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“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Well, we all know what a lie that one was.
Words can hurt. Before we are consciously aware of them, they slip past our cognitive boundaries into our subconscious minds and lie there, waiting for the most inopportune moment to surface and wreck our best-laid plans for having a magical, wonderful life.
One of my ex-boyfriends is a narcissistic sociopath (my diagnosis). Our relationship was short (only a couple months), but during that time he was so gifted at lying that he managed to not only steal oodles of money from me in the most conniving ways, but he also undermined my self-worth and self-trust. By the time I caught on and cut him out of my life, I was financially, mentally, and emotionally wounded.
Combining hurtful words with life’s events makes for a cocktail of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and grief, and I worried for a while that I would not recover.
But I have a not-so-secret weapon.
While it is true that something once said or done cannot be unsaid or undone, we can use words to revisit our perspective and feelings about those incidents and gain a new perspective. Words can heal us, too.
We all endure lesser traumas that need healing. Therapists’ offices are full of people who are aching with symptoms of subtle mental, physical, and emotional abuse suffered from parents, siblings, peers, and strangers.
Here are a few scenarios:
>> Someone said we were stupid. Someone said we were ugly. Someone said we were not lovable.
>> We had failures that magnified and reinforced those words. We flunked the first-grade spelling test. We didn’t make the cut on the baseball team. We never made it to the high school prom.
>> The actions of peers and adults sealed our fate even if those actions never touched our bodies: the eye rolls of ridicule from friends, those stares of disapproval down the noses of our teachers and parents, the sidelong glances and comments from strangers as we passed by dressed in something not quite meeting with their approval.
>> Finally, there were actions that directly assaulted our bodies and minds: violence, disease, and neglect.
The power of story to heal and transform lives is no secret. Simply sharing our traumas, doubts, fears, struggles, and anxieties with another person can help us feel less alone in the world and less afraid. Talk therapy works but not everyone can afford counseling.
Writing about our feelings and the events in our lives relieves symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and grief as well. Getting our thoughts, our story, out onto a piece of paper makes something happen that leads to healing. We are reflected back to ourselves. The fear, the trouble, the anxiety, the thing that is causing us trauma, tears, and trembling is outside of us where we can look at it and get some objectivity.
And it’s not so bad there, reduced to black and white (or purple or pink or green if you decide to write in color—something I urge people to do). Our thoughts, what others have told us, the endless parade of events—all of it exposed, laid bare for examination of truth and reality-testing become inert objects to translate differently if we choose.
The technique of expressive writing (developed by Dr. James W. Pennebaker in the 1990s) has been documented to be a safe and effective way for people to improve their emotional, mental, and physical health. The original Pennebaker writing prompt is well-known:
>> Write a minimum of 20 minutes per day for four consecutive days about a topic that is personal and important to you.
>> Write without stopping. Do not edit yourself and if you can’t think of something to say, write that. Just keep writing.
>> Write only for yourself. No one else is to read this. You can keep it or set it aflame later.
>> Write within yourself, not to the depths of insanity. If you feel you are about to have an emotional breakdown, stop.
Some people experience feeling sad or down after expressive writing but this generally lasts only an hour or two. I do a meditation afterward where I breathe in these feelings by giving them colors that are meaningful to me, and fill with self-love and self-trust.
Expressive writing is putting our thoughts and feelings into words and onto paper with as many details and adjectives as possible. When I run out of adjectives, I start adding color. I write in color pens and if I happen to be using my computer, I switch to a colored font.
For example, the words I wrote about that ex-boyfriend were dark red, angry. I wrote pages about my fury using dark red, angry words in a red pen or, if I was on the computer, in the dark red font. As I wrote, I unleashed a torrent of unprintable adjectives that I would never say out loud with my mind in atomic mode. Great flashes of hot white, brilliant (and exhausting) emotion were laid out, page after page. It wasn’t just anger—it was helpless outrage, screaming primal, pounding words that cannot be repeated here.
When that was done, I was sad about the episode. I switched to a dark, deep grey (I have a set of gel pens that I bless each day). I wrote weeping words not only for the betrayal, but also for the lost dreams and hopes.
How did I resolve my anger and sorrow? I wrote myself the gentle lavender words and feelings of loving-kindness:
May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.
May I be free of mental suffering or distress.
May I be happy.
May I be free of physical pain and suffering.
May I be healthy and strong.
May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.
In the morning, if I journal to write about what kind of day I want to have, I can script it in peaceful waves of earthy green. To sort out a dream I had the previous night, I might write in midnight blue. What is important is that I give meaning to the color I am writing in and I attach the emotions to the words through the colors.
Why color? Color can amplify words and feelings in writing. Not only do we choose to release visually and contextually, but we can take in what we are writing visually with feeling as well. I set my intention when I sit down to write: am I releasing, taking in, or working something out?
