I had the privilege of being on the Donna Seebo show yesterday. And when I say that it was a privilege, it really was. It is not often that I find someone who so fully understands the power of an Integrated approach to health and medicine. Toward the end of the call an interesting question came up about the value of journal writing in healing. I am a firm believer in it, I recently reviewed a terrific book by Sheppard Kominars on the topic and I have published a reading list on Amazon.
There is some empirical research to show that journal writing can improve our physical and mental health (1, 2, 3, 4). Why should this be?
One of our most fundamental and enduring needs is to tell people our stories. And even more than that: to leave our stories as the records of our lives. Our stories define us. They are the vehicles of meaning and they serve as the narrative of our views about our world and ourselves. And our stories create our legacy. We all constantly tell stories that shape virtually every human activity from our emotions to our personal relationships and our politics.
It has clear evolutionary advantages to be able to tell good stories, not only for social cohesion, but also as a device to pass on wisdom. But perhaps most of all, storytelling is a device to help us make sense of the world about us.
Jerome Bruner has indicated that children acquire language in order to tell the stories that are already in them. We learn through story telling. The brain breaks down when we no longer manage to make sense of the world around us. Patients with schizophrenia seem to lose the ability to tell a coherent story about themselves or about the world around them.
I am reminded of the tragic letter written by Dimitri Koesnikov, the young Russian submariner on the Kursk who continued to write a letter to his wife, even when he knew that death was inevitable, or the passengers on the Japanese jet liner that crashed in 1985. As the plane went down, people were writing letters. Or people in the Warsaw ghetto who wrote letters and poems even when they knew that they only had minutes to live.
Writing our stories introduces another dynamic: most of us find that putting out thoughts and feelings down on paper helps to give us mental and emotional clarity. Writing helps us to express our individuality and to make connections with others.
Our memories are not just videos of our life events; they are dynamic and malleable and are constantly being edited. So we can change our stories, and with that, remove some of the restrictions that they have imposed upon us. This is not an invitation to enter into a fantasy world or to start lying to yourself or to other people, but is instead an incredibly valuable tool to clear some of the blocks I our lives.
It is a good practice to think through your stories every day. If you care to write about them, that is even better. We need to answer the question: “What are the stories that have defined who you are and how you act?”
When we think about our relationships, isn’t it true that the ones that matter the most and have the most emotional charge attached to them are those in which our stories are intertwined? How often have you met an old friend, after a gap of many years, and found that you no longer have much to talk about, because your stories have diverged so far? How many people maintain family relationships even when their respective stories have nothing in common? Maintaining a relationship out of duty is unfair and disingenuous. Either the stories need to be repaired, or the relationship is doomed.
As an exercise, I would like you to examine some of the dominant stories that have determined some of your personality and your character. And I would then like you to write a brief story about how you would like your life to be.
To help you get started, let me make some suggestions:
• What is your favorite type of story?
• What is the first story about your family that you remember hearing?
• What are your favorite stories about yourself as a child?
• What are your favorite stories about yourself as an adult?
• Who are the key characters in your life story?
• How many of the key characters know each other?
• Does your life story have a plot line?
• Could you create a better one?
• What stories would you like others to tell about you?
• How would you like your story to end?
I would love to have some feedback if you find this helpful.
“A man's mind is hidden in his writings; criticism brings it to light.”
--Solomon ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol (Spanish-Hebrew Poet, Neoplatonist Philosopher and Mystic, c.1021-c.1058)
“Writing is a form of therapy; how do all those who do not write, compose, or paint manage to escape the melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human condition?”
--Graham Greene (English Writer, 1904-1991)