.

You don't send it because:

1. Say it forget it, write it, regret it. How would you feel if your letter were subsequently posted on line and the source of your anger, and his/her minions were then calling you names, mocking you and being otherwise unpleasant. What if the letter were public, and future employers could google it? Yeah, no.

2. Dramaz. Once you write the letter, you'll then be waiting for a response, another letter? Confrontation? Whatever it is, it involves you investing more time and emotion into someone and into a situation that doesn't warrant it.

3. Backfire. What if the recipient gets the letter, and becomes indignant, perhaps you wronged this person and you don't even know it, now you've just blown up a situation and you may be in the position of defending yourself in some way. Who needs that aggrivation.

Once you write the letter, burn it. That way you won't be tempted to read and reread, and to stay angry about something that isn't worth 1/4 of the energy and emotion you're putting into it now.

Assholes gonna asshole, the less time and emotion you spend on them, the better.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:39 AM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Rather than writing an unsent letter telling someone how horrible they are, I think a better path to peace might be writing an unsent letter forgiving them for what they've done to you. But I don't think either letter should be sent, because as others have said, it's really unlikely to actually cause someone to change.
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:40 AM on February 4, 2014

My impression is that the process of writing the letter is supposed to be cathartic, whereas actually sending it would cause a world of problems with the person it is addressed to.
posted by tckma at 10:49 AM on February 4, 2014

The thing is, the letter you write while you are still hurting is rarely the "fair and balanced truth" you will eventually come to accept.

The former is necessary for all the reasons given by so many great answers above: to get closure, to vent, to get your thoughts and emotions in order, for catharsis, the brain trick, etc.

But the latter is what would actually be good to tell the other person, like you say, in order to avoid future harm. It's really hard to give a fair account of people's behaviour when you are still very much hurt and suffering for what they did to you. Few people are willing to believe they are truly loathsome, a good letter is exactly not the one you are prepared to write until you've forgiven them.

In other words, like many have already said, don't send the letter because it's not going to do any good and it will only cause great drama. Writing it, on the other hand... you see?
posted by ipsative at 12:52 PM on February 4, 2014

In the case of a rape victim, that person should be talking to the police, not engaging with their abuser. A monster isn't going to suddenly realize they are a monster because they received a scathing letter from a victim.

In other cases, writing someone a letter telling them how terrible they are and how much they have hurt you, is all about you. It's a way to process your emotions and move on.

Moving on means you don't dwell on the past and spend time thinking about what a person who hurt you who is no longer in your life thinks about themselves, you, or the situation.
posted by inertia at 1:36 PM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I haven't read all of the replies, but I disagree with the consensus I've read so far. I don't think you should burn it. I think there's no real catharsis until you send it. Part of the point of understanding your experience is communicating it to other humans. Sharing it with the perpetrator is a way of addressing their humanity. It can open a dialog that can be helpful (if you want that) or it can at least allow you to know that you "said your piece".

I deleted a lot of these types of messages and I regret it.

As long as most of your life is not focused on this one person and what they did, or you don't spend most of your time obsessing about your enemies and writing them letters (like this happens less than once a year or so, or it has only been related to one incident), and THERE ARE NO FORESEEABLE PERSONAL CONSEQUENCES (you won't get sued, they won't send it to your boss, you aren't telling anyone's secrets, etc.), then why not have your say?
posted by 3491again at 2:30 PM on February 4, 2014

Telling someone how loathsome they are, so long as they're not a co-worker etc., might prevent harm in the future.

It might also cause it. If someone is deliberately trying to hurt someone else, and that someone else tells them that they managed, that's positive feedback. It lets the shitbag know that what they're doing, works.

There are very few people out there who hate themselves. Even shitbags often think that they're doing the right thing. Attempting to tell a shitbag that they're being a shitbag often makes them think that you're the shitbag and that they're so much better a person than you are. People rarely like to think ill of themselves.

Regarding the rape example, if a person is that awful that they're prepared to rape someone, they aren't going to care about the pain the person they attacked is going through. If they cared about things like that, they wouldn't be raping someone in the first instance. Sending a letter to someone like that might even backfire.

Living well is a far better revenge. Live well enough and you don't need revenge at all.
posted by Solomon at 2:56 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes thinking about what you actually want to achieve with the You Done Me Wrong letter is helpful in terms of working out whether you should send it. If your desire is to hurt them, it probably won't, or not as much as you want it to. If you want to wake them up to their inner defective character, it probably won't. If you want the satisfaction of ranting, it will probably work. If you want to prevent harm to someone else or justice for a crime that has been committed (in the case of rape, for example) then letter-writing won't work; going to the police will. If you want to change a person's behaviour (for example, they call you a name you find offensive and you don't feel comfortable with a face-to-face conversation about it) then it could work, but it would also be worth considering what other options there are.

I'm not actually advocating hurting someone or seeking revenge. I'm with Solomon that living well is the best revenge. But if that is, deep-down, what you really want, you won't get it by writing a letter.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:47 PM on February 4, 2014

I write letters but I don't send them or burn them. I keep them.

Long emotionally-overwrought letters aren't the stuff that opens up dialogue, if that's what you're trying to pursue. Letters should have a single primary purpose... is it for your catharsis, or is it for communication? The catharsis ones should be private, the ones meant for actual communication should be tailored and looked at several times before sending.
posted by Hawk V at 7:11 AM on February 5, 2014

All these answers are great, I marked as best the ones that most helped me personally. Thanks for all the stories and perspectives.
posted by htid at 12:10 PM on February 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

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