How to write for greater emotional meaning, self-empathy and change
Magic happens when we engage with our inner worlds from a place of curiosity rather than fear. All those horrible human tangles of anxiety, doubt, resentment and pain can unravel when pen meets paper in the spirit of enquiry. What’s more, when we choose to share this kind of writing with the world, it helps others free themselves from their own emotional traps. Carefully chosen words can ease pain, and they do so for both writer and consumer.
You’re reading this article on Medium, so there’s a good chance you already know about the analeptic power of writing. What you may not know, however, is that there’s a trick to writing in a way that brings about positive change, and we don’t all do it naturally. Some people worsen their problems after writing about their darker experiences. If we engage with past pain it the wrong way, it can harm rather than heal.
I’m posting this article to share with you the mechanism of effective expressive writing. Whether you’re already a writer or want to begin a new practice of self-enquiry, these words will help you reap the rewards rather than run the risk of compounding your emotional issues.
What is expressive writing?
Before I explain the pivotal technique, we need to do a little housekeeping. First of all, it’s important to clarify here that I’m not talking about writing in general, but writing as a therapeutic tool. As mentioned above, some people do go on to share their musings (usually after considerable editing), and when they do, the results can be beautiful. But in its essence, this kind of writing is not about publication. Rather, it’s a personal tool for developing self-awareness, self-compassion and self-command.
I have been tasking my therapy clients with writing projects for years now. Those who engage make changes faster. They demonstrate increased courage, better interpersonal skills and they get more adept at both expressing and experiencing their emotions healthily. The price to pay for these gains is minimal. Some people make considerable leaps after composing just one or two important pieces.
How to write
In essence, expressive writing is communication at its most free. This practice pays no regard to writing conventions like spelling, grammar or punctuation. There is no character-limit nor preferred style. The only rule is that the words be authentic, emotional and, of course, expressive.
While writing, most people focus on specific events: trauma, heartbreak, conflict, failure, childhood memories. But what they write is less about these events than it is their response to them. The most effective expressive writing creates connections. It links happenings from the past and present with future projections. It explores the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that repeat over the course of our lives. This “big picture” approach helps to develop a wider web of self-understanding and a deeper awareness of the meaning that we can take from our struggles.
It’s not about finding The Answer: “I do X because Y happened to me as a child”. It’s more about observing the associations made by the mind as they appear on the page. When we write in this way, we simply follow the stream of consciousness as it downloads. And, we do so with the intention of expanding self-awareness, rather than pigeonholing our experience. Curiosity is key.
People who engage in an ongoing practice of expressive writing learn how to catch themselves mid-panic, mid-outburst or while in the grip of a destructive habit. More importantly, they learn how to take a step back at those times. The awareness developed by the practice opens up valuable windows of opportunity, within which we can take different action. It’s as if a lightbulb flickers on and we find ourselves thinking, “Wait. This is the story that I always tell when things get tough. This is my pattern”.
Ready awareness of the scripts used by our inner critics is invaluable. Only when we know that something is a pattern, can we recognise that it likely isn’t an accurate reflection of the present-moment reality. Without this awareness, however, our limiting stories feel like truth each and every time they crop up. We need to know our monsters in order to know that they are made of fiction.
But not just any writing will grant us these benefits. It’s only by learning how to engage in the correct type of expressive writing that we can use it to open up a new and better perspective on the world.
The difference comes by way of self-distancing. Write as if you’re locked into your story, and you may write yourself into a place of increased rumination and anxiety. Write from a place where you can see the bigger picture, however, and you may improve your emotional and physical health as well as let go of negative behaviours and habits.
What is self-distancing?
It’s normal to try and understand our feelings when we’re struggling and it’s important that we do so. In order to achieve this aim, we tend ask ourselves various versions of one simple question: Why?
Why am I feeling this way?
Why is this happening to me?
Why are they treating me like this?
We ask “Why?” because we want answers. But when it comes to personal problems, “Why?” can be remarkably bad at yielding accurate explanations or useful solutions. Instead, it tends to inspire a whole new string of “Why?” questions that can lead us down the rabbit hole of anxious introspection. At least, it does when we stay too close to home when we ask it.
In 2016, researchers Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk published their extensive research on the psychological and behavioural benefits of self-distancing:
We hypothesized that people’s attempts to reflect adaptively on their negative feelings often fail because they focus on their experiences from a psychologically immersed perspective, which makes it difficult for people to reason objectively without getting caught up in the emotionally arousing details of what happened to them. Thus, we hypothesized that a mechanism was needed to allow people to “take a step back” from their experience so that they could work-through it more effectively. We called this process self-distancing.
- E. Kross (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, United States) and O. Ayduk (University of California, Berkeley, CA, United States), Self-Distancing: Theory, Research, and Current Directions.
Self-distancing, in other words, enables us to ask “Why?” — and indeed “What?”, “How?”, “Who?” and any other questions we need to explore — in an effective and empowering way. It teaches us to see ourselves in a similar way to how we might connect with a struggling friend. It’s this extra space that enables the healing because it encourages self-empathy; the otherwise elusive compassionate perspective on our own behaviours, decisions and reactions.
