Therapeutic Writing: Why You Should Write Like No One is Watching

In this age of writing to people instead speaking to them – via texts, emails, Facebook status and responses – it’s funny that we often don't think about writing just for ourselves. To sort things out, to vent, or just for general self-care. We are so used to writing for an audience that we forget how therapeutic it can be to address ourselves alone.

A case in point is my closest, oldest friend. I’ll call her “Jess.” She and I text each other all the time. If I feel lonely or mixed up, I think of Jess. Usually these are just check-ins:

“How is my Jess today?”

“Driving kids around. You?”

If we really need to catch up, or to dissect something important, we call. She is incredibly thoughtful and eloquent, and a first-rate listener. After a conversation with her I always feel much more clear-headed and relaxed.

Still, it’s so much easier just to text back and forth. Sometimes we even use the speech-to-text function on our phones, which strikes me as a bizarre variation on a verbal conversation. There I am over-enunciating into my phone, fixing the spelling errors, and then pushing “send.” Oddly, this is how we often end up processing the significant events of our lives.

Since we both find ourselves divorced and in our forties, we are also both navigating the vagaries of dating relationships that involve lots of “baggage.” This issue becomes the subject of many texts.

One day recently, Jess was in angst about something that had happened with a new boyfriend. She didn’t want to confront him about it, because she suspected that the problem really stemmed from her own insecurities and not his behavior. But she felt really unsettled.

Here is what I said to her in a text:

“You could write him a letter and not send it – that always helps. Or write to yourself. Or write to a part of yourself. Or write FROM a part.”

Note: by using the term “part,” I was referring to a therapeutic method that Jess and I have both been trained in, called Internal Family Systems. (I wrote about it here.) This method helps people isolate parts of themselves and get to know them with great clarity.

Jess seemed hesitant. She isn’t one to keep a journal. Writing things out has never been her habit.

“But,” I typed, “you are so articulate. You write the best letters. Why not use that ability and write for your own self?”

Jess texted back: “Hmm. Maybe I will try that.”

In fact, she took my advice and ran with it. The next day she told me she had written three single-spaced pages. She called it “stream of consciousness” writing, explaining that she just let her mind open and spill out everything that was bothering her.

Here is what she wrote to me about the experience:

“I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was.  The act of writing about my feelings, thoughts and fears purely for my own self (I imagined no audience!) was enormously helpful.  It was as if I were shedding the anxiety as I wrote.  And when I was finished, I felt much less troubled.  Maybe it was because what had been contained was now released and didn’t need to occupy my body in the same way.”

There are lots of terms people might apply to this type of writing. I like to call it “Therapeutic Writing,” because when we really tune in to often-unheard parts of ourselves, we almost always feels better emotionally. Some call it “Free Writing,” and would further suggest that the writer not lift the pen from the page, not cross out words and not worry about grammar. Some say we should always do this kind of writing by hand, as this causes us to slow down and capture thoughts before they pass us by.

Or, we might just call it “journaling.”

Of course there are many books and classes that outline methods of writing for emotional health and wellness. I named my own creation Writing from the Self (described in this video).

Ultimately, though, I don’t believe that the specific techniques matter as much as the fact that we are taking the time to write for ourselves. By doing so, we are showing self-compassion. This curiosity about our own inner life proves to us that we matter. It’s amazingly healing. Everyone deserves to feel the warmth of compassion and curiosity, and it’s possible to move beyond the habit of doing this for others, and to provide it for ourselves.