Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Give sorrow words;
the grief that does not speak;
whispers the o’er-fraught heart
and bids it break.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3)

Expressive Writing Can Help You Heal

Confronting Upsetting Experiences: Expressive Writing for Healing

People often block out thoughts that provoke negative emotions as a way of reducing their stress and regulating their moods. However, intentional suppression of deep-seated emotions not only increases susceptibility to illness, but also amplifies the emotionality and associated psychological effects of the suppressed thoughts.

Discussing, venting, clarifying, or expressing a trauma is a natural human response. When this necessity is inhibited, emotional stress and physical illness ensue.

Facing up to deeply personal issues can promote physical health, well-being, and beneficial behaviors.

The scientific research on the benefits of putting negative experiences into words is extensive. Studies have shown that expressive writing about oneself and one’s traumatic or stressful experiences does produce significant health benefits. Expressive writing helps ameliorate mood disorders, reduces symptoms among patients with serious illness, improve a person’s physical condition after a heart attack, and even enhance memory.

Writing about Emotional Topics Brings About Improved Physical and Emotional Wellbeing

'Opening Up' by James Pennebaker (ISBN 1572302380) James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, first investigated expressive writing as a healing process in the 1980s. Since then, research that spawned from Pennebaker’s pioneering studies, has revealed benefits could accrue to those who were dealing with divorces, lost love, death of loved ones, job rejections, terminal illness, even college students struggling with first-year transitions.

Here are the main points about the expressive writing method:

  • Choose the part of the day when you are most contemplative (that’s the morning for most people.) Sit down at a place where you are not likely to be disturbed.
  • Reflect about a very personal and important event. Consider a significant emotional upheaval that influences your life the most or has in the past. Your topic can be about a distress or failure, lost love, health-, school- or career-related anxiety, relationships, inner conflicts, death of a loved one, or just about any topic that you would like to express.
  • If you’re writing about an experience or an event that involves another person, it can help to organize your writing as a letter to that person, whether alive or dead.
  • Write your deepest thoughts about your chosen event or experience continuously for 20 minutes. If you run out of things to write or reach a mental block, just repeat or recap what you have previously written.
  • In your writing, deeply explore your thoughts about the event and describe its effect on you. In other words, write both about what happened and how you feel about it. Think about how you can handle these events and their consequences now—what you can do specifically.
  • Connect your personal experiences to other parts of your life. How do they relate to your childhood, your parents, people you love, who you are, or who you want to be?
  • Write for yourself as your thoughts arise. Be as direct, intense, and serious as possible. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, comprehensiveness, legibility, or structure. On the opening day of writing, your stories are not very structured, but over the three or four days, you will develop a more structured narrative.
  • After writing for 20 minutes, do not look back over. Simply fold the papers you used, seal them, and put them away (read more about the “worry box technique.”) Unlike psychotherapy, the expressive writing technique does not employ feedback to the participant.
  • 'Writing as a Way of Healing' by Louise Desalvo (ISBN 0807072435) Make a mental note of how you feel. It is not unusual to feel sad or disheartened after writing—these feelings usually fade away in an hour or so. In research experiments, many participants have reported crying or getting upset by the experience of writing about emotional upheavals, but most participants testify that the writing experience was meaningful in helping them organize their experiences.
  • Repeat this exercise for four consecutive days. You can write about the same experience on all four days or about different experiences each day. If you choose to write about the same topic on all the four days, try to wrap everything up by the fourth day.

Note that expressive writing is distinct from keeping a daily journal in that it allows people to step back for a moment and evaluate their lives. Pennebaker once said, “I’m not even convinced that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. … But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.”

