How writing can help us connect to ourselves in a similar way to therapy.
Do you know yourself?
Think back to when you were a child – we were all told to respect our elders, look after other people, be polite to our teachers etc but what we were never taught was how to check in with ourselves, to know what we were feeling, why, and what we needed to feel better.
Feelings show us needs
Everything we feel and do is for a reason – it all points to an unmet need. If you haven’t eaten then your stomach will rumble, you might get light headed and maybe even snappy. These are the signs of hunger and we know them well, but other (emotional) needs also have signs which are just as clear if we learn to read them.
Have you ever found yourself apologising to someone because you’re not feeling yourself / you’re being short tempered when the other person has done nothing wrong / you woke up feeling down? In these situations we tend to play down our feelings with sentiments like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me’ ‘Don’t mind me I’ll be fine in a minute’ ‘ Ignore me, it’s nothing’ but it’s not nothing – you don’t feel sad or angry or overwhelmed for no reason! All of these feelings point to a need – maybe you feel let down by a friend, or intimidated by a colleague, or are still reeling from the argument with your partner the night before – feelings don’t just go away if we ignore them. In fact they get bigger. So the key to not getting struck by seemingly random negative feelings is to know where they’re coming from and to then fix the issue. But how if we were never taught this?
How to know yourself
We don’t do well stuck in our heads. Have you ever been convinced that your world was falling apart, told your friends what was going on and then immediately seen your situation in a more positive light? That’s because our thoughts aren’t fully formed until they are out of our head. The problem is that we often feel we shouldn’t ‘burden’ our friends with our troubles, and sometimes even when we do build up the courage they don’t hear us anyway because they have their own stuff going on.
Therapy is unlike any other relationship you have because the focus is entirely on you. Your therapist will listen to you. Really listen to everything you say. We don’t tend to pay as much attention to ourselves as we do to others, and so we speak without ever really paying attention to what we’re saying. This is one way in which therapy can be really helpful – it gives us someone to talk through our thoughts with so that we can work out what we’re really feeling without worrying our friends might get bored of us talking or think we’re crazy. And in spending that time reflecting on our own words and feelings we can begin to hear what we’re really trying to say which often is not what we expect it to be at all. The problem is that not everyone can afford to have therapy. But there is an alternative way to hear yourself that is completely free, and if done right it’s just as effective.
The magic of writing
Inside our heads our thoughts are jumbled. We think we know what we’re thinking, but only because ideas come together as and when we reach for them. Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and you’re not really sure what you think of the topic but as you begin to speak your views becomes clearer? That’s because out of the jumble of fragmented thoughts, as your mind scrabbles for coherent sentences to speak aloud your ideas become clearer – these were the views you always had but hadn’t formed yet. And our brains do the same thing when we write.
You might already be aware that talking to people makes you feel better or helps you to make sense of your feelings even if you’ve never thought about why. But it isn’t always easy to do this – say you’re struggling with something private that you don’t want other people to know about, or you worry more about burdening other people than you do resolving your own issues. Either way can make it difficult for us to utilise speech to help ourselves. So if you feel unable to talk to your friends, and you can’t afford therapy, then how can you get a handle on your thoughts and feelings? By writing.
In exactly the same way voicing our thoughts helps us to sort and understand our feelings, writing can also really help us to make sense of what’s going on in our heads. The same process of talking – forming sentences and a linear narrative to tell your story is how we write. Journaling therefore offers us a private, immediately accessible way of connecting with ourselves to find out what’s going on for us, and how to find resolution.
How to write!
You have of course been writing things your whole life – school assignments, shopping lists, love letters, maybe even a book, but how often have you written to yourself for yourself? Even the classic ‘Dear Diary…’makes us write to an imaginary audience. If we have an audience then we feel the need to explain – ‘Dear Diary, today I went shopping with my best friend…’ but descriptions don’t help us to know ourselves.
