Transformative Writing: Opening Up
The developmental roots of transformative writing lie within the realm of psychology. In Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker outlines the use of writing to confront traumatic experiences in order to alleviate emotional distress and reduce the potential for physical illness. It is a landmark study in the use of writing to promote greater physical and mental health.
The inhibition of difficult emotions or traumatic experiences is hard work. Over time, the effort to avoid and deny difficult feelings may eventually express itself as physical and mental illness. It may be that many illnesses have a significant psychosomatic component, that is, a physical illness may have psychological origins. The mind, it seems, can cause harm to the body.
The inhibition, repression, or denial of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings may be a source of significant self-harm. The stress generated in masking our authentic feelings exposes us to illness. Confronting the sources of anguish that haunt us is a psychological requirement of good physical health.
Writing is a vehicle for personal transformation in the sense that its helps the writer to expose, organize, and clarify the actual source of distress. Once our anxiety can be approached mindfully, we place ourselves in a better position to begin working creatively with its influence and effects. To give our inner demons a form through the written word is to develop awareness of the underlying cause of our anxiety.
The underlying premise is that the act of making an emotional problem visible through writing is an important initial step in gaining a sense of control over it. Many important questions arise from this Pennebaker’s premise including:
- Are there specific kinds of attention and thought that the writer needs to activate in order to make their own writing transformative?
- What are the creative mechanisms that help the writer to find a sense of release and opening up?
- How long do the effects of this form of transformative writing maintain their influence?
- Is it possible that we can make our emotional problems worse by venting our anxieties through writing?
- What are the other qualities and capacities a person must acquire to improve their odds of success?
After reading Opening Up, it was clear to me that mindful learning is the underlying ground of transformative writing. That is to say, the transformative writer, in order to successfully confront the source of emotional distress, must constantly strive to engage in a potentially painful contemplative process in which the true nature of their own suffering becomes vivid. In the absence of mindfulness, the potential for writing to inspire a sense of transformation is limited.
Mindful learning is the art of discovering new understanding and insight through creative interaction with our own direct felt experience. It is aimed at identifying source of distress and conflict within our experience in order to learn from it, rather than to deny or avoid it. In this sense, mindful learning is a source of compassionate confrontation with our inner demons.
The effort to expose a source of anxiety through mindfulness is a core discipline of transformative writing. Our tendency, of course, is to avoid unpleasant emotions; mindful learning requires us to confront and give form to our distress without fighting it. To engage in a transformative way with our emotional difficulties is to work with them as a source of potential insight.
We can feel the space of transformative writing when the emotions we are working with become raw once again. In other words, the experience of transformative writing, although safe, is not always pleasant.
Catharsis vs. Insight
Merely venting an emotion is unhelpful; diarizing our experiences is not a solution. Our task is to develop insight into our condition by linking thoughts and feelings together through writing. A transformative writer is a skilled observer of their own experience, as if they are able to view themselves through a different form of consciousness.
Taking responsibility for our emotional wounds is the basic aim of transformative writing. More than just the development of literacy, transformative writing is an integral experience in which writing becomes the symbolic expression of a journey into the mercurial realm of the thoughts, feelings, sensations, dreams, and intuitions that cause anguish and distress.
Insight occurs when we discover previously unknown connections between our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. To develop insight into a difficult emotion or pattern of rumination is the core discipline of transformative writing.
Limitations of Transformative Writing
Transformative writing is not a panacea that can resolve our emotional upheavals in life. It is a skill we can use to help expose our inner demons so we can gain an understanding of what the true nature of the problem really is. Emotions are difficult to express, but the more we work toward giving them a form the better we can understand the source of our inner suffering.
Transformative writing is not a permanent fix, in other words, the effects of the writing may be temporary. However, expressing emotions through language gives us a point of reference, a place to revisit, and crucial insight that offered relief. Each time we engage in transformative writing, we change ourselves, even if that change is only slight.
Transformative writing requires each one of us to embrace the artist within. Writing about emotions and traumas is fundamentally a creative and improvisatory act. The raw materials of transformative writing are completely internal, that is, all we have to work with is our own experience.
The Healing Power of Words
We know that words are a source of resonance and vibration that influence how we think, feel, and act. Words are not inert, they are dynamic. How we use words has a profound influence on how we experience life.
Pennebaker’s research indicates that health gains, both mental and physical, “appear to require translating experiences into language.” In this sense, healing is about renewing our sense of identity, discovering a more promising narrative to live by, and embracing the acceptance of what is.
Opening up is the art of healing through the artistry and alchemy of language. By accepting our inner demons as sources of potential growth we not only confront our anguish and despair, but we also become enlarged by them. Transformative writing is a source of therapeutic insight that can improve our sense of wellbeing.
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