Writing to find your own voice

Why is it that we seem to long for someone to listen to us and why is it that the experience of having someone listen, really listen, and allow us to talk, has such a profound effect on us?

When you talk out loud to someone else, you hear your words spoken out loud, and you get the chance to listen to what you are saying. On your own, you may have been aware of a jumble of thoughts or self-talk. Talking an issue or idea out loud with someone is often the first experience we have of organizing our thoughts well enough to express them to someone else, and as we do this, we construct a more coherent story of what we are thinking and feeling. As we listen to ourselves saying this more coherent story and we are more able to think and reflect upon our experience.

When you are distressed, thoughts and feelings churn around in your mind. When you say what you are thinking and feeling out loud in the therapy room, or to your best friend, you get to hear your own words out loud, and sometimes you hear them again when the listener reflects them back to you. What had been jumbled up feelings, memories and impulses in your emotional limbic brain, you express as spoken words which you hear through your own ears and are registered into your frontal cortex, the thinking brain, which is very good at making sense of things. When you experience your listener as accepting and nonjudgmental, you can more easily adopt that attitude and feel less critical of yourself.

Does it require an another person, a listener, for you to experience this process of listening to yourself speak? Maybe not. It would be very difficult to talk out loud to yourself, by yourself, for a whole hour, even if you were able to make yourself do it. But if you could make yourself, it would probably help you. If you’ve ever had the experience of sending audio files as voice letters, you may have some sense of this.

Another way of experiencing listening to yourself is through the process of expressive writing. Some people keep a journal as a way of reflecting on their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Keeping a journal can be very helpful, but it isn’t always positive. Some people use journals to reinforce angry thoughts and bad memories. However, there is a great deal of research, spanning over 30 years, that shows that if we write about our deepest thoughts and feelings about traumatic events that we have experienced, (even if we write about it only once), we will experience ongoing benefits regarding both physical and mental health.

The problem with talking to ourselves, whether that is out loud to a tape recorder, or writing it down in our journals, is that we tend to avoid facing the most painful bits, and so we only go so far in writing about the memory or issue. When we reach that bit that really hurts, we stop or focus on something else. The essence of that painful memory still lingers like a sliver under the skin that continues to fester. Sometimes when we think we are writing about our feelings, we are actually masking over another terrible bit that we can’t bear to face. In contrast, if you were talking with someone who had the skill to ask you the right question, at the right time, so that you go to that place that you would rather avoid, and you faced it, you are likely to experience a kind of healing.

To transfer this into the realm of writing, this means that your likely to do the the most therapeutic writing when you are working with a skillful therapist who guides you in how to write about those things that you would otherwise automatically and unconsciously avoid.

People who experience this kind of writing are often surprised at the clarity and strength of the voice that emerges, their own voice, and a voice much stronger and wiser than they had ever known. In contrast to the woman who came to me saying that she felt she had “lost herself,” people say that writing has allowed them to “find themselves” or “find a voice.” In this process, the painful memories that had sometimes festered for decades, are drained of their colour and visceral response and take their proper place as factual memory in the long narrative of our lives.

William Ury from the Harvard program on negotiation presented a Ted talk on the power of listening while negotiating issues in business and and in international conflicts.He dreams of a world in which listening is taught in schools, parents are taught to listen, and in which leaders are chosen on their ability to listen.


Writing for health and healing

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