I’m privileged to look behind the curtain and I know it. Working with executives, celebrities, neighbors, friends and women everywhere on writing letters to their younger selves gives me a glimpse into what I think of as their interior landscape. It’s emotional territory, but studded with distinctive landmarks, just like the earth’s topography: shining pools of pure, intense feeling, hills containing sedimentary layers of inchoate sensations and stands of giant trees clustered around supercharged memories.
Most of us don’t know our way around this strange land, even though it belongs to us. Why would we? The murky terrain seems to offer little help with life’s stunning torrent of information and decisions. Exploring your Internal Kingdom won’t do much for you in real life.
Or will it? This question has nagged me ever since I began co-creating women’s letters to their younger selves. At first, I focused on the value a letter might have for readers. I was working on a book, after all! But soon I witnessed the cathartic sense of relief that my ladies, as I called them, felt. And I perceived something else that seemed arresting in its intensity: Clarity, a state of mind hard to achieve about those roiling, subterranean and previously unnamed emotions.
What was going on here? And did it make a real difference in women’s lives? I had learned that we store a lot of pain, guilt, anger and unprocessed sentiments in our Internal Kingdoms. Writing a letter to your younger self about a single moment in time and a particular struggle seems to shine a laser beam of understanding upon one’s self.
But it wasn’t until I began reading The Social Animal, New York Times’ columnist David Brooks’ recent book, that I understood why this experience resonates so profoundly—and how it can affect “real” life.
One of Brooks’ key themes is that our society overvalues reason and logic at the expense of intuitive and emotional knowledge. He argues the converse–that our success as humans is built on these subterranean processes.
“Over the centuries, zillions of books have been written about how to succeed,” he writes. “But these tales are usually told on the surface level of life. They describe the colleges people get into, the professional skills they acquire, the conscious decisions they make.”
In contrast, he says, his book’s “success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms…the unconscious parts of the mind are where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place. These submerged processes are the seedbeds of accomplishment.”
The Social Animal was exciting to read. My own intuition vibrated to Brooks’ arguments because they confirmed my experiences during the last five years. I find that when we can bring a piece of what has been submerged into the light—whether through therapy, a letter to your younger self or another form of self-discovery—we enlarge our understanding of our selves. With compassion and acceptance we usher an orphaned piece of ourselves into our conscious self-portrait.
And because so much of what we achieve begins with our idea of who we are, when our self-interpretation changes, our future accomplishments change. Odd as it sounds, I continue to feel strengthened when I occasionally read my own letter to my younger self during presentations. The struggle I wrote about hasn’t disappeared from my life. But, lifted out of the pit of my stomach, it’s now a defanged demon. My little, understandable demon. When I reread my letter it feels so good, so validating, to wholeheartedly accept this former embarrassment that I’ve come to believe the Internal Kingdom is not only worth peering into—it cries out to be known.