What’s the difference between self-immersed and self-distanced writing?
People who self-distance when they write about their challenges focus less on recounting distressing experiences and more on reconstruing them in a way that provides insight and closure (E. Kross and O. Ayduk). The difference looks like this:
Self-immersive To write from a self-immersed position is to relive the event, seeing through our own eyes and feeling our emotions all over again.
To write from a self-distanced position is to create the space for objective appraisal. We may imagine that we can view a past event as if we are a fly on the wall, for example, or as an adult seeing a younger version of ourselves going through whatever we have. To self-distance is to adopt the wisdom of an unbiased or compassionate observer in relation to our own story, and to use that perspective to re-write it.
Why is self-distancing so important?
Seminal discoveries in neuroscience suggest that reliving painful experiences in an immersive way can compound negative emotions. Rather than bringing about a cathartic release, rehashing past pain can stack new layers of negative affect over the original imprint, making the memory/trauma feel worse and its effects more damaging (read more about this here: Ever-changing Childhoods).
Self-distanced reflection, on the other hand, has been shown to improve a myriad of behavioural, psychological and physiological symptoms. To highlight just a few, here are some illustrations:
Participants in self-distancing studies demonstrated significant reductions in negative affect — e.g. anxiety, resentment, guilt or shame — in the short-term after writing. In the long-term, these positive effects appear to increase rather than decrease. For example, participants in the same study estimated that they thought less about their negative experience up to one week after writing about it, and that they experienced lower levels of distress when they did.
Self-distanced reflection has been shown to attenuate aggressive behaviour. In one study, participants — divided into three groups: self-distanced, self-immersed and a control group — were asked to reflect on why they felt the way they did after being provoked by a confederate. Afterwards, those in the self-distanced condition demonstrated fewer retaliative behaviours, suggesting that this practice can positively affect the way we act as well as feel.
Finally, those adopting a self-distanced perspective when addressing traumatic events have been shown to display less cardiovascular reactivity during the process than those who self-immerse, as well as a faster return to their blood pressure baseline afterwards (Ayduk & Kross, 2008, 2010b; also see, Gruber et al., 2009; Wisco et al., 2015). These studies could suggest that self-distancing facilitates physiological recovery from stress as well as management of difficult emotions in the now.
In short, self-distancing has a lot to offer. It is, perhaps, less of a writing technique and more of a tool for a healthy and happy existence. In fact, committing the fresh perspective to paper (or computer screen) isn’t actually a necessity. You can apply this tool to your self-talk, mental imagery or use it in a conversation to reap the same rewards.
What probably will be required for the best results, however, is consistency. Deep self-awareness doesn’t show up in sitting no.1. Small amounts of reflection may enable us to overcome individual problems, but to build the kind of sage wisdom required for the most powerful self-command, we’ll need to make a habit out of creating space.
Thankfully, there are many ways to self-distance and they’re easily learned. I’m going to introduce you to four differing techniques to get you started. As we’re focusing on writing in this article, that’s how I’ll frame the following. But you can feel free to use any of these tips even when you don’t have access to a pen or keypad.
Four ways to self-distance when you write
Before we jump in, it’s useful to note that we can self-distance simply by being mindful of our temptation to become (re)absorbed in old emotions and choosing not to go there. The following are ways to help you achieve this aim, but it is possible to do it by opting for analysis and understanding over dwelling or ruminating. It’s just harder.
Option 1: Self-distance using imagery
If you’re someone who likes to think in a visual way, you can create the space required within your visualisation. Rather than remembering an event from the first person perspective, view yourself experiencing it as if you are the proverbial fly on the wall. Take stock of your body language and facial expressions in response to the external stimuli. If you were speaking at the time, notice the emotion in your voice and consider your choice of words. Observe your behaviours and decisions as if you’re watching someone else making them.
“When I look back, I can see that I was responding more to the tone of his voice than what he was actually saying. As I listen to him, I look like I’m shrinking and regressing. It’s like I’m being told off by a teacher at school…”
From the self-distanced vantage point, you’ll have access to information you hadn’t considered before. Stay open to the nuances that you would otherwise have missed. Be aware of any desire to construct a visualisation that simply compounds your old story, and keep your mind alive with questions:
What’s the real issue here?
Why is this person (you) responding in that way?
What are they (you) doing that makes things worse/better?
What else is this trigger-and-response like?
Are there any other associations or memories that come to mind when you view the event in this way?
Which emotions you can see that this version of you is feeling, and how are they expressed?
The most illuminating details often surface when expressive writing follows a tangent. So, even though you start with a certain event in mind, you most certainly don’t have to stay in that scenario. Just make sure that, when switching to secondary memories or topics, you take a moment to create the distance each time.
Option 2: Invite an “important other” into the scene
The perspective of an objective (or compassionate, wise) observer can be enormously powerful. In a recent study, five-year-olds demonstrated an improved ability to overcome challenges when asked the question, “What would Batman do?” As cute as that option is, your observer needn’t be a superhero. Consider inviting an insightful friend, caring grandparent or an important teacher/mentor into the scene. Pick anyone whose point of view you might benefit from modelling, and then step into their shoes.
