GETTING STARTED WITH REFLECTIVE WRITING
Like the “Quick Start” instructions that come with a new cellphone or laptop, this section gives the basic information needed to begin a practice of reflective writing. Links to additional material appear at the end of this section.
1. Reflective writing means taking about twenty minutes a day to spend quality time with yourself, as you would with a good friend. There are no assignments or requirements, and it’s perfectly okay to go off on tangents. In fact, what seem to be tangents might tell you a lot about what’s on your mind and how you feel.
You may already know what you want to write about, but if not, some good ideas are available here.
2. Reflective writing is a time to set aside self-criticism and be supportive of yourself. That doesn’t mean telling yourself that something is okay when it isn’t, but rather supporting yourself in the grief, guilt, or shame you might feel at having made a mistake. Far from being a cop-out, writing nonjudgmentally and compassionately about a painful experience, or one that arouses guilt or rage, is an effective way to put it in perspective and, where appropriate, take remedial action.
3. An important tool for maintaining a practice of reflective writing is to learn that it really is okay to stop after a set period — typically twenty minutes. Although it might be hard to find time to write regularly if it takes too long, that’s not the main reason for the time limit. Learning to give yourself permission to gently set aside an emotionally gripping train of thought rather than feeling compelled to go on and on with it is an important element of the practice. The idea is not to deny or reject thoughts or feelings, but to put them in perspective as thoughts and feelings to which you can return when it’s productive to do so, without being caught up in them.
If that’s something you’ve had trouble with, you might want to try the reflective writing exercises suggested at Project Monkey Mind to liberate yourself from repetitive thoughts.
4. Reflective writing has only one rule: don’t keep writing the same thing. It’s fine to vent painful emotions or experiences in an initial writing, but as common sense suggests, writing the same negative story over and over will only make things worse. The purpose of reflective writing is to step back from the script running in your head — what you keep telling yourself, the way you habitually think about things — and find new perspectives.
5. If you find yourself writing the same thing over and over, here are a few alternatives to the natural tendency to keep telling the same story in the same way:
Go online and see what comes up when you search for the emotion or the type of event you’re writing about. Reflect on a quotation, a poem, someone else’s story, factual information, or other new input into what you know or how you think.
Write about the first time in your life you can remember feeling a certain way, or being in a certain kind of situation.
Think about where you got the ideas you’re expressing in your writing: for instance, that you have certain characteristics, or you’re a certain type of person, or you can’t do this or you have to do that. You didn’t come out of the womb thinking those thoughts. Whose voice is that?
Write what you’d say to your child or your best friend if it were that person, rather than you, in the situation you’re writing about.
Ask yourself to what extent you’re acting on what you really believe or want, and to what extent you’re influenced by others or worrying about what others will think.
Describe what you think would happen if you did something you believe you can’t or shouldn’t do. The purpose isn’t necessarily to make a change in your external circumstances. There are times when, after serious thought, we recognize that the present situation, although far from perfect, is better than any of the alternatives. Rather, the purpose is to open the question in a meaningful way, so that whatever decision you reach is a genuine choice with which you feel at peace.
6. Although there’s value in keeping what you write so you can reflect on it later, that’s less important than complete honesty. If concern that someone might see what you’ve written is inhibiting what you say, it’s better to write the complete truth and then tear it up.
7. Handwriting may have a slight advantage over keyboarding because it’s slower and more immediate, and leaves no trace if destroyed. Since many of us use keyboarding for almost all our professional and social communications, handwriting may also help to set reflective writing apart. In general, though, researchers recommend doing whatever is most comfortable for the individual.
If you’d like to see some examples of what your writing can tell you about yourself, go to James Pennebaker’s website and do some of the exercises there. Pennebaker, a distinguished psychology professor at the University of Texas and a leader in the field of research-based reflective writing, has developed interesting computer programs for analyzing language.
Words of Caution:
A sudden crisis might not be the best time to write about strong emotions, especially for someone not in the habit of doing so. In the immediate aftermath of a new diagnosis, loss, or shock, there’s nothing wrong with turning to activities that provide comfort and relief. Writing about one’s feelings may be most useful when the time comes to adjust to a new reality while maintaining as high a quality of life as possible — for instance, when settling into a treatment plan for an illness or injury, or when returning to ordinary life after the loss of a loved one.
To state the obvious, reflective writing can’t replace psychological care for dealing with things like childhood sex abuse or severe post-traumatic stress. If you feel that what’s coming up as you write is too heavy to deal with in that way, it’s best to assume that you’re right. Depending on your location and insurance coverage, you might want to seek professional help. If your insurance doesn’t cover psychological care or if you prefer not to use insurance, free or low-cost services may be available through your state or city public health system, or at universities that train psychologists.