Artists use color to move people to feeling all the time. Writers are artists, too. Own it.
Expressive writing can be helpful for specific health problems and emotional distress. Pennebaker’s book, Opening Up by Writing it Down, provides readers with evidence of how deep writing can help relieve physical symptoms, heal emotional wounds, and make us more mentally aware and alert.
Because expressive writing is not meant to be shared, it is a safe place to write out our secrets which can help decrease blood pressure and improve our immune function. Just writing about the word “stress” helps people uncover what stressors impact their lives and how it affects their health.
Writing helps us to solve problems. One method is to write down a perplexing problem for 10 minutes to examine it in open space. Then, identify the barriers to solving that problem and write about those for 10 minutes. Finally, write for another 10 minutes about ways to overcome those barriers.
The book is full of additional ways to get over ourselves, such as the chapter on getting past our own stupidity (one that I have highlighted in numerous places). Several chapters are devoted to trauma and loss. These are the chapters that I find most valuable in helping me deal with the death of my sister.
My sister died just a few years ago from mantle cell lymphoma, which is an orphan disease with only 15,000 patients in the United States. An orphan disease is one so rare that little research is conducted on treatment or a cure. She was a year older than I, and people often called us Irish twins. We grew up being dressed alike, sharing the same friends, and although we were very different people (she had dark hair and eyes, was withdrawn, and artistic while I am blonde with green eyes, outgoing, and athletic), we shared a love of reading, horseback riding, and animals.
After her diagnosis, one hope for extending her life was stem cell replacement. I was desperate for the position, but was disqualified because I was only a 50 percent genetic match. She found a match through the donor pool and lived for three more years. When the lymphoma invaded her brain, she would call me to come pick her up from the hospital. She lived in Texas. I live in Maryland. Those were difficult and lonely conversations.
Words can be used to help us grow from our life experiences. Expressive writing is still helping me wrestle with the complicated issues of my sister’s death and my helplessness in saving her. I have begun reading and working through the exercises in Pennebaker’s book, Expressive Writing—Words that Heal.
Pennebaker offers exercises in expressive writing that give people a deeper vision of themselves lending to self-growth and self-acceptance; methods on how to break mental blocks, how to appreciate the good in a world that is sometimes bad, editing our stories, changing our viewpoints, and writing in different contexts take writing to another dimension.
For example, I sometimes wake up in the night from a restless dream knowing it has been about my sister, and I pull out my journal, a pen in the color purple, which was her favorite, and I sort it out. I may not make total sense of why I get to be older than she was when she died, but for some reason it helps to keep her alive in me.
The book offers a six-week program designed to transform our health. Beginning with the original expressive writing techniques, the exercises make us question what we wrote about, how it is current to our present life, and how our emotions and thoughts about the events we write about impact our life right now.
Additional techniques include:
>> Transactional writing: writing a letter (that we never mail) with a purpose (I wrote one to my sister in the next life).
>> Poetic writing: writing a mind/body connection poem using analogy, metaphor, and character (I wrote a poem about my aging body).
>> Storytelling: reading creative nonfiction, responding to the reading, and writing our own creative nonfiction (any one of these is a daily ritual).
>> Affirmative writing: using “I am” statements, we write our desired outcomes and feelings as if they already exist (this exercise helps me find what I already know I am capable of).
>> Legacy writing: writing about what we have valued most in our life, our purpose, and what we have learned (reestablishing connection with the gifts my life has brought me helps me to remember they are still with me).
Hundreds of studies have been conducted on expressive writing with varying results but overall showing that the method improves symptoms of depression, anxiety, and grief.
Why does writing with purpose help?
We don’t know. History is full of writers whose writing (while brilliant) did not save them from themselves: Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, and many others who died by their own hand.
Research doesn’t explain it either. In 2014, Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany and his co-researchers published the results of a study that allowed them to take fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of writers’ (both experienced and non-experienced) brains while writing. The results showed that when expert writers were writing creatively, there was “increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation” when compared to inexperienced writers.
What does this mean? Even the researchers haven’t come to a conclusion.
The left caudate nucleus is involved with storing and processing information and uses our memories to help us make decisions about our actions. The prefrontal cortex is involved in managing behavior, controlling impulses and emotional reactions, personality, focusing attention, organization of thought, planning, and prioritizing information as it competes for our attention. These areas were not as active in the inexperienced writers.
The best conclusion the researchers are willing to give is that more experience in creative writing seems to be associated with activation in these areas of our brains. As far as I am concerned, there is only one way to get more experience in creative writing and that is to write.
Okay, so my not-so-secret secrets are out. My ability to heal lies in being able to write here, write now, and write with all the authentic truth my little heart can muster. Being willing to search for that one word deeper within, and write it down, can bring about healing by helping us see our lives through new perspectives.
We can’t rewrite history, but we can write our way to a new understanding of our past into our present. It is how we live our present that determines our future.