I guess it’s not surprising that writing about personal experiences has therapeutic value – it’s one reason people keep journals. But I was surprised by the wealth of evidence Tara Parker Pope cites in this article that backs that up, and even more interested in how certain kinds of writing seem to help people solve their own problems – or, to put it in a more positive way, helps them set a course toward achieving what they want.
Pope cites one practice that coaches at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute use with clients that sounds intriguing. Clients are asked to identify their goals, then write out why they haven’t achieved them. The clients tend to write the usual stories they tell themselves – which often involves pointing fingers at other people or towards outside circumstances they can’t control.
Afterwards, clients are asked to look back at what they’ve written, then edit their stories to produce a more honest assessment of what’s really in their way. In the second version of the story, they’re more likely to come up with reasons that involve the choices they’re making or attitudes or beliefs they’re harboring that they may not have been aware of. Confronting those truths leaves them better positioned to make a change.
It makes perfect sense. Our initial explanations tend to be somewhat defensive – we’re reluctant to look at our own contribution to a situation, because it’s usually a little painful to acknowledge our own responsibility. The result, though, as I see with many of my clients, is that people end up feeling stuck – wedged into some place they don’t want to be by forces they see as outside their control.
Working with a coach is one way of getting some perspective on all this: a good coach will encourage you to consider different perspectives on a given situation, and to confront some of what might be underlying your feeling of stuckness (if that’s a word) so you see your own role. But writing it all down is something you can do on your own, anytime. The commitment of writing forces us to tell our whole self-justification story from beginning to end. It then also allows us to see that story separately from ourselves, as just a story. Once it’s written down, we can step aside and look at it more objectively. And once we’ve gotten a little distance from it, we’re more likely to see what in that story is not really true. And it’s from there that real change can begin.