Writing heals! When you take out a notebook and pen to write about your feelings or life events, you may not realize that you’re taking an important step in creating good health—not only emotionally but physically. According to research by Dr. James Pennebaker and others about how writing heals, writing not only heals trauma and helps to resolve inner and outer conflicts, but it helps to heal such diseases as asthma, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Other studies have shown progress for depression, improved recovery from breast cancer and high blood pressure.
In addition, there are the emotional advantages. Writing helps to relieve stress and sort out our thoughts and feelings. When they are on the page, they read and sound differently than rattling through our head. In our lives, we may find ourselves caught up in conflicts with friends, family, and co-workers, and wrestle with feelings of anger and frustration, sorrow, and feelings of isolation. In the course of a normal life, these things happen but too often, there’s no one who is able or willing to listen to us. We need understanding, we need witnessing. Writing offer this special witnessing to us. By writing the truth of what we feel, we return to balance.
This is the first day of the rest of your life.
If you are over the age of fifty, you may remember the saying that popped up in posters and cards in the sixties—This is the first day of the rest of your life! What a call to action, to grab this one day and within these twenty-four hours, make a difference in our lives. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? And yet, it is in the now where we fulfill our dreams. We can begin writing today. We can change our perspective today.
You may have this passion as the day begins, but then so many distractions, so many reasons not to write arise. We have busy lives—the house needs to be cleaned, the laundry done. Cooking, shopping, answering the phone. These impediments to writing will always be there. How do we write anyway? How can we decide whether these tasks should be done, or if they are simply the voice of the inner critic?
That critic voice might whisper, “You are not a writer; you don’t have time for this.” Or you find yourself thinking, “What I write can’t really make a difference. Besides, it would be so terrible, what’s the point.” Or: “I shouldn’t waste my time on writing these terrible first sentences. There must be a better, easier way.”
Some people don’t write because they worry about the kind of feelings that might arise. “What if I get upset? Some of my memories are not happy. Why bring them up again, and wallow in them. I should just stay in the present.”
These reasons are logical, and yet there are powerful reasons not to let them stop us.
In school we are trained to learn math, history, English, science, and other technical subjects, but our emotional education goes by the wayside. Training for our emotional life is whatever emotional or philosophical nuggets our parents were able to give us. As we grow up in our family, and go through school and society, we learn that feelings should be suppressed. We learn to ignore them, to be ashamed of them, and try to avoid having them.
Of course as we grow up, we do need to learn to be appropriate with our feelings, not to blast or overwhelm other people with them, but we also need to find a healthy way to release or communicate our feelings. Most of us are taught to be nice and polite, to suppress and repress feelings, leaving them tangled up inside us, with no model for how to solve or resolve them. We pass our math exam, but end up with feelings and memories that can make us feel bad.
Feelings are fleeting—we feel happy, we feel sad; we feel down and discouraged, or we might feel bursting with positive energy. Sometimes our feelings simply need an outlet that doesn’t hurt anyone. We can’t fly off at the boss, and we are supposed to treat our parents, elders, and neighbors with respect. But what about the way the boss gave another person a raise instead of you? What about parents who don’t play fair, have favorites, or refuse to discuss issues that come up in the family? What about a husband and wife who don’t know how to resolve conflict, and who don’t consider therapy an option. Yes, writing can help.
Writing as a Creative Act
Pen and paper can be your best friend. The objections to writing that I mentioned above are common. Everyone has his or her own “Critic-censor” which discourages self-expression. Small children are wonderfully self-expressive—they dance freely and without worry, paint pictures, and sing songs they make up on a whim. They write poems and tell stories without worrying what others think. Somehow this all changes as we grow older.
In order to connect to the whole creative, spiritual being within, we need to free ourselves, and allow our own unique voice to be heard. Writing is one way to do that.
Journaling and Freewriting
Several approaches to writing help to free our voice and help us express our ideas. The first is to “freewrite,” to journal, to say whatever comes to your mind. Since many of us hold in our opinions, the invitation to freely speak can sometimes be daunting and even cause guilt responses.
“Well, I’m sorry for saying it that way—that wasn’t very nice.”
“I feel guilty for telling the truth, but…”
“Even though my family doesn’t know what I’m writing, I feel superstitious about it—as if they will somehow know when I write the family secrets.”
“Don’t air the dirty laundry—that’s what I was always told.”
Writers tell me about these internal voices all the time.
Women often feel the need to censor themselves if they are angry or displeased, even on paper though the object of their anger will never see it. The women I coach are often apologizing for what they say and how they say it. They worry about the judgments others might have if they are not always supportive, giving, and understanding. And then there is the pressure in our society for men to be macho, and not to express themselves with feelings. If as boys they were “sensitive” or artistic, they might have suffered abuse or ridicule. Men who enjoy the world of feelings, poetry, and self-expression learn to keep these things to themselves, yet many of the published writers and poets are men, so this should give men permission to express whatever is in their hearts freely and openly. Both sexes need to find their voices and to be brave about stating their truths.
Telling the Truth
Telling the truth is freeing and healing. Our writing time offers us an invitation to write freely and tell the truths we have avoided to ourselves as the first witness to our most secret thoughts. Because the truth of negative feelings is the most criticized, we need to give ourselves permission to say what we’ve been told to keep secret or silent. In doing this, we are freed of the power of the negative, and the secrets hold no more power over us. We can witness the angry part of ourselves and then feel ready to have other feelings pour in—from relief to guilt. If we feel guilty then we write about that guilt, peeling off another layer of truth.
How to write what’s true:
- Write down all the things that bother you, no censoring.
- Give yourself permission to say it like it is, don’t be polite. No one will know.
- Write everything from your point of view first. Then, if you want to turn your story on its head, write a story from the point of view of the person you disagree with.
- Write for 15 minutes without stopping. If you need more time, write for another 10 minutes.
- Write in flow—without taking your pen off the page.
- If you don’t know what to say next, just freewrite your thoughts, “I’m sick of writing, I don’t know what to say, I’m finished with this—oh yeah, now I remember…” and go on writing.
- Make a list of the truths you hold secret.
- Write a story you always said you would never write.
- List all the guilt voices that you hear as you write the story, and afterward.
- Write a list of family secrets.