“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” Gaston Bachlard
According to Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a healing modality, when a person translates a painful experience into language, the experience, itself, becomes more tangible, and the person is better able to understand it. This understanding manifests itself through reduced anxiety and depression, significant drops in physician’s visits, positive effects on blood markers of immune function, and lower pain levels and medication usage.
In his book, “Opening Up,” Pennebaker goes on to state that, “Writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of grade-school children and nursing home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum security prisoners, new mothers, and rape victims. Not only are there benefits to health, but writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades, and . . . aid people in securing new jobs.”
Most of Pennebaker’s research is based on a journaling paradigm in which the writers are instructed to write their deepest feelings about some emotionally disturbing event that has affected their lives. They are told to write for twenty continuous minutes every day for four consecutive days. Akin to morning pages, this type of writing is what I like to call a “brain dump.” A devoted follower of Julia Cameron’s, “The Artist’s Way,” I have been doing this type of writing for many years and have found it both therapeutic and soul cleansing.
Other studies introducing a variety of writing topics have also produced health benefits comparable to Pennebaker’s. In one such study, previously traumatized students were asked to “write about an imaginary trauma rather than something they had experienced directly. Their results indicated that writing about someone else’s trauma as though they had lived through it produced health benefits comparable to a separate group who wrote about their own traumas” (Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative, Pennebaker et al. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 55(10), 1243-1254, 1999).
In an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Smyth, Stone, Hurewitz, and Kaell, state that, “Research has demonstrated that writing about emotional traumatic experiences has a surprisingly beneficial effect on symptom reports, well-being, and health care use in healthy individuals.” The article goes on to say that “patients with mild to moderately severe asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about stressful life experiences had clinically relevant changes in health status at 4 months compared with those in the control group” (JAMA 1999;281:1304-1309 Journal of the American Medical Association).
With such an abundance of research proving the health benefits of writing, one would think that everyone would want to jump on the journaling bandwagon. Seriously, you would think there would be a run on the stores. Journals would be sold out. Pens would be in short supply. People would be fighting over who was going to get the last spiral notebook. Some might even be forced to take the Kerouacian route of writing on rolls of tracing paper. Sad to say, such is not the case.
Okay, to be perfectly honest, I’m not all that sad about it—hey, if people don’t want to gain the health benefits of writing, that really is their business. Their lack of interest just leaves more journals and pens for me to scarf up, and God knows I do scarf them up. Right now, I’ve got seven journals sitting on my desk: my morning pages journal, my day-to-day journal, my quotes journal, my meditation/prayer journal, my positive affirmation/vision board journal, my poetry journal, and one of my dream journals—the other dream journal is on my nightstand. I also have stacks of notebooks filled with ideas, thoughts, and sundry musings.
So . . . back to my question. If writing has been proven beneficial to a person’s health, and it has, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, to be perfectly honest—some people just don’t like to write. Yeah—I know what some of you are thinking. How is that even possible? Hey, I’m right there with you; but it’s true. There are people out there who really do not like to write. Some of them have gone so far as to tell me they would rather chew on ground glass than to write. Never fear my non-writing friends. There are other creative outlets for your emotions. Some of you might find painting or sculpting more to your liking. Others might gravitate toward music or dance. In my opinion, the medium is not as important as the outward expression of the inward emotions. And that glass thing . . . yeah, you might want to rethink that.
On the other hand, many people do not write because they are afraid. This fear can wear many masks. For the victims of childhood trauma, this fear is usually deeply rooted in the “no talk rule.” Every abused child knows this insidious rule all too well. “What happens in this house stays in this house—or else.” It’s the or else that gets us. I lived with this fear for a long time. Like a scarab, it nibbled away at my soul. I could feel its tiny metal-like claws digging into me every time I thought about telling my story. It kept me in its painful grasp for a long time; but once I decided to break the silence, to speak my truth, it had to release me.
Some people fear their anger and think that if they start writing about the trauma they suffered they will lose control. It’s understandable really. Those of us who have suffered traumatic experiences know what it’s like to have control taken from us. We know what it’s like not to be able to express the anger we are feel at having been violated. The key here, however, is that the anger you might think you’re in control of could very likely be in control of you. Pretending you’re not angry is not the same thing as not being angry. Just ask anyone who has had to endure living with a passive-aggressive personality.
Anger does not magically disappear. Like the scarab of fear, it simply burrows deep into your psyche and waits for the right moment to break free. Usually the breakout will occur when you least expect it. More often than not, it will happen in middle of one of the most horrendous days of your life. The kids are acting like wild animals—yeah, at least one of them is licking something off the floor. You missed that big deadline at work. Dinner is late and that mess little Bubba is licking off the floor contains the last ounce of milk in the house, so cereal is definitely out of the question. And your significant other—yeah, well, he’s acting like a Neanderthal and his grunting is getting on your last nerve.
Unfortunately, the anger that erupts has less to do with the irritating events of that day than it does with the traumatic events of your past that you have refused to deal with. And more often than not, the person who is the recipient of your rage had nothing to do with what you are feeling. Trust me; I know. Both of my parents took their rage out on me. As a child, I didn’t understand it. As an adult, I see that their refusal to deal with their own childhood traumas resulted in my being forced to relive those traumas with them.
Other writing fears include not being good enough, being embarrassed if someone reads what you wrote, and/or being judged by what you have written. As far as not being good enough goes, writing for healing takes many forms. In journaling, you are writing for yourself and no one else; therefore, you should not concern yourself with whether you are good enough. Of course, you are; this is your journal, your story, no one else’s. You are the only person who is ever going to read what you have written—unless you choose to share it with someone else. So please put this fear to rest.
As far as being embarrassed if someone reads what you wrote, you are not the one who should be embarrassed. The person who read your private journal is. And as far as being judged, you don’t have control over another person’s opinions. You do however have control over your reception of those opinions. You get to chose whether to accept those opinions or not. My advice, don’t accept them. Any person who would read your private journal without your permission doesn’t have the right to judge anyone.
Victims of trauma carry a lot of shame and guilt on their backs. I know I did. Too embarrassed to speak up, I stuffed all of my shame and guilt into a coarse burlap sack and like the Pilgrim in “Pilgrims Progress,” trudged my way through life straining under its heavy load. It took me many years to understand that I would never be free of that guilt and shame until I gave it back to the people to whom it rightly belonged—my abusers. In my journals, I did just that; and eventually, I grew strong enough to stand up and speak my truth publicly. Making my writing public, followed quickly.
My journey, thus far, has resulted in two completed novels, and I am currently working on number three. Getting to this place has taken a great deal of time and effort. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to start writing about family abuse and its generational legacy. Of course, I don’t believe my writing could have taken any other direction. Family abuse and its generational legacy were the prima materia upon which my world was constructed. In my novels, I have used that cellular memory to deconstruct the faulty paradigm of family abuse and create a brand new model. In my books, there are no victims—only victors.
If you choose to make your writing public, and no one is saying that you have to, remember that this is your story, no one else’s. You get to tell it your way. You cannot control the public’s reception of the material, but you can control how you choose to view that reception. It really is all up to you. You have a right to tell your story. You have a right to speak your truth. Remember, “To name the world in your own terms, to tell your own story, is an act of authority and power. When you write, you are saying, in effect, ‘I have a voice. I have a story. This is what I have to say.’” Rebecca McClanahan
So . . . are you ready to start speaking your truth? Are you ready to tell your story? In the next installment in the “Heal Yourself: Heal Your World” series, we will take a more detailed look at the process of journaling—to include some of the different types of journaling and how to get started. After that—well, we’ll just have to see how much farther down the rabbit hole we can go.
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