The teddy bear cholla sure sounds cuddly, but don’t let it fool you. The spines on these prolific desert plants are often barbed, like a little fishhook. The cactus itself grows in a collection of smaller pieces. The pieces easily disconnect from the main stem and their needles are designed to catch and hold onto anything that comes near them, like you. It’s not unusual to find them hitching a ride on your shoe, ankle, backpack or bike tire. Once they grab on, you really don’t want to use your fingers to remove them, no matter how steady and careful you think you are. You can trust me on this because, as I type this column, there is a barb buried in my thumb and my forefinger on my left hand. You can picture how they got there.
If you’ve ever had a barb break off and get lodged under the skin in your finger or elsewhere, the irritant will be with you for a while, not unlike grudges, hurts, guilt, resentment, anger and jealousy.
You can think of these negative emotions as pesky and painful little thorns that can fester and needle you until they work their way out of your system. Therapists say these prickly irritants can impede our ability to freely move forward in certain areas of our life, or in my case when typing the letter G. Ugh. Ow.
For cactus pricks, you may want to soak in warm water with some Epsom salts. For needling emotions, you might consider writing a letter, says Roy DuPrez.
DuPrez is the founder and owner of Back2Basics, a Northern Arizona outdoor adventure recovery program designed to help young men conquer addictions. “You don’t want to be constantly hating on somebody or yourself,” he says. “I’ve seen people get sick as a result of staying in these emotions.”
Part of the Back2Basics recovery process is taking a personal inventory, for example, understanding how you’ve harmed someone, or how you’ve felt harmed and what part you’ve played in that offense. “Maybe someone is feeling resentment for an institution that fired him, or a school that suspended him or a brother that hit him with a baseball bat. It’s important for the individual to come clean and reveal to himself where he was at fault.”
Moving forward may require a letter that will never be sent. “You may have been the tornado in someone else’s life and now you’re feeling great about yourself,” says DuPrez. “But you don’t need to disrupt someone else’s life to make you feel better.”
And that’s when a good heartfelt unstamped letter may be just the tweezers you need to pluck that unresolved hurt right out of your body.
There are many instances in our professional and personal lives when unfinished business – insults flung in the office, actions by associates that seem unfair, forgotten dates by our partners – get into our heads and keep us in pain. We feel bruised, but as big people, we know we’ll get over it. Or not. Therapists understand the damage we do to our outlook, our ability to focus or sleep, and our health when we swallow offenses or prickly emotions.
By the way, cholla and some of their cactus friends have hair-like spines called glochids. If one should get into your mouth or throat, chew and swallow bread. Unfortunately, bread doesn’t always help with emotional barbs, at least not for long, not even warm baked sourdough dripping with butter.
As a young reporter, I remember an afternoon of much fuming in the general manager’s office of the television station where I worked. I had felt manipulated, tricked and used by what I mistakenly thought was an authentic news source. My brain was spinning with just exactly what I wanted to say to this person. My boss was amused, but also recognized a teaching moment when he saw one. He suggested I write a letter.
Perfect! I jumped to my feet, loaded with dark energy and focused on this seething letter I was already writing in my head. However, in his calm, gentle manner, he slowed me down and told me that I would not be sending this letter. I would be tearing it up.
WHAT?! I screamed inside my heart, the way we’re instructed to do on roller coasters during the pandemic.
He just smiled, although I’m pretty sure I did not. I marched my way back to the newsroom and proceeded to write a brilliant and dramatic unmailable letter.
Later that afternoon, he strolled through the newsroom as he often did and smiled as we dashed about to meet our deadlines. I had my head down at my computer, working away on my story, although I could feel his eyes on me. I glanced up and he was smiling. “How is everything?” he asked in his no-hurry Southern gentlemanly way.
As I took a quick inventory of how everything was, I had to admit I was feeling pretty good. The letter was ripped up and in the recycle bin and I had moved on to something else. My mind and body were satisfied that the matter had been dealt with and the anger and tension were gone.
“Carrying unspoken words is like carrying rocks in a pack. They have energy and weight,” says Don Berlyn, a Flagstaff hypnotherapist who has been using the letter-writing technique in his practice for years. “Your subconscious doesn’t know time or place,” he says. “When we replay those negative hurts, it’s as if we are being hurt all over again. When you go into the past, all the senses will react as if it’s happening right now. Writing a letter to get those words out allows you to let go of that weight and be free of the unspoken past.”
But, Berlyn is very clear. These are letters you don’t send. He shares a story from a hypnotherapy course he took in Santa Fe, New Mexico, years ago. By the way, there is plenty of cactus there, too, and ways to cause yourself pain. Here’s one:
As Berlyn recalls, the instructor asked the class to participate in the letter-writing exercise. One class member wrote to his dad, angry at him for treating him like a child and blaming him for his inability to launch into the adult world.
The student mailed the letter. His father read the letter. The student was promptly cut off from the family fortune. Ugh. Ow.
Here’s the take-away. “Burning that letter turns those words and hurts into smoke and ash,” says Berlyn.
Ah yes! This is a TWO-step process. Don’t forget the burning part. FBN
By Bonnie Stevens
Bonnie Stevens is a public relations consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.