Translating an Emotional Experience Into Language Makes the Experience Graspable: it Can Help You Find New Meaning in Life’s Ordeals

New research has shown that expressive writing—followed by expressive rewriting—can improve happiness and lead to behavioral changes. Narrative storytelling of an unpleasant and chaotic experience may make the experience and its effects more controllable. For instance, according this New York Times article,

At the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, life coaches ask clients to identify their goals, then to write about why they haven’t achieved those goals. Once the clients have written their old stories, they are asked to reflect on them and edit the narratives to come up with a new, more honest assessment. While the institute doesn’t have long-term data, the intervention has produced strong anecdotal results.

Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Idea for Impact: Expressive Writing Can Help Change the Way You Feel About Traumatic Events and About Yourself

Expressive writing is a method of self-help that supplements the value of therapeutic talking to someone accepting and non-judgmental.

By exploring your deepest thoughts and feelings with a reflective, inquiring, honest attitude, you can shift perspective. Standing back and reflecting on your suffering from different points of view can bring about an improved emotional state. You can create your greatest opportunities for change by confronting the realities, reframing your experiences in terms of your values and priorities, and identifying impediments that stand in the way of purpose, joy, and contentment.

For more on the means and methods of expressive writing, as well its many confirmed physiological and behavioral benefits, read James Pennebaker’s Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotion (1997) and Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing (1999)

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on the Art of Love and Unselfish Understanding

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on the Art of Love and Unselfish Understanding

To Listen is to Love

Erich Fromm (1900–80) was a famous German psychoanalyst, philosopher and social critic. His best-selling work, The Art of Loving (1956,) has been translated into more than fifty languages and has sold more than thirty million copies. Fromm argues that one of the deepest human desires is wholeness and unity. Consequently, humans seek to overcome their persistent sense of separateness by finding love, that profound experience of belonging and unity that still makes allowances for individual identity and expression.

According to The Art of Loving, one’s character orientation and social outlook depend greatly on one’s ability to experience meaningful loving relationships with others. The principal responsibility in practicing the art of loving is overcoming one’s narcissism, which Fromm argues is tantamount to cultivating objective reality and embracing the spirit of generosity—doing cosmic good, in other words:

Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.

The Art of Therapy is the Art of Listening

'The Art of Listening' by Erich Fromm (ISBN 0826406548) For Fromm, the first duty of love is paying attention to othersto listen and to understand. His less-popular, but equally noteworthy The Art of Listening (1994) explores listening as an act of love. Based on the imperfectly-edited transcript of a 1974 colloquium on psychoanalysis, The Art of Listening presents Fromm’s therapeutic method of dealing with the emotional distresses of people through listening.

Psychotherapists endeavor to listen non-judgmentally, understand keenly, and frame questions that will assist their patients work out whatever they should do to change their lives. Exploring this nature of communication between the therapist and his patient, Fromm explains that the therapist must offer himself as a thoughtful individual specifically trained in the art of listening. Fromm identifies listening as “an art like the understanding of poetry” and offers six guiding principles for mastering the art of selfless understanding:

  1. The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  2. Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  3. He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  4. He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  5. The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him—not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
  6. Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.

Even though The Art of Listening focuses on becoming a better shrink through listening, there’s much in this excellent book by way of techniques, dynamics, and mindsets that make for the most favorable listening relationships in life, as in therapy.

What Do You Want to Be Remembered for?

The Curious History of the Nobel Prizes: Alfred Nobel Changed His Likely Legacy from “Merchant of Death”

Alfred Nobel Changed His Only Likely Legacy from The Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel (1833–96) is most remembered in the awarding of Nobel Prizes every year. The spur for the Nobel Prizes apparently came from a remarkable incident of careless journalism.

Nobel patented the explosive dynamite in 1867. Before long, he became very wealthy as the owner of a vast international explosives empire.

In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper wrongly announced Alfred’s death instead under the title “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (Eng. trans. “The merchant of death is dead.”) The article called him the “dynamite king” and reported, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Upon reading this obituary, Alfred Nobel was so distressed at the prospect of how the world possibly could remember him. He wanted to leave a better legacy for himself and rewrote his will. Nobel left 94 percent of his estate to institute five prizes to celebrate the greatest achievements in chemistry, physics, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace. (The “Nobel Memorial” economics prize was instituted in 1968 by the Sweden’s central bank.)

