Not talking about important issues in your life poses a significant health risk’ – James Pennebaker, Expressive writing: words that heal
As psychologists and coaches, we are very concerned with how people’s experience impacts on their work, life and well-being. Much of our work is, in one way or another, about helping people to tell their stories and make sense of them. It is this that then leads to decisions about what to do next, or perhaps a new insight into an old situation.
Telling each other stories is one of the oldest human activities. We’ve done it for communicating events and emotions, for asking for and offering help, to solve problems, to pass on information – and for entertainment and comfort. It’s an essential part of being human. As acclaimed writer Joan Didion says, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ It’s as important as that.
But often emotional barriers will prevent us from telling our own stories, sometimes even to ourselves. Shame is a powerful emotion that can keep us quiet, sometimes for our whole lives. Fear is also a key barrier. If we tell our story – of how we were bullied at work, or how we feel really proud of ourselves for winning a new contract, or whatever our experience is – what will our colleagues and bosses think of us? What do we want them to think of us? Will there be negative consequences or arguments? Does it simply feel too embarrassing to tell our story?
These are not unrealistic worries in many organisations, or in groups of all descriptions – perhaps families, or religious groups, or whole industries, as well as our work environments. We can begin keeping quiet from a very early age. Most of us quickly learn what are acceptable stories to tell about ourselves and what aren’t, in any particular setting. But as psychologist James Pennebaker has found, there is a high cost to be paid, potentially, for not telling our stories.
His pioneering work, throughout a long career at the University of Texas, has shown us the value of using writing to tell our stories. One of his breakthrough studies had participants signing up to write for fifteen minutes a day, for four consecutive days, about a traumatic event or period in their lives. The important instruction for this is that people were told to really let go and write about their deepest emotions and thoughts. Even if they had not experienced trauma, they were encouraged to write about conflict or stressors. They didn’t have to show anyone else what they wrote (though James Pennebaker’s team subsequently did plenty of analysis of people’s writing with fascinating insights into our use of tiny, social, ‘function’ words – see his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, for more).
In the expressive writing study, he found that participants who had written like this (as opposed to writing about non-emotional topics which is what the control group did) were much less likely to have physical health problems in the subsequent weeks and months. People sometimes felt very sad during the process but in the longer term their emotional health and resilience was improved. Both parts of that were important, to experience the full range of appropriate emotions.
Naming and communicating our experiences, to ourselves and others, is how humans move through the world. In fact, we can’t avoid doing it. We all have conscious and unconscious inner narratives about ourselves. Sometimes they keep us stuck – that we are a victim of circumstance, or that we are no good at certain activities or tasks, for instance. Or alternatively, we may have a narrative that doesn’t allow us to be vulnerable.
If we can name emotions and create a more conscious narrative, we can shape how we move forward, and how we view ourselves. David Drake, a key researcher and practitioner in the field of narrative coaching, has written extensively about how we can help each other shift those narratives into something more constructive if we need to. What story we’re telling ourselves (and other people) makes a