If you own this story you get to write the ending.”Brené Brown
Writing is good for us. It’s scientifically proven. Professor James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin conducted the first qualitative research study on writing as a tool for healing in the early 1980s. He ran a simple experiment, asking his students to write about the most upsetting experiences of their lives for 20 minutes on four consecutive days.
He found a significant increase in health in the students who wrote about upsetting events, compared to the students who simply wrote about college life. The students who most benefited from the experiment, were those who managed to overcome the resistance to write about their anger, pain and sadness early in the study and then step back and learn from it.
There have been many studies since, that confirm the health benefits of writing about both negative and positive emotions and life events.
Many of us are familiar with the positive effects of journal writing. I’ve kept a diary from an early age. When I was told that the man I loved had a terminal illness, I instinctively reached for my journal. I knew nothing of Pennebaker’s study then, but I always knew that my healing would happen in the pages of my journal. Regular journaling had trained me to be my own therapist.
So what makes personal writing so effective?
We are narrative beings: stories create meaning
What makes writing for wellbeing so effective is how we use narrative to create meaning for ourselves. Our identities are made up of the stories we tell about who we are, what has been and where we are headed.
Think about it. How do you introduce yourself to a stranger? How does the story you tell about yourself at a dinner party differ from the official self narrative you would share with a work colleague?
Every day in our heads and hearts we edit and rewrite our self narratives as we travel on the roller coaster of life. But we tend to be harsh storytellers of our personal narratives. We let our inner editor sabotage us into crafting negative self narratives. If something didn’t work out, we are a failure. We chisel away at our self-confidence about shattered dreams and missed opportunities. Setbacks can keep us frozen in negative self narratives, sometimes for a lifetime. Sounds familiar?
Here’s the good news. Writing is a way of letting go of everything that no longer serves us. We release untold stories. We name painful emotions. And then we turn the page of our journal and write on.
When we write our thoughts and feelings down, honestly and raw, we gain insight into our motivations and actions. We learn to say “Ah, I can see now why …”. That’s when we will be able to write new, healthier, self narratives.
Writing showed me that my perfectionism was holding me back. When I began to silence the inner editor, I allowed myself to write with more self-compassion about my personal story. My regular, 15 minutes free-writing sprints have made me gentler and more forgiving towards myself. My inner dialogue has become softer. Less critical, more joyful.
We are the authors of your lives
We are in charge of the narratives we tell ourselves. Learning to be the authors of our lives means accepting that we are in charge of how we shape the raw material of our lives into tender tales of redemption. Errors we’ve made and obstacles we’ve overcome can become important turning points that allow us to grow and learn.
When we are in the midst of an emotional crisis, stuck in a narrative of despair, it is often hard to see the complete picture.
Writing forces us into the witness position. By naming and describing our emotions, by sorting what is messy into sentences and stories, we can gain clarity, insight and a new perspective on our inner narrative. We become at once witness and author..
The difference between despair and hope is just a different way of telling stories from the same set of facts.”Alain De Botton
Personal writing is good for you: it’s a practice in self-care
Writing for wellbeing is a way of checking in with our self narratives. We process what is messy and painful, we name our fears, hopes and desires and we learn to identify where we need to edit our personal stories and which stories are holding us back.
In my writing classes I do a lot of timed free-writing exercises to prompts. Free-writing, without thinking or editing, helps to silence the inner critic. It’s a way of getting to the unedited version of ourselves. But writing also weaves meaning in our lives. It allows us to combine the fragments of our many selves into a coherent narrative.
A regular personal writing practice can teach us how to ask questions that provide the answers we need to craft stories that will carry us forward to the next chapter.
Writing is a lot of fun. Especially when we just write for ourselves to short writing prompts. Connecting with our creativity keeps us young. We are like children in the sandbox, playing and exploring. The letters of the alphabet are our toys.
It’s no wonder that writing for wellbeing is attracting a lot of publicity these days. It must be the world’s oldest self-help tool. It’s definitely the cheapest.
Knowing that writing is always going to be there to anchor and guide me, makes me feel safe and grounded. And it comes at the cost of a pen and a piece of paper!
What’s your relationship with writing? Do you use a journal to work things out?
Would love to hear from you in the comments.
Want to get serious about a regular writing habit?