I have used this kind of writing in my own life and found it to be profoundly healing. I have also recommended it to hundreds of patients over the past 25 years – patients of all ages – especially those who had been through an emotionally challenging or traumatic experience, who were unable or reluctant to see a counselor or therapist.
It doesn’t work for everyone – nothing does – but if it works for you it’s free therapy that you can do in the privacy of your own home at any time of day or night. It really is worth trying it out to see if can work for you.
Research has repeatedly shown that this kind of writing can improve your emotional and mental health in all kinds of amazing ways. It is very different from ‘journaling’ – it is more specific, more focused. Use the following as guidelines to get you started:
• Choose a topic or issue that you wish to write about—a person from your past, or an event. Something that upset you or hurt you. A loss or a conflict situation. Something that is unresolved for you.
• Make a commitment to write every day for 15 minutes. It gives the material a chance to simmer in you and become more concentrated, and …
• … be flexible: experiment to find out what works best for you. Some people find that they write better in bigger chunks of time (rather than smaller pieces every day).
• Choose a space to write that is private (where you are not going to be interrupted—by the telephone or anyone). Some people make it special with flowers, a picture of the person they are writing to or a candle etc.
• Choose a time to write that works for you. Night-time (before bed) can be a good time (the telephone is less likely to ring then) and your unconscious mind can process the material that comes up in your dreams. If you write last thing at night be sure to keep paper next to your bed so you can record your dreams before they melt away in the morning.
• Make sure you don’t leave what you have written lying around for others to find. Even – or especially – accidentally.
• You can write to the ‘subject-matter’ in the form of a letter (that you are never, ever going to send).
• Use a stream-of-consciousness technique when writing, just let the writing flow and flow with it. Follow every thread however odd.
• Write in uncensored detail: every single unedited thought, feeling, image or picture that comes into your mind. Every sensation.
• Don’t discount anything … however odd, unpleasant or downright ugly. Write it all down and out.
• If strong feelings surface don’t suppress them: if you feel sad—cry; if you feel angry—kick a cushion or scream into a pillow.
• As people write it is common to make connections: with other (sometimes similar) events, or other times in your life or other people.
• As you write you may have insights: about yourself, about others, about your community, about the world.
• As you write down the thoughts and feelings that are on the surface the deeper ones will have the space to float up. This part of the process is always surprising and can even be riveting.
• If you are using writing to explore a painful emotional event (like the loss of a loved one) then you will want to express any appreciations in detail and write about how this loss has affected your life.
• If you are writing about a conflict you may want to explore what it was about this person or group or situation that has affected you.
• If you find it difficult to connect with what you are writing about then choose a sentence you can write over and over to get your writing juices flowing again. It may be the first sentence of your ‘letter’.
• At some point it will feel as though you have written it all out. At some point your ‘letter’ or piece of writing will be cooked.
• At this point you will probably know what to do (if there is something to do) to complete the project. For example, if you have written to someone who is alive, who has hurt you, you may now want to write a letter you are going to send … or arrange to speak with him or her in person. If you wrote about a loss you may, through your writing, know now that you had an unacknowledged (because you didn’t know it yet) need to do perform a ritual or do something special to say good-bye.
• At this point, if your writing was a healing experience you will feel a sense of relief and release.
• You may want to read what you have written (or parts of it) out loud: to yourself or to a loved one … to share what it is you are going through. Make sure you let that person know what you want from them before you read it and be specific if you just want a ‘witness’ – someone to listen and say nothing – or if you want more than that i.e. some sympathy or a discussion.
• For certain pieces of writing (especially the conflicts) you will probably want to destroy this letter or piece of writing. You can burn or bury it—to really let it go. Your inability to do so may tell you that there is some healing, some more writing to do!
James Pennebaker is a psychologist who has taken developed this kind of writing into a technique that he has researched extensively and shown over and over how it can improve physical and psychological health. In this 5-minute video he summarizes his method.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a 27-minute program (July 2013) on Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing where he goes into more detail about the process and its effects. It is available online or as a free podcast in iTunes.
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