Instead of writing for an audience you should be writing for yourself – no descriptions, no explanations, just your thoughts, feelings and musings:
Stream of consciousness
If you’ve ever tried meditating then you’ll be aware of your stream of consciousness – it’s the never ending ideas that flow through your head that flit from one topic to another which you would never want anyone else to know and it goes a little like this: ‘I wonder if this blog makes sense… I want people to understand me… if I write what my own stream of consciousness is will that be odd… was that the sound of the doorbell? No… I should be thinking of important things… if I get this done soon I can make lunch… I wonder if I need to go to the shop…’As you can see, it’s not always on topic and it’s not particularly interesting for an audience to read, and yet connecting to this part of yourself means you will know exactly what you’re thinking, feeling and needing – everything you need to make your life work for you!
Exercise: Try setting yourself a target e.g. 5 mins or 2 pages and write everything that comes into your head until you hit your target – this isn't about beautifully written prose, or a full story, just the thoughts that are inside your head as they come. Don’t worry about anyone ever reading it either (even you) - this isn't about writing something that you would want to read later or show to anyone, more about emptying your head onto the page. This can be helpful if you find your head has a lot of competing thoughts or if you are prone to anxiety as it will help to weed out the unnecessary thoughts that are just taking up space, allowing you to know what’s really going on for you.
Sometimes we know that something isn’t right, but we can’t quite grasp what it is that’s actually wrong. Whilst denial and distraction can be handy in the short term (so we don’t end up crying in front of our boss, or swearing at children), if we want to move forward and feel better then we need to tackle our problems head on, and so we need to find out what they are! Writing can therefore be helpful in helping us to get a handle on what exactly is going on for us.
Exercise: Begin by writing down everything you’re feeling – hungry, cold, sad, listless, annoyed etc. Once you have a list (you can add to it as you go if more ideas come up) you can begin to investigate it – What’s causing each of these feelings? Are some of them connected? There’s likely to be more than one thing going on at once. Maybe you’re feeling sad and uninspired and you realise that you always feel uninspired at work and tonight is Sunday night and you’re sad to have to go to work tomorrow, in which case you might think about looking for a new job. Or perhaps you’re feeling bad about an argument with a friend, and annoyed that they upset you? What would you need to feel better? None of this is easy, but by giving yourself space to really focus on yourself you’re essentially offering yourself what therapy does – respect for you through dedicated space to hear you out.
The ‘Magic’ question
This is a technique used by therapists a lot, but you can also use it on yourself. When we feel stuck in our lives, unhappy but not sure what exactly is wrong it can help to take us out of our own reality for a moment in order to get a different view of ourselves.
Exercise: Ask yourself this: ‘If you woke up tomorrow and your problem was gone how would you know? What would be different?’ Whatever your answer is will give you the first step towards knowing what isn’t working for you in your life right now. And knowing that gives you the power to choose to make changes.
An alternative to this question is the lottery question: ‘If you won the lottery, and nothing you chose to do would have any negative impact on anyone else then what would you do?’ – This one helps us to identify what we want without the constraints we often feel in life, for example you might really want to go travelling but can’t leave your children behind, or want to go back to studying but can’t afford to leave your job. Whilst we most often can’t drop everything to follow the lottery dream, we can use this dream to prioritise our current lives.
How to start writing
So now you know that writing can basically make you into your own free therapist, where do you start? If this is your first step into connecting with yourself then the idea of a blank page staring up at you might be quite daunting. If so here are a list of prompts to get you started. Pick one that appeals and begin to write your thoughts on it, but make sure to allow your mind to wander – it will take you where you need to go. And remember, nobody ever needs to read what you write, not even you.
If you could live in any other place (city, country, planet) then where would it be and why?
If you were in charge what is the first change you’d make and why?
If you could change one thing from your past what would it be?
Think of a situation you don’t know how to resolve. What would your hero do to help?
Describe your worst fear
Describe your biggest dream
What did you want to be when you grew up? If you didn’t do it, why not?
Write a letter to someone who has impacted your life.
List the 5 people you spend the most time with. How do they affect your thoughts and behaviours?
What talent would you love to have?
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received. Describe the situation
How do you define success? How will you know if you have it?
Describe your earliest memory
Do you tell yourself you can’t do something? What is it, and why?
These and more thought provoking writing prompts can be found in Best Self Co’s Wordsmith Deck