Make a Conscious Intention to Embrace the Spirit of Your Life’s Work

'Managing the Nonprofit Organization' by Peter Drucker (ISBN 0060851147) Peter Drucker (1909–2005,) the 20th century’s leading thinker on business and management, advocated self renewal through the probing question “What do you want to be remembered for?” in his Managing the Non-Profit Organization:

When I was thirteen I had an inspiring teacher of religion who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, “What do you want to be remembered for?” None of us, of course, could give an answer. So, he chuckled and said, “I didn’t expect you to be able to answer it. But if you still can’t answer it by the time you’re fifty, you will have wasted your life.”

I’m always asking that question: “What do you want to be remembered for?” It is a question that induces you to renew yourself, because it pushes you to see yourself as a different person—the person you can become. If you are fortunate, someone with moral authority will ask you that question early enough in your life so that you will continue to ask it as you go through life.

Your Life’s Work Becomes the Essence of Your Legacy

'Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society' by John W. Gardner (ISBN 039331295X) Emphasizing self-renewal and its inhibitors, the American intellectual John W. Gardner wrote extensively about the need to embrace change for personal enrichment and fulfillment. In his seminal Self-Renewal: the Individual and the Innovative Society (1964,) Gardner encourages a sentient attitude toward the future to kindle self-renewal:

For self-renewing men and women the development of their own potentialities and the process of self-discovery never end. It is a sad but unarguable fact that most people go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities. … Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life—not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.

Idea for Impact: Asking, “What should be your legacy?” is a Great Self-Actualizing Exercise

The English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) wrote in Mansfield Park (1814,) “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

One single spark in your mind has the potential to alter your life forever. Inspire your personal renewal by contemplating the following questions: What do you want to be remembered for, 5-10-20 years from now? What should be your legacy?

Without doubt, you can’t tell your future—you really don’t even know what’s going to happen next. Even if you make a deliberate plan, it probably won’t succeed because reality will regulate your plan. In spite of this life’s uncertainties, reflecting on the question “What do I want to be remembered for?” can help you become more intentional in your behavior and more mindful about your life’s purpose.

If You Want to Be Loved, Love

Love is an Outpouring of Everything Good in You

Love is an “Outpouring of Everything Good in You”

In 1958, when American Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s son Thom was fourteen, he attended boarding school in Connecticut. There, “Thom” (the American novelist and screenwriter Thomas Myles Steinbeck (1944–2016)) met a young girl named Susan with whom he thought he might be in love. Soon after, Thom sent a note home and declared his love for his new school sweetheart. In response, John Steinbeck wrote the following stirring advice on how to navigate love.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,
Fa

Love is Intended to be Realized in the Offering, Not in the Receiving

According to University of South Florida’s Seneca scholar Anna Lydia Motto, the great Stoic philosopher’s writings are chockfull of his profound understanding of the true significance of the many forms of love—i.e., love for one’s spouse, family, friends, fellow humans, and country.

'Moral letters to Lucilius' by Seneca (ISBN 1536965537) In Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium), Seneca quotes his friend and fellow Stoic philosopher Hecato (or Hecaton of Rhodes):

I shall show you a love
potion without a drug, without
a herb; without the incantation
of any sorceress: if you want
to be loved, love.

The Ability to Love is a Faculty to Develop and Practice

Love is an oft-misunderstood concept. The German Philosopher Erich Fromm (1900–1980) wrote in his brilliant The Art of Loving (1956) “Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.”

Love is not something to fall into after fortuitously discovering the person (or any desirable object). Love is something we learn to “do” from years of arduous toil.

Any loving relationship demands compromise, cooperation, acceptance, forgiveness, tolerance, stability, devotion, and commitment. Genuine love, therefore, involves cultivating, nurturing, and practicing the cognitive and emotional faculty of loving.

