writing, the Calli Institute, mental health therapy

Last year, an article in the Star Tribune on January 19th caught my eye. As someone who has long kept personal diaries, I often wondered if the negative beliefs I had written about myself over those agonizing junior and high school years could have been rewritten to more satisfying conclusions about myself. Those diaries were pretty consistently heart wrenching in the negative themes about my body and my accomplishments. I still write in my journal but I notice that the entries are much more optimistic. Maybe it has to do with my work as a therapist but also the wisdom I have learned and try to teach my clients about changing negative tapes.

Tara Parker-Hope had written an article for The New York Times reprinted in the Star Tribune, “Writing your Way to Happiness.” She cites studies which point out the effectiveness of rewriting our personal narrative to form a different conclusion .

Our personal narrative is the story we believe to be true about ourselves. This narrative shapes the way we view our world and ourselves and is based on personal experience, family messages and our own perceptions. Our narrative doesn’t have to be factually accurate but becomes a lens through which we view ourselves, often negatively. The study suggests that, changing our personal narrative can change the way we view ourselves, raise our moods, increase memory, and lead to behavioral changes which create improved self- satisfaction.

An early study at Duke University followed 40 freshmen that were struggling academically .The students were divided into two groups, a control group and an intervention group. The intervention group was given information via videos from junior and senior college age students who talked about their own experiences in college and how those experiences improved over time. This group was encouraged to write a different story about their college experience.  The control group had no such advice.

The long-term results of this study were significant. Not only did those in the intervention group improve their grade point average but also the drop out rate was 5% as opposed to the 40% drop out rate in the control group.

“These writing interventions can really nudge people from a self-defeating way of thinking into a more optimistic cycle that reinforces itself,” wrote Timothy D, Wilson, lead” author of the Duke study and a University of Virginia psychology professor. His book, “Redirect: Changing Stories We Live by,” was released in paperback this month.

James W Pennebaker is a social psychological researcher and teacher at the University of Texas. He did a research study on healthy students that he broke into 4 separate groups. Three groups wrote about a traumatic event for fifteen minutes for four consecutive nights and the fourth group wrote about a trivial subject for the same amount of time.

Writing about traumatic events was associated with fewer visits to the health center and better over-all health. “ I think of expressive writing as life correction”, writes Dr. Pennebaker.

Another writing study asked 120 married couples to write about a conflict as a neutral observer. Among those 120 couples, those that wrote about their conflict from a neutral standpoint described greater marital satisfaction than those that didn’t write about their problems.

Narrative therapy is a form of therapy whose basis is having clients literally rewrite their personal stories.  Narrative therapists often compare themselves to investigative reporters whose job it is to uncover events in the past, mirror those events to a client in a different way and empower their clients to re-write their stories in ways more congruent with personal well being. Consider these opportunities to change your personal myths by writing about:

  • An achievement
  • A time in which you used a resource or strength to over come something
  • A loss or conflict from a neutral or 3rd party voice
  • A positive memory
  • Writing to or from a part of our ego (your body, your depression, your inner child or internal advisor, etc.)

The power of words through literature, poetry and other media has been known to have a powerful influence on the audience. What if we were the audience?

Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, James Pennebaker

Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy D. Wilson

Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends  David Epston

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