“When I imagine the situation through my teacher’s eyes, I see a frightened child who just doesn’t have the understanding. She feels like she’s the cause of her parents’ arguments and bears a weighty sense of responsibility to set things right. But that little girl is not at fault. I can understand why she’s hurting; her parents are too wrapped up in their own pain to provide her with the support she wants. She needs to know that just because her family aren’t in a position to show her love doesn’t mean that she’s not worthy of it.”
Note: I’ve written these examples to demonstrate the kinds of thought processes that might arise in your writing. When you apply these techniques to real-life problems, you needn’t try to resolve things so quickly or fully. Expect some messiness. In fact, welcome it, because the tangles are where the insights hide. Just be careful not to get caught inside them.
Option 3: Avoid using the pronoun “I”
You can self-distance by writing to yourself using your the word “you” rather than “I” or “me” — a little like writing yourself a letter. In doing this, you can offer the kind of advice you may give a friend, and you can raise the questions you really need to answer.
“You’re feeling pressured into doing something you don’t want to do. You feel like there’s no option but to comply, but is this really the case?”
You can also use third-person pronouns such as “they”, “she”, or “he” (or your own name) as if you’re writing a story about yourself.
“James is nervous about the recital. When he imagines the audience’s eyes on him, a shock of adrenaline rushes through his chest and throat, restricting his breathing and preventing him from speaking. He tries to push the dark thoughts out of his mind, but memories of all the times when he’s frozen on stage keep flooding in…”
This technique may be the most effective when adopting a self-distanced perspective in your self-talk (i.e. in thought rather than writing). In a study concerned with social anxiety, a group of students were told that they were going to be judged on their ability to make a good impression on a member of the opposite sex. The aim was to induce stress. Before the test, they were asked to reflect on their nerves using either first-person or non-first-person pronouns. Judges rated the performance of those in the non-first-person group to be better overall. Those who avoided the word “I” also reported significantly lower levels of anxiety when interviewed after the interaction.
So, if you’re struggling with the pressure of an imminent event, pausing to reflect on your inner experience in either the second- or third-person could be a good — if a little odd-seeming — idea.
Option 4: Focus on your future self
Finally, while writing about a challenge in your present day life, asking yourself the question, “How will I feel about this in a week/month/five year’s time?” can create the required distance temporally. By imagining looking back on the event, rather than viewing it from deep inside the emotional fog, we draw to our attention the impermanence of our current situation. This is a powerful thing. Creating the space temporally also prompts us to consider the actions we might take to overcome the challenge, as well as the growth opportunities it will most likely provide.
“When I look back on this competition from one month afterwards, I can see that this is just another race. It feels important now, and I’m coming up with rationalisations to convince myself that this meet means more than all the others. But really it’s just another step on my journey. Win or lose, competing at this event will teach me how to nail down my game-plan. If I take things step-by-step now, I’ll learn more about what works and what doesn’t.”
Keeping it beautiful
Confession: If I was coming to this for the first time, I’d probably say, “No, thanks. I don’t want to write in that way.” If you’re thinking something similar, I hear you. But, regardless of how the somewhat canned examples above might appear, self-distancing needn’t produce cold nor overly-analytical writing. And it doesn't have to read like a self-development exercise either.
The best and most insightful writers I know self-distance automatically. What’s beautiful about their art is the wisdom that shines through their honest explorations. It’s the candid but drama-free expression of their feeling selves that captivates, rather than the stifling sense that they’re trapped inside their own stories. This kind of writing is inspiring because instinctively we sense the power of their perspective and want to model it for ourselves.
So, if you want to use self-distancing for more than just getting past an argument with your partner or some pre-competition nerves, you can absolutely keep it beautiful. Consider incorporating a self-distanced step into your writing process — perhaps you could use it for the first draft only, or as a deepening process mid-way through.
Whenever you do take a step back, spend time searching for the words that really resonate with your emotional experience. Just because you’re creating space, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to feel. Quite the opposite, in fact. This perspective facilitates a more complete emotional experience by reducing the urge to resist. It enables the bravery and compassion required to get your whole truth down on the page, rather that the convenient, easy or the (possibly most damaging) self-pitying version of events.
This work can be challenging. When you write about really difficult things, you may need to navigate all sorts of unconscious opposition; fear, anger, resentment, dissociation, procrastination or even sudden and unexpected sleepiness. It can be a battle, but it’s more than worth it. What you end up with is writing that expresses and permits your vulnerability as well as your courage to create meaning and change. It allows you to be honest about your emotions without allowing them to overwhelm you. It means you can to write from the heart without getting lost inside it.
In other words, self-distanced writing teaches you on-paper how to live your off-paper life in the way that can yield the most happiness, success and inspiration. Expressive writing not for the faint-hearted, no. But it may be one of the best routes towards a wholehearted connection to the Self, the Other and everything in-between.