Prior to Dr. Pennebaker’s research, Jungian scholar Dr. Ira Progoff, the creator of holistic depth psychology, developed a journaling technique. Since the program was developed over thirty years ago, more than 200 workshop leaders have been trained and certified, and more than 175,000 individuals have participated in his workshops. Dr. Progoff passed away in 1997. His son John, now the executive director of Dialogue House, says that the practice of journaling “is a very helpful technique to get a perspective on your life; where it’s been, where it’s going. It gives you insight into yourself, hobbies, career, feelings about society, and other important aspects of your life. The process is very helpful in growth, health, and increasing self-esteem. It also helps those stuck in a rut to get out of it.”
We have the capacity to define every experience, rather than allow the experience to define us.
Getting Unstuck Through Letters
Structured writing exercises aren’t for everyone. Some people prefer what Terry Vance, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, calls “letter therapy.”
In a 1998 book Letters Home, Vance describes watching many people get “unstuck” from bad relationships or conflicts by writing letters to others in their lives. Conversations can dissolve into screaming matches or crying fits, she says, but letter writing offers safety.
Many of us grew up with a taboo on expressing deep emotional feelings and became secretive children, growing into secretive adults, masking our true feelings. “But masks harm, even deaden, the person underneath,” says Vance. “Getting healthy requires becoming visible by taking off the masks and exposing the secrets–finding out who you are by discovering what you feel and think.”
Her book shows how letter therapy can help us resolve conflicts, effect change, and recover from our relationship with our parents. Learning to communicate from the heart can help mend crippling conflicts and open up possibilities for intimacy and growth. Expressing feelings and thoughts can create change, even if the letter is never mailed. The simple act of writing a letter can help us confront our problems. Ultimately, this process yields insights that can change our lives.
Twenty years ago Dr. Vance began assigning letter writing to her psychotherapy patients as a method of addressing past psychological and physical abuses, confronting family members, revealing long-held destructive secrets, facing various difficulties in their day-to-day lives, and gaining insight into their own thinking and behavior. Vance believes the methodology of this therapy can work for anyone: composing effective and empowering letters to heal and reconstruct relationships.
She says, “In a perfect world, we might have the opportunity to be in family therapy or in a similar situation where we are encouraged to confront the truth and are supported for being authentic with the people who are most important to us.”
Most people, though, can put their feelings on paper, write a letter to parents, have a friend or spouse or sibling read the letter and give feedback, or put the letter away and reread it later with the enhanced perspective a little distance can give. Although writing letters to deal with important emotional issues is easier with the insight and support that therapy gives, writing an up-front letter does not usually necessitate being in psychotherapy. In cases of abuse, however, the guidance of a qualified therapist is essential. Letter writing can help accomplish what family therapy or couples therapy often does. It can bring the significant people together and help the writer separate his or her contribution to the problem from the parents’ or spouse’s in a way that is documented and can be gone over and over in different states of mind.
You don’t even have to send the letter. Just write to yourself in a journal.
Intimacy and Honesty with Oneself
According to Kathleen Adams, a journal therapist, “Journaling literally helps clients get to read their own minds. That process builds self-trust and self-esteem and can complement traditional conversation-based psychotherapy. It is a road map, much more than memories; the kinesthetic, felt sense, when documented, is invaluable.”
One of her clients, a holistic practitioner herself experiencing debilitating migraine headaches, sought out Kathleen’s services because she had a feeling writing would help her to get to the root of her problem.
With guided imagery, she received a picture of her headache, a visual image that prepared her for dialogue with her body. She saw the headaches in the form of a swirling, black storm cloud. In the cloud she saw the face of Yoda, the wise teacher character from Star Wars! She struggled with the notion that the headaches were a wise teacher, a benevolent messenger. Behavioral changes occurred that assuaged the emotional distress she was experiencing. During her eighth session she said, “I’m done.”
Kathleen regards journaling as a wonderful opportunity for inner growth. “I think of writing in a spiritual context. It feels to me like a mystical secret.”
“Anais Nin, a diarist who logged an estimated 150,000 pages before her death in 1977, remarked in response to Dr. Progoff’s work, “The lack of intimacy with one’s self, and consequently with others, is what created the loneliest and most alienated people in the world. Progoff ultimately proves that the process of growth in a human being, the process out of which a person emerges, is essentially an inward process.
“It is a process that leads to meaning and to your own truth–to the reality of your inner being. It is a form of meditation, of interactive prayer. I can’t imagine how my path might have evolved had I not found journaling.”
Pennebaker, James W. Telling Stories: The Health Benefits of Narrative
Literature and Medicine – Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2000, pp. 3-18
Adams, Kathleen. The Write Way to Wellness