Several years ago I had the opportunity to see the Broadway musical “Hamilton” as it passed through San Francisco. In the show, there is a scene where Alexander Hamilton is reflecting on his life and tragic past. “I wrote my way out,” he says. “I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance!” That line struck me as particularly profound, given that I’m a therapist who uses expressive writing in my work with clients. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve witnessed many people writing their way out of shame and into healing.
Researchers have long observed the benefits of journaling on mental and physical health. Recent studies have suggested that expressive writing can have beneficial effects on chronic pain. Keeping a gratitude journal can also improve mood and ease depression. Although there are a myriad of benefits to expressive writing, I’d like to focus on just three:
- Journaling helps us uncover emotions that are sometimes difficult or uncomfortable for us to experience. The only real “job” of an emotion is to be expressed, but sometimes we resist doing this. We often intentionally avoid letting ourselves feel certain emotions because doing so can be quite painful. Emotions aren’t always consistent with family/societal expectations or even our own personal values. Sometimes we fear that allowing ourselves to really express our deepest and most honest thoughts and feelings will leave us vulnerable, raw, and exhausted, and bring our attention to difficult experiences that we would just rather avoid. However, as a wise therapist once told me, “Burying your feelings doesn’t make them go away--they just go down into the basement and start playing the drums!” In other words, when we don’t allow ourselves to express difficult feelings, they tend to assert themselves in other, often painful and inconvenient ways (for example, through stress-related illness). Journaling, particularly when we allow ourselves to write the brave and messy truth of how we feel without self-editing, is a powerful way to give our feelings a voice.
- Through journaling, we can better understand and clarify our own beliefs and values. Recognizing and expressing our emotions is essential to our mental well-being. However, we also need to make decisions and take committed action in our lives. Understanding our own personal values is a necessary step in guiding our choices. Journaling is a great way to illuminate which values and principles we’d like to guide our life choices.
- Journaling can help us both identify and evaluate the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our relationships, and the world at large. Humans are unique out of all the animal species on earth in that we are able to create stories about our experiences (both past and future). Sometimes the stories at work in our minds can propel us to escape difficult circumstances, but more often than we’d like to admit, the stories we tell ourselves can keep us stuck and ruminating on our fears, uncertainties, and doubts about our own value and self-worth.
We need to uncover the hidden stories within us, and this is why we journal. We write to make the implicit explicit. We write to tell the truth about what we feel and what we desire. We write to find our voices and cast off shame. We write to process grief and loss, and we write to heal. We shape and are in turn shaped by our stories. Writing helps us see the stories that are working within us at a very deep level, and when we see them on the page, we are able to gain some power to either accept those stories or begin to tell new stories. Much of the work of being human revolves around discarding the stories that are unhelpful and creating new stories that lead us to further light, growth, and hope.
Michelle Lee, LPCC
Wave of Mind™