According to James Pennebaker, revered social psychologist and the pioneer of investigation into the healing power of expressive writing, one of the ways that writing about our stressful or traumatic experiences helps us is by providing us with the means to develop coherent narratives that help us make sense of things. In simple terms, if we can turn our experience into a story we can better come to terms with what has happened.
I agree with this. Taking a considered approach to documenting our experiences, writing about what really happened from our perspective, and how it affected us and made us feel, is an important part of journaling practice, and it can certainly help us to obtain clarity, understanding and ownership of our experience and its impact. This is the good part of telling our story.
Where things go bad is in the subsequent way we might attach ourselves to the story we have created, using that ever after to avoid situations that might feel threatening, or to rationalise our judgements about how others have behaved. This way lies self-pity, constraint, prejudice and assumption – all of which can accumulate into a new type of story-telling prison. This is the bad part.
Moreover Pennebaker’s research seems to corroborate this in the sense that he warns against obsessing over the same story for hours and days at a time. This is when things can get ugly. We become so entrenched in the re-telling of our story that we lose all objectivity and are no longer able to appreciate any other point of view except our own, which by this stage is more likely to err on the side of fiction rather than fact.
Pennebaker recommends spending no more than 15 minutes a day for three to four days writing expressively about a stressful and traumatic experience. Then I guess the idea is to let it go; do nothing else – the work has already been done in the telling of the story.
Personally I feel this doesn’t go far enough. For some people simply telling their story won’t be sufficient. They will naturally want to obsess about it! Therefore there needs to be a way of breaking out of stories that have held us captive for years; and there needs to be a better way of appreciating the point of view of other “characters” in our narrative.
Ultimately there also has to be a way of turning our experience around so it ceases to be a blame-filled story and begins to teach us something about ourselves, something that only we ourselves have any control over changing or addressing.
This is when the power of the story told through our journals becomes effective once again.