Thursday, July 3, 2008

Expressing Emotions When Writing to Heal,

I seem to have picked up a summer cold and I'm feeling lousy (Why is it that even when I feel terrible due to physical illness, it's like cake compared to depression?), but I did want to write in response to Annie's comment on yesterday's post, Positive Emotions.

"Susan, I gave this post a lot of thought. I know what your mean about searching for the positive, even in times of sadness. In my experience with others sometimes that can be at a very slow pace and the person may remain sad or mad for some time before being in a place to find the positive. When I have been with someone who has a profound trauma or loss there is value in them having permission to work through those feelings with the faith and guidance that the positive will come in its own time. What do you think Susan? Great post. Peace Annie"

Actually, Annie, the first assignment Dr. James W. Pennebaker gives to college students and writes about in his book Writing to Heal is to write without thinking about words at all. "Remember that this is the first of four days of emotional writing. For today's work, your goal is to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the trauma or emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. For today, it may be beneficial to write about the event itself, how you felt when it was occurring, and how you feel about it now.

"As you write about this event, you might begin to tie it to other parts of your life. For example, how is it related to your childhood and your relationship with your parents and family members? How is it connected to those people you have most loved, feared, or been angry at? How is this upheaval related to your current life? About all, how is this event related to who you were in the past, who you would like to be in the future, and who are are now?

"In today's writing, it is particularly important that you really let go and examine your deepest emotions and thoughts surrounding this upheaval in your life. Remember to write continuously the entire twenty minutes. And never forget that this writing is for you and you alone."

So, I think that the post yesterday--about the importance of positive emotions--was just something that Pennebaker and his research team learned. He believes that dwelling on negative events isn't positive. Over time, that's why he came up with an exercise that take four days--or he recommends that you can write once a week for four weeks.

But, when you're done, he recommends that you move on to other topics. He feels that continuing to dwell on the negative won't make you feel good. However, focusing on the negative for a limited time frame is a critical act of healing.

So, Annie, while it took me years to deal with how angry I was about the treatment I received for this illness, I do see Pennebaker's point. In my case, I used writing to heal as a way to withstand feeling so terribly ill for so long. But, I know people who have had abusive childhoods and it seems that the more they dwell on it, the worse they feel.

You have a much better sense than I do about the value of dealing with this in therapy. But I tend to think that at some point, people have to move on in order to heal. Still, perhaps those readers who have experienced trauma and/or abuse might weigh in with their opinions on this.

Annie, thanks for your thoughts on this topic; I think this is an important discussion.
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Dear Readers,
Friday is the the 4th of July and in case you don't live in the United States and don't know this, it's a national holiday. I'll be taking a three-day weekend and returning on Monday. I hope everyone has a happy and healthy weekend!



Gianna said...

Hi Susan,
As someone who has both been the victim of trauma and also worked with those who have been victims of trauma, I think a balance has to be struck.

It is important to acknowledge the trauma and especially important to have someone else acknowledge it. During that time one must "dwell" on it---feeling anger, pain and hatred is fine at this point. At some point staying with the trauma in that way becomes counter-productive.

I was traumatized as a child for many years and I was sexually assaulted as a young adult. I was also greatly abused by psychiatry which is for now the largest trauma I am still in part processing.

I don't think about either of the first two things often anymore, but they never leave me either. Some people seem to be unable to move beyond these sorts of traumas. I don't know why and I have great compassion for them. Many people have been victim to much more heinous abuse than I had and I so I do not judge.

I am profoundly grateful that for whatever reason I have a spirit that wants to move on, that wants to love in spite of the pain I've been handed and that even wishes to forgive those responsible.

That is where I meet the most resistance in the trauma communities. That I don't want to remain burning with anger and that I want to forgive and that I want to recognize the limits of our humanity including those humans that hurt me.

It's not a linear sort of process as you can imagine...the feelings come and go throughout our lifetime and with luck we mature and deal with them better each time we are confronted with them.

Jazz said...

Yes, I think there is an important distinction to make between thinking about a traumatic event in order to process it and heal yourself and dwelling on that event. I'm not sure where that line would need to be drawn, but I suspect it would be different for everyone.

I am reminded of my mother-in-law, who suffered an extremely traumatic, abusive childhood. The effects of that abuse are still with her today, affecting both her physical and mental health. (She's an emotional eater, and so is very overweight and suffering from all the predictable physical symptoms that come along with that.) She's been in therapy on and off for years. Looking at her, I have to it possible for everyone to heal? I would have thought that time and therapy would have made some kind of difference...but I wouldn't call her healed at all. Maybe she just hasn't had the right kind of therapy? (Of course, this is coming from someone who was only in therapy for about six I really am not sure what all one can expect to get out of it...though I suspect the hard work comes from the client, and the therapist is mainly a facilitator...that's how it seemed to me, anyway). Sorry to ramble so...this post just got me thinking.

Have a great weekend!

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Thanks for your insight on this. It truly enabled me to think about the subject in a new light. I can see how important it would be to have the trauma acknowledged, although I'm assuming that will usually come from someone other than the "perpetrator of abuse."

I, too, was sexually assaulted as a young adult, and as terrible as it was, I was able to move on--and I rarely if ever think about it.

What's interesting is that I've never have written about it. But Pennebaker says that if a trauma isn't bothering you and you've made peace with it, then it's better to leave it alone.

Anyway, I so appreciate your very thoughtful response on this topic. I think it will be helpful for many people to read what you've written.


Gianna said...

I can see how important it would be to have the trauma acknowledged, although I'm assuming that will usually come from someone other than the "perpetrator of abuse."

Absolutely it's usually someone else, and it can even be a friend or a peer---it doesn't have to be a professional.

Of course, on occasion perpetrators take responsibility and will acknowledge what they've done, but in general it's better not to expect that as it's relatively unheard of.

Lots of people do get hung up here wishing or even with futility demanding that their perpetrator realize what they've done.

It's better to move on.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

Dear Jazz,
I think the distinction you make is very important. The writing I did for years about the trauma of terrible psychiatric treatment allowed me to "process" what was happening.

It also allowed me to "poke fun" at treatment that, for me, was worse than the illness.

Each time I went to some new psychiatrist, who made things worse rather than better, I would write about my experiences--the ridiculous things the person said, the "guinea-pig" method of medication he used, and ultimately how incompetent he was--and it made me feel so much better.

Also, it was my way of "fighting back." They could try and marginalize me, or medicate me so that I was so sick I could barely function--but my ability to defend myself through writing was truly my greatest way of protecting myself.

I'm so sorry to hear about your mother-in-law. It's so sad to see people who can't stop replaying the horror of abuse and or forced to be victims their entire lives.

I've always wondered if hypnosis wouldn't help, but again, this is a subject I know nothing about.

Thanks for your input on this topic. I really appreciate it.


Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

That's encouraging to know that "acknowledging abuse" is healing even if it doesn't come from the perpetrator--which I would expect would be highly unusual.

Thanks for letting us know!