Stories help us heal when they add understanding
One of the exciting aspects of the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program was that we were able to identify word categories that reflected the degree to which people were actively thinking. Two of the cognitive dimensions included insight or self-reflection words (such as think, realize, believe) and another made up of causal words (such as because, effect, rationale).
The people whose health improved the most started out using fairly low rates of cognitive words but increased in their use over the four days of writing. It wasn’t the level of cognitive words that was important but the increase from the first to last day.
In some ways, use of insight and causal words was necessary for people to construct a coherent story of their trauma. On the first writing session, people would often spill out their experience in a disorganized way. However, as they wrote about it day after day, they began to make sense of it. This greater understanding was partially reflected in the ways they used cognitive words. These findings suggested that having a coherent story to explain a painful experience was not necessarily as useful as constructing a coherent story.
We can get stuck, and while we’re stuck it’s no longer true that stories help us heal
This helped to explain a personal observation that had bothered me for years. When the first writing studies were published, my work was often featured in the media. At cocktail parties or informal gatherings, I sometimes found myself to be a trauma magnet. People who knew about my research would gravitate to me in order to tell me all about their horrific life experiences. Many of them also were in very poor physical health. At first, I thought that their talking about their stories would be good for them. However, I’d see the same people at another gathering months later and they would often tell me exactly the same stories and their health would be unchanged.
The word count research revealed the problem. The people telling their traumatic stories were essentially telling the same stories over and over. There was no change to the stories, no growth, no increase in understanding. Repeating the same story in the same way is not unlike ruminative thinking—a classic symptom of depression.
Stories help us heal when they add perspective
There is an important lesson here. If haunted by an emotional upheaval in your life, try writing about it or sharing the experience with others.
However, if you catch yourself telling exactly the same story over and over in order to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way. How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist?
If you’re successful, research studies suggest that you will sleep better, experience better physical health, and notice yourself feeling happier and less overcome by your upheaval.
Thanks to the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, we found that three aspects of emotional writing predicted improvements in people’s physical and mental health: accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, acknowledging the negative parts, and constructing a story over the days of writing.
Stories help us heal when we switch between perspectives, and we include first-person
The more people changed in the ways they used function words from writing to writing, the more their health later improved. As we started to focus on different classes of function words, one particular group of culprits stood out as more important than the others: personal pronouns. More specifically, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pro- nouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health later became. The effects were large and held up for study after study.
The writings of those whose health improved showed a high rate of the use of I-words on one occasion and then high rates of the use of other pronouns on the next occasion, and then switching back and forth in subsequent writings.
In other words, healthy people say something about their own thoughts and feelings in one instance and then explore what is happening with other people before writing about themselves again.
The multiple perspectives in stories help us heal, in a way, like therapy helps us heal
This perspective switching is actually quite common in psychotherapy.
If a man visits his therapist and begins repeatedly complaining about his wife’s behavior, what she says, how aloof she is, and so forth, the therapist will likely stop the client after several minutes and say, “You’ve been talking about your wife at length but you haven’t said anything about yourself. How do you feel when this happens?”
Similarly, if another client—a woman in this case—with marital problems sees her therapist and spends most of her time talking about her own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without ever talking about her spouse, the therapist will probably redirect the conversation in a similar way by asking, “You’ve told me a lot about your own feelings when this happens—how do you think your husband feels about this?”
Perhaps like good therapy, healthy writing may involve looking at a problem from multiple perspectives.
- Kapur, Shekhar. “We are the stories we tell ourselves.” com, Mar. 2010, www.ted.com/talks/shekhar_kapur_we_are_the_stories_we_tell_ourselves/transcript. Accessed 14 June 2017.
- Pennebaker, James W. The secret life of pronouns. What our words say about us. Bloomsbury Press, 2011, Scribd pp. 23-27.