Writing for Wellbeing: Why Writing is Good for You

writing for wellbeing

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“If you own this story you get to write the ending.”

Brené Brown

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Writing for Wellbeing

is medicare for the soul. One of the best things you can do for yourself.

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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.

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“The difference between despair and hope is just a different way of telling stories from the same set of facts.” Alain de Botton, The School of Life

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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?

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Would love to hear from you in the comments.

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Want to get serious about a regular writing habit?

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CLICK on the photo to join the free 21-Day Write Your Journey Challenge

21-Day Write Your Journey Challenge

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6 replies
  1. Felipe Diman
    Felipe Diman says:

    Hi Kerstin

    I’m new here. Still exploring the site.
    Do u really use pen and paper as writing journal?
    Why is that better than doing it in a laptop?

    Philip

    Reply
    • Kerstin
      Kerstin says:

      Hi Philip, nice of you to drop by. There isn’t any right or wrong and I use my laptop most of the time because I am simply a faster typist than I am at handwriting, plus handwriting can be tiring and I often can’t read my writing. But many writing mentors, Natalie Goldberg comes to mind, would argue that when we write by hand we bring a different quality to our writing. Writing then also becomes a physical experience. When we write on our laptops we tend to edit and the spellchecker making us aware of errors as we type can break the flow. My practice is that when I am stuck, I pull out my notebook and pen and freewrite by hand. There is something freeing about the experience.
      In my writers group we do 15 minute writing sprints and most of us do this with pen and paper in our journals. One member prefers to write on the computer and I’ve noticed that there is definitely a more controlled quality to that kind of writing, the inner critic seems to be at work constraining this particular writer; maybe’s it’s the spellchecker and the temptation to edit and delete.
      Try writing by hand and see if anything changes for you. I’d be curious to hear if you’ll find there to be a difference.

      Reply
  2. Kari Wagner Hoban
    Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I just found your blog through my friend Melanie sharing your Vietnam post and am in love with you already.
    I have been writing on my blog for almost eight years and I have said it countless times over the years that writing is the cheapest form of therapy.
    I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t get to write how I feel here and there on most days.
    My family doesn’t know what they would do with me if I didn’t write, as well. 🙂

    Reply
    • Kerstin
      Kerstin says:

      Hi Kari, lovely to meet you here and so great to hear that you share my passion for writing as therapy. It used to be one of the world’s best kept secrets, but it’s getting a lot of attention lately. Nice of your friend Melanie to share my Vietnam post. I had a quick look around your blog (I am in transit at the moment) and it appears we also share a love for what you call “garage chic”. I can’t help myself stopping at curbside collections to see what could be salvaged and turned into a fine centre piece, except these days I am often on the road when I spot such things and unable to fit anything else into my bag, but it’s fun all the same. Nice to have met you, look forward to reading some more of your writing 🙂

      Reply

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