Therapeutic writing is writing to heal. Through writing individuals can connect experiences with feelings and move towards integrating a traumatic experience into an overall narrative of resilience. The first rule of therapeutic writing is that feedback must be entirely affirmative. The person’s language and voice must be heard in the writing and supported by the reader. Therapeutic writing, while it may naturally lead to an increased interest and curiosity about reading and writing in general, is an end unto itself. It is a process of personal discovery.
Writing offers a non threatening means in which to share an experience with a negative impact, often making additional discoveries about that impact in the process of writing the story. Unlike talk therapy, once a story is written it has an undeniable permanence.
Any article about therapeutic writing is likely to reference James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D. because he has been researching and publishing articles about the efficacy of therapeutic writing for thirty years. In his book ‘Expressive Writing, Words that Heal’ Pennebaker writes that some researchers believe ‘the benefits of expressive writing may be the result of increased exposure to trauma, sometimes referred to as habituation.’ while ‘Other researchers explain that the benefits of expressive writing come from identifying, labeling, and integrating negative emotions into the broader context of one’s life.’ From my experience in facilitating workshops with adolescents, senior citizens and survivors of domestic violence, I find the latter explanation to be much more plausible.I’ve worked with many individuals who were stuck in a well-worn rut of a story about something traumatic that happened to them. Through re-telling and re-living the story, they fell so far into the rut that they became the story, and the rest of their life was cast under its shadow. It could be a one-time event, or an ongoing situation they were subject to. It is our instinct, as empathetic beings, to feel an obligation to listen to the traumatic story patiently as many times as it needs to be told. And there is that belief that a type of immunity, or ‘habituation’, as Pennebaker writes, can be developed by telling a story enough times that it looses it’s traumatic effect.
My experience working with people has demonstrated that unless the narrative has purpose and is contextualized; the impacted individual may never get past the re-telling and re-traumatizing. I worked with a woman whose family suffered a deep trauma. For a year after the trauma she spoke about it repeatedly to her friends. Through telling the story alone she did not progress beyond what I would describe as a visceral reaction to the event. Through this constant re-telling she was re-traumatizing herself, never moving beyond a point of disbelief and intense immediate pain, as if the event had just occurred. She told me she finally was able to take control of the narrative through reading books about people who’ve had similar experiences. When she was able to contextualize the experience and understand that she wasn’t alone she was able to move on, putting the trauma in a distinct time and place in her past, thereby integrating it into her life as one part of her life story.
In a workshop with a group of adolescents, a fourteen-year old girl wrote about being used by a boy who abandoned her when she got pregnant. Overwhelmed by what she’d shared, although she continued attending the group, she was not able to write any thing further as part of that group. While she did not write a lot, what she wrote was profound. She told me ‘I could write it but I could not say it.’ While it was a lot for the other young people in the group to hold, everyone was respectful in bearing witness to her story and supportive in her sharing it. I don’t think I would have learned of that deeply sad and disappointing experience of this girl’s if we hadn’t had our writing group. As a result, I was able to offer her additional support outside of the group.
Working with youth in an alternative to incarceration program I found writing projects to be very affirming for youth in the program. While initially they were wary of what seemed like a school like experience and setting, once engaged in the writing they became enthusiastic about the expressive opportunities and very interested in one another’s stories. Unlike school, there was no grading, no critique, no spelling or grammar corrections. They were unimpeded in their relaying their straight up narrative. There was even one participant in the group who would not write. We sat with him and transcribed his story. When the page with their words was printed out, he literally ran to share it with the group. As I wrote in the introduction of the compilation of their stories that was published as a result, “The stories are published here exactly as they wrote and edited them. They are vivid, immediate, creative and sensitive. These are their stories, stories that are important to them, that they wanted to tell.”
This speaks as well to social works core values of self-determination, meeting the client where they’re at, and social justice.
Finally, we have to be aware that tapping into the creative self can sometimes unleash surprising feelings and emotions. We can’t be sure how participants may respond to their own feelings, or the feelings expressed by other group members. As social workers, we have to be aware of these things and be prepared to offer appropriate support to the individual and the group.
Therapeutic writing has great promise when executed in a competent and sensitive manner. Bringing a strengths perspective to the work, meeting the clients where they’re at, cultural competency, social justice, self-determination, these all come into play when using this therapeutic approach. The synthesis of social work values with creative expression makes for a powerful combination with great potential.