Can an exercise in “expressive writing” reduce your stress, improve your mood and help you get ahead in your career? The answer is yes.
Before I started coaching, I took a wandering, self-improvement journey. I quickly discovered that I had a secret “inner coach” living in my head who had amazing powers to help me sidestep challenges I thought I’d never overcome. Over time I’ve evolved techniques to tap this vast inner resource to help clients in my coaching practice, in both one-on-one and group formats. The most powerful techniques involve self-administered, worksheet and journal based writing exercises to help people detrigger their emotions, focus on daily productivity, determine how to achieve their career goals and more. What I’ve come to realize is that I couldn’t help people as effectively as I do without helping them tap their own inner coaching instincts through pen-and-paper tools.
While I knew this approach worked, I never fully understood the psychology behind these inner coaching strategies until I happened upon a NY Times article on “expressive writing” that put the pieces together for me and I want to lay it out here, for readers and clients, to try to demystify this particular process of tapping your personal powers more deeply. Once you understand the power of personal writing to unlock your inner self-help guidance, which lives in you 24/7, you have the most important tool you need for success.
What is Expressive Writing?
When I first discovered what the research calls “expressive writing” it was called journaling. I still call it journaling because that makes sense to many people, but not to everyone. Some people think of journaling (or writing a diary) as writing for potential publication, but that’s rarely a good idea. While a few talented people can publish their diaries to critical acclaim, many more don’t (and thank goodness, in my case!)
The power of personal expressive writing to heal, or journaling to figure stuff out for yourself, is completely different than writing to give other people an experience you want them to have. The latter is creative writing and the former is expressive writing. Creative writing is a show you put on for an external audience. Expressive writing is a 100% internal process, a dialog with yourself. The purpose and power of expressive writing is to make sense of things—for an audience of you–in narrative form, to weave together the story your life. It’s a way of putting yourself and your life in a context that creates coherence between you and your world.
What Does Expressive Writing Do For You?
When you’re engaged in expressive writing, you’re reflecting on your memory of events and feelings. You’re giving yourself the opportunity to see things you hadn’t seen clearly in the moment, to connect dots you thought at the time were unrelated, to edit and reorganize your experiences so they are more helpful and healthful to you and your sense of evolving identity.
While it’s tempting to write this off as “making stuff up,” or “fooling yourself,” the truth is that our brains do this anyway. They filter and select information for us constantly so that our reality and identity is always a filter on “what really happened.” This is one reason why reasonable people can perceive the same fact or experience very differently; we apply different filters and make sense of what gets through them in personally unique ways. Using expressive writing to shape your personal reality is simply the process of becoming conscious about which filters you want to apply, choosing the ones that serve you and putting the facts, memories and feelings of your life into a coherent narrative that supports your goals and sense of self.
The benefits seem to be widespread. As the NYTimes article states:
“The scientific research on the benefits of so-called expressive writing is surprisingly vast. Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.”
Expressive writing is also key to success, because the way it reframes your reality helps you build your identity around your successes instead of the noise (including failures) of everyday life. Again, from the NYTimes:
“In another study, Stanford researchers focused on African-American students who were struggling to adjust to college. Some of the students were asked to create an essay or video talking about college life to be seen by future students. The study found that the students who took part in the writing or video received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.”
While this latter example is more of a creative writing exercise, it demonstrates the power of expression to rewrite the narrative in your head from one of struggle to one of success.
There is also power in the act of physically writing, as opposed to typing on a keyboard. Using a pen and paper leverages different cognitive processes than typing. Both have their place, but handwriting and drawing seem to tap into a more creative and integrated physical experience that is useful in the expressive part of expressive writing.
What IS an Inner Coach, And How Can I Get One?
When I come across clients who struggle with the idea of using expressive writing to tap the power of their inner voice more reliably, it can be either the writing or the expressing part they have trouble connecting with.
If the challenge is simply a discomfort with the physical act of writing, then one-on-one dialog with a coach or therapist, talking to oneself on a recording or even group discussions can take the place of writing. Writing imposes a structure that many of these other formats can lack, but the basic dynamic of establishing an inner dialog can-paradoxically-be achieved in any communication format, as long as it gets the ideas out of you. More than the writing, the expressing part holds power because it gives your inner self a true voice. If the voice in your head stays in your head, its voice is diminished. If it gets into the world, it’s power is enhanced. That voice becomes more real to you, and you give it more weight. By expressing it, the voice gains credibility and it’s harder for you to write off and ignore, which is usually a good thing.
If my client can handle the writing but struggles with the expressing part, that is something else entirely. It’s more normal than you think to not really know what you’re feeling, much less how to express it. Getting to the point where you can reliably identify and know what you think or feel is a process unto itself, and it’s a key to improving your emotional intelligence, which helps you manage yourself and get along with others. This reliable self-awareness requires that you give yourself permission to feel what you feel and know what you know. Writing it out sometimes helps this process too, even if you trash or burn the very paper you wrote on.
Expressive writing may produce something dear to you that you want to keep forever, and it may be the vehicle for things inside you that you want to get rid of. Whether you keep the paper or destroy it doesn’t matter; when you internalize the habit of expressive writing, you will do both as appropriate.
And this is the key to finding your inner coach. When your inner self gains its voice and the dialog with your outer voice becomes smooth and fluid, you will know what is important and what isn’t. You’ll come to understand what you need to act on, and what’s better left alone. Coaches, therapists and good friends can help you fine-tune your perspective and tweak up your filters, but the core process will be yours. And this is as it should be, because in genuine, powerful dialog with yourself you can become whoever you want to be.
I would love to guide you into a true, deep and powerful dialog with yourself for career and leadership success. Learn more about my coaching services and reach out if you believe I can help you!