If You Want to Be Loved, Love

Idea for Impact: Love, and Be Deserving of Love

To relish this complex and richest of all experiences, focus on offering love rather than on being loved.

As the Indian philosopher Nolini Kanta Gupta (1889–1983) once said, “The secret of love is the joy of self-giving. The secret of joy is self-giving. If any part in you is without joy, it means that it has not given itself, it wants to keep itself for itself.”

If you want to be loved, love.

No one unqualified to bestow love upon others is himself/herself deserving of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Confucius on Dealing with People

Confucius on Dealing with People The teachings of Confucius (551 BCE–479 BCE) have dominated Chinese traditions and philosophy for centuries. He taught followers to lead a virtuous and righteous life, love others, honor one’s parents, lead by example, and treat others as one would like to be treated:

  • Confucius on keeping one’s wits about one: “The superior man may let others lie to him but not make a fool of him. The superior man encourages what is beautiful in men; the inferior man, what is unbeautiful.”
  • Confucius on the spirit of humanity: “What makes a place beautiful is the humanity that dwells there. He who is able to choose and does not settle among humane people is not wise.” Moreover, “the superior man does not neglect his neighbors” and “the superior man honors the worthy and tolerates all men.”
  • Confucius on showing consideration for people of all ages and from all walks of life: “Let me respect the tranquility of the ages; let me be loyal to my friends; let me love children tenderly.”
  • Confucius on managing parents: “Serve them in life.” It is not enough to feed one’s parents “if respect is absent, wherein should we differ from the beasts?” If parents seem to be mistaken, we may respectfully argue and protest, but we must obey them.
  • Confucius on managing friendships: “Have no friend who is not your equal.” Also, friends should “loyally admonish one another and tactfully set one another right.” Friends should be dependable: “even if the season be cold, we know that pines and cypresses are evergreen.”
  • Confucius on the right conduct toward authority-figures: “A good official serves his prince in the right way; if that is impossible, he withdraws.” Further, a good official “will not circumvent the prince but oppose him openly” and “will not be chary of good advice.” Moreover, “if the country is on the right path, he may speak and act boldly; if it is not on the right path, he may act boldly, but he will speak cautiously.”
  • Confucius on the right conduct toward subordinates: “The superior man gives his servants no ground for complaint that he makes insufficient use of them, but (unlike the inferior man) he does not expect perfection; he takes men’s abilities into account and does not dismiss old and trusted servants without grave cause.”

'From The Great Philosophers, Volume I' by Karl Jaspers (ISBN 0156835800) Reference: German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Karl JaspersThe Great Philosophers (trans. Ralph Manheim.) I recommend The Great Philosophers for its delightful introductions to the philosophies of four great minds from the “East” (i.e. east of the Danube river:) Jesus, Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha.

What Is the Point of Life, If Only to Be Forgotten?

While traveling around the magical Norwegian Fjords and contemplating life one day last summer, I recalled a young man’s story. He had spent many years in an Indian prison despite being acquitted because everyone had forgotten about him.

What Is the Point of Life

Forgotten

In 1988, Pratap Nayak was arrested at the age of 14 after getting caught in a violent clash between two rival families in his village in the state of Orissa. A corrupted lower court promptly sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Thanks to the Indian judicial system’s sluggishness, it took six years for a High Court to pronounce Nayak innocent. Unfortunately, nobody informed him or the prison officials about this judgment and his lawyer had died during the intervening years. Nayak’s family had assumed helplessness and lost touch with both him and with the lawyer.

Nayak remained in jail for eight more years after acquittal until a prison system auditor realized that Nayak wasn’t supposed to still be in prison. When he was finally freed at age 28, he was astonished and said, “no one bothered about me … not even my own family.”

When Nayak was finally reunited with his impoverished family of bamboo craftsmen, his father cried, “How shall I take care of him? We don’t get enough to eat ourselves. Had he completed his education, he would have had a good job by now. They ruined his life.”

