Writing your Story
We know that writing about painful experiences can be an effective form of therapy. Journaling is a well-documented method of stress relief. More recently, research has shown that writing about yourself in a positive sense is linked to better emotional and physical health outcomes. The process of writing your story can increase self-awareness and cultivate positive emotions.
Stories are powerful. They are a mechanism for recording and communicating cultural messages, forging connections and sharing experiences. Stories allow you to record and articulate your experiences and express them in a structured way.
The writing process itself can be a tool for gaining clarity about an emotion or an experience, and can result in deep personal insights. It can help you gain a sense of your inner wisdom by exploring positive ways you coped during challenging experiences and identify how those skills can support you now and in the future.
What does the research say?
Academic papers describe the telling of one’s story as a tool for communicating your identity to others and to yourself. By recording your story, you can understand yourself better and derive meaning from your experiences. Through sharing your story, you can express your uniqueness, cultivate deeper connections by communicating your authentic self and help others to make sense of their experiences by sharing the meaning and insight behind yours.
Research studies on individuals with existing health conditions have shown better physical health outcomes for those who wrote about their experiences. Research has demonstrated improvements in a range of conditions including migraine management, improved immune function, reductions in irritable bowel symptoms and positive effects on blood pressure. However, it is suggested that the writing may need to continue for the health benefits to be sustained.
Although the mechanism that brings about positive health benefits is not entirely known, it is believed that the act of emotional disclosure, otherwise known as “getting it off your chest”, is a therapeutic process within itself and subsequently reduces the stress response.
When should you start?
Although retirement is a popular time for recording memoirs, you don’t need to be in your senior years to write your story. Impactful lessons and experiences happen at every age. For a story to be engaging, it needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Although the end to your story may be considerably far away, you have a multitude of diverse and unique experiences you can draw upon, each with a story of its own. You may choose to focus on a childhood experience or write about a recent encounter or event.
Emotionally engaging stories are honest and reflective and express your values. They generally convey a message or a meaning. Consider positive experiences that have resulted in growth and fulfilment or moments that may have seemed inconsequential at the time but had an impact on your emotional development. What did you learn from these experiences and who are some of the people who came into your life as a result? Find the meaning behind the experience and share how it shaped your development, or led to a new connection or skill you acquired.
You don’t need to have had exotic adventures or life-changing encounters to uncover deep insights. The writing process itself can help you to realise that you are enough as you currently are. It can assist you to recognise the contributions you have made which you may have previously glossed over.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Everyone has had negative experiences and engaged in behaviours they are not proud of. The key to writing about yourself in a way that brings positive benefit is to embrace each one of those experiences as the teacher it is. Your past made you the person you are today. Without those experiences you would be stuck in place. Without mistakes you wouldn’t grow and evolve.
Don’t deny the negative experiences, but at the same time don’t let them hold you back. The more honest you are with yourself, the greater perspective you will gain.
However, if writing about a negative experience triggers further trauma or anxiety, it would be wise to consider reaching out to a mental health practitioner for professional support.
How much should you share?
It’s your choice if you share your stories or retain them as private learnings for yourself. I have shared my story around disordered eating and low self-esteem through my website and social media accounts. Initially I found it challenging to share these vulnerable and private details and wondered what people would think when they read it. Would potential clients see my past experiences as a weakness?
However, the process of recording and sharing my story helped me to realise that these experiences were part of my life journey and had a significant impact on the profession I chose. It enabled me to accept this aspect of myself and appreciate more deeply that we are all human and flawed and constantly evolving. Recognising the challenges that I have overcome is also personally affirming.
My personal experiences do not detract from my professional abilities. Reading my story has enabled my clients to feel a shared connection and comfort in the knowledge that I have a deep appreciation for what they are going through. My insight, lived experience and the extensive work I have undertaken to better understand myself have made me a stronger person and a better practitioner.
You can change your story
How you feel about yourself is strongly influenced by the stories you tell yourself. Early in life, we adopt roles without being consciously aware of it and develop a set of stories as a result. We all have memories or experiences when we were treated unfairly, felt like we didn’t fit in or made a fool of ourselves. For example, if you were bullied or left out as a child, you may be holding on to a story that you are unworthy or unlovable.
We also have moments when we achieved something exceptional or were recognised for our efforts. Through the writing process, you may discover that you are putting too much focus on the unhelpful stories. Or when you dissect your stories and cultivate greater levels of self-awareness, you may recognise that some of the negative narrative is no longer valid. The stories you tell yourself can greatly impact the trajectory of your life, and when you consciously step away from outdated narratives big shifts can happen.
Insights gained through the writing process can also impact our perception of an experience. A story we once regarded as negative may take on new meaning after reflection and analysis. Through contemplating an adverse experience, we may recognise that we have developed greater resilience and strength. Author and researcher Emily Esfahani Smith believes that storytelling is a vehicle for cultivating greater meaning in life. “We don’t always realise that we’re the authors of our own stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret and retell your story even as you’re constrained by the facts,” she says.
According to psychology professors Dan McAdams and Kate Mclean, narrators who find redemptive meaning in adverse experiences and who construct life stories that feature themes of self-sufficiency and exploration tend to enjoy higher levels of mental health and subjective wellbeing.
As the author of your own life, you also have the power to influence the stories that come next. The clarity gained through the writing process can help you to identify the life you want to lead and the future stories you want to write. It’s not about becoming a different person or dramatically changing your life. Through writing about yourself, you can appreciate who you are, where you have come from and the future direction you would like to take.
How to get started
Your story can simply be a record of some of the interesting and insightful events and experiences that have taken place in your life. It doesn’t need to be a literary work of art. If you approach it as a large project that will take considerable time and energy, you may never get started. The only thing you need to get started is one simple, imperfect sentence.
You may like to start with a rough timeline of your life and identify events, experiences, people and places that have had the deepest impact on your journey so far. Writing prompts can also be helpful. Consider subjects such as your earliest memory, a “sliding doors” moment in your life, your biggest achievement, a time when someone surprised you, a time when you surprised yourself, the biggest challenge or obstacle you have faced, a time of loss or your most treasured friendship.
It can be helpful to set aside a specified amount of time each week to work on your writing. It’s easy to be distracted by other projects or responsibilities and having a regular writing routine in place can reduce procrastination.
How to share your story
Recording your story allows you to share your wisdom with family and friends and provides a vehicle for future family members to feel connected to you. You may choose to write a memoir or a collection of short stories from your life. You can record these in a simple journal, upload them to a blog or print and bind them in the form of a book.
You can also subscribe to online programs or purchase books that provide a series of prompts such as those detailed above. Some offer the service of delivering a bound and printed record of your story once you have completed and submitted the required information.
Options for non-writers
You don’t need to consider yourself a writer to write about your personal experiences. However, if writing is something you find entirely unenjoyable, there are other mediums available for recording your story. Although considerable research exists on the benefits of expressive writing, therapeutic benefits can also be obtained through artistic or digital means. Stories can be told through photographs, a series of drawings, video logs and digital illustrations. They can also be recorded, verbally relayed to another person or extracted through an interview. It’s important to keep in mind that the therapeutic benefit comes from the reflection process, so the medium should allow time for reflection and expression of subsequent insights and learnings.
Storytelling allows you to understand your choices and behaviours more deeply, to share the moments that defined you and to leave behind a legacy. Recording your story can be a therapeutic process that facilitates positive physical and mental health outcomes. Once you have captured meaningful stories that are part of your life experiences, you can also reflect on, and positively influence, the stories that are yet to come