I discovered how therapeutic writing can be during my twenty-five years as a family therapist. During that time, I guided individuals, couples, and families and helped them deal with the pain that brought them into my office. I’ve seen my share of personal problems: mental illness, addictions, post-traumatic stress, domestic and sexual abuse, family and marital breakdown. I know that being normal means carrying both good and ugly feelings inside.
We humans have a lot to contend with during our life’s journey. Each one is unique. And sometimes there’s nowhere to turn and no one to hear our story. And that’s where writing comes in.
Writing can be therapeutic when strong emotions trouble our mind. We can’t sleep, we can’t think straight, and we can’t get on with the joys of life.
Here are 7 ways writing can be therapeutic:
1. Straight Thinking
When you’ve been assaulted by someone’s words or deeds, writing down your feelings is a form of stepping back. Getting some emotional distance.
By writing down your overwhelming feelings, those hurtful thoughts, the fear, the anger, the words that can get you into further trouble if spoken out loud, you can think more clearly about the steps you need to take.
Writing down feelings and experiences can do much to alleviate the pain. Not that writing is a substitute for therapy but it’s one way of getting the “garbage” out. It’s not unlike keeping a diary or a journal.
2. Sleeping Better
Going to sleep with troubles on your mind is certain to give you a restless night. Keeping a notepad by your bed gives you the opportunity to write down whatever is troubling you—before you fall asleep or even if you wake up in the middle of the night—so you can address it in the morning.
In this way, while you sleep, you’re keeping your worries off your mind. At least for a few hours. Sweet dreams!
3. Making Sense of Dreams
Have you woken up wondering why you dreamt what you dreamt? Whether it’s a nice but confusing dream or a nightmare?
By writing it down, you can begin to put the pieces together. Often what we dream is what is most pressing to us. By writing it down, we bring our unconscious to the surface. I love that about dreams; it’s another resource in life’s toolbox.
4. Dealing with Unfinished Business
How often have people left our lives—through death, dementia, or divorce or any other way—and we find we’re frustrated and sad because we didn’t get the chance to let them know how we felt when they were with us?
Writing a letter to your departed mother, father, child, or anyone else who was important to you is a way of discharging those frustrating feelings. Writing down what you couldn’t say when they were with you soothes the heart and softens the hurt.
I remember when my dad passed away. I wasn’t there when he died, and I needed to write him and apologize. It wasn’t the same as being there, but it did give me some relief.
5. Minimizing Conflict with Difficult People
As we go through life, we can encounter difficult people from time to time. They might be members of our own families or just acquaintances—these people who don’t listen or for whatever reason can’t hear what we’re saying. It can be infuriating, especially when they are people we love, people who bring us joy but also incredible pain by their actions and words.
Rather than confront them directly, which can lead to escalating arguments and possibly outright rejection, it helps to step back.
You can’t talk to anyone who is emotionally upset—so worked up that all they want to do is get their point across. Sometimes it’s better not to add fuel to the fire by arguing. Better to leave before the problem gets worse and write down afterward what you wanted to say but knew in your heart you couldn’t deliver.
Writing allows you to express yourself on paper and avoid a confrontation that doesn’t serve anyone, least of all yourself. It can prevent the situation from festering like an untended wound.
6. Healing Old Wounds
I find writing fiction very therapeutic; it can heal old wounds. There’s something about letting out your thoughts and feelings on the page and giving them to your characters, especially ones that are troubling.
Say you’ve had a difficult experience, and it’s still sitting in your craw. You can write it into a story or a poem or a song and discharge it that way.
I found writing my last novel, THE RUBBER FENCE, cathartic. It was inspired by a work experience I had on a psychiatric ward. It was a challenging job that didn’t go as I expected, and I met with considerable opposition.
I left after nine months, but the system I worked in and the feelings I had stayed with me. I got rid of those troubling thoughts by giving them to my protagonist, a psychiatric intern. Though I wrote a fictional story, writing it was like wiping my hands off the hurt and disappointment that was weighing me down.
So, joy of joys, I used what I learned from that tough time and wrote a book and a screenplay, and at the same time got some relief.
7. Paving the Way to Better Relationships
All of us have had those times when a relationship has soured. And it’s not because either you or the other party are difficult by nature. It’s just life. Misunderstandings crop up.
Writing can help you prepare what you want to say to improve the relationship, whether it’s with someone at home or at work or elsewhere. Sometimes in arguments, what is hoped for gets lost. It gets lost because one or both of the parties involved is too busy blaming and not listening.
If you can write your feelings down, and then edit them so that you can express what you want to without blame, you’ll have a greater chance of being heard.
Rehearsing those written words, keeping to the script, can help you deliver a coherent story.