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Why it's important to thank your 'past self' on Thanksgiving

Psychologist suggests writing a letter of gratitude addressed to "Dear past me."
“It seems like people are really thankful for their past self going through that hard thing and they recognize the benefit to their life today,” one researcher said.
“It seems like people are really thankful for their past self going through that hard thing and they recognize the benefit to their life today,” one researcher said.Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

This Thanksgiving, take a moment to be grateful for what your past self did to help you get to where you are today.

It might be leaving your comfort zone to pursue your dreams, quitting a toxic relationship, staying in college, getting a better job, moving to a new city, standing up to a bully or not giving up during dark times.

It’s a bit trippy to think about your past self as a separate being, but the exercise can boost self-awareness, helping you feel more connected to your true self, said Matt Baldwin, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

He noticed those changes when he asked people to write a brief letter of gratitude addressed to “Dear past me.”

“It seems like these letters bring people closer to some sense of, ‘This is who I really am. These are the morally good characteristics that I’ve exemplified over my life. Things can work out for the best and I have the power to provide for myself the things I need to overcome obstacles,’” Baldwin told TODAY.

“That’s where past self gratitude is different.”

His curiosity about the phenomenon was inspired by a colleague who had tucked away a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in her office desk drawer just before the pandemic lockdowns last year and was delighted to discover it when she came back to work. The colleague told Baldwin about how happy and grateful she was that her past self had considered what her future self might want.

Baldwin and a student then recruited more than 1,100 participants who were randomly assigned to write one of three letters. One group expressed thanks to someone else for what they had done for them. Another group wrote about something positive that had happened to them. The third group expressed gratitude to their past self.

When it came to those letters addressed to the past self, the word that kept coming up and stood out to the researchers was “brave.”

“It seems like people are really thankful for their past self going through that hard thing and they recognize the benefit to their life today,” Baldwin said.

“Often people are writing about, ‘Thank you for choosing not to throw in the towel, going and seeking help, not going through with that decision to leave this life.’”

The participants most often used the pronoun “you” when writing to themselves, as in, “You did this for us and now I am like this today.”

Gratitude is a transcendent emotion that connects people to something beyond themselves and the here-and-now, Baldwin noted. All participants who wrote about being grateful — either to someone else or to themselves — felt a sense of redemption and a sense of being a morally good person, but the people who thanked their past self scored even higher on those measures.

Since starting the project, Baldwin likes to do a version of the exercise when he is sitting at dinner with friends or family. He asks them to think about what they’re grateful for to their past self and share it out loud.

He’d recommend doing it around the Thanksgiving table, if family dynamics allow. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing out loud, a letter addressed to “Dear past me” is a good journal prompt.

“A lot of times, holidays can bring up past memories or past hurts… but at the same time people are together and feeling close and cozy, and this kind of exercise might just add to that already communal connected feeling,” Baldwin said.

“Especially going into a new year, perhaps this year instead of coming up with a new resolution that you’re bound to fail on, maybe a practice of gaining some clarity on who you are, who you’ve been and where you’ve come as a way of guiding your focus into the new year could be potentially useful exercise.”