“Life’s but a walking shadow … then is heard no more”

Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 22–31) contains one of the most eloquent expressions of our lives’ cosmic insignificance:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The Meaning of Life

What Difference Does It Make What We Do with Our Lives?

Whenever I’m enjoying the splendor of the mountains and the waters—as I did in the Norwegian Fjords—and marvel at how these natural elements came to be millions of years ago, I meditate upon the fact that what we identify as our lifespan is but a tiny sliver in the grand timeline of the cosmos. We’re born, we live, we die, and then, as Shakespeare reminds us in Macbeth, we are “heard no more.”

In the grand scheme of things, everything is pointless, irrelevant, and ultimately insignificant. Our lives are impermanent and almost everything that most of us accomplish during our lives will someday become obsolete and be forgotten.

Yet, we rouse ourselves out of bed every day and engage in various activities that are all somehow tied to a purpose or mission—a mission we’ve either consciously created for ourselves or subconsciously accepted as an assignment from somebody. Central to this mission is that we hope to bring about more meaning to the lives of people around us.

This mission imbues us with a sense of purpose—invariably, it is a manifestation of a strong desire within ourselves to bring value, meaning, and joy for others and ultimately for ourselves as well. Even the prospect of smiling, complimenting, or expressing gratitude to another person feels good and adds to our own happiness because we know we’re adding more meaning to the other’s life.

The Key to a Life Well-led Is to Make as Big a Difference as You Can

Idea for Impact: The Key to a Life Well-led Is to Make as Big a Difference as You Can

The utmost measure of a life well-led is how you use your unique talents to do the most good you can. Enrich your life by trying to make a difference. Better yet, try to make the biggest difference you can. Perhaps if you’re fortunate enough—as the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Bill Gates were/are—your contribution can create ripple effects and create an enduring legacy that lasts long after you’re gone.

If you want to be remembered and appreciated for having contributed something to the world, strive to live in the service of others and make the largest possible positive difference you can. That’s the key to a life well-led.

Stressed, Lonely, or Depressed? Could a Pet Help?

Pets and physical responses to stress

Getting a pet may be just what a doctor might order to help overcome stress, loneliness, and depression.

For reasons not completely understood, we need animals as much as they need us.

  • Scientific studies have confirmed anecdotal evidence that pets can play a role in taming physical responses to stress. Blood pressure is shown to drop sharply when people merely rub a cat or a dog. The presence of a loved pet can have a calming influence on blood pressure and heart rate, especially when performing a task that might induce physical and mental stress. Even watching fish in an aquarium can reduce anxiety in dental patients waiting for oral surgeries.
  • Pets can be great buffers against everyday stress, thereby improving long-term physical and mental health. After a hard day at work, playing with a pet can be an effective way of unwinding and reducing stress. Around the world, more delighted frenzies are welcoming people at the end of their hard days at work. An estimated 63% of American, 43% of British, 20% of Japanese, and 60% of Australian households have pets. The proportion of households with pets is growing in India, China, and other developing countries as the burgeoning middle-classes have greater disposable incomes.

Pets and children

  • Pets can be a great source of nurturance for children. Pets can provide children with many formative experiences in caring for others, including, possibly, the first glimpse of death and the chance to cope with the loss of a loved one.
  • Pet and companionship Pets are non-judgmental and accept their owners without qualification. They provide unconditional love and companionship. Having dogs encourages their owners to get out often, exercise, and meet more people. One study showed that people in wheelchairs got much friendlier responses in public places when they brought along their dogs.
  • Pet ownership can be a gratifying surrogate for human companionship, especially for people with limited social support systems. People with pets cope better with the impacts of adverse life events. At nursing homes, visiting therapy dogs lift the spirits of elders who tend to be sad or withdrawn.
  • The mere presence of somebody—even a pet—that one can care about can bring about a sense of purpose and great joy. [Look at this touching chronicle of an 87-year old grandmother in Japan and her beloved cat.]

Idea for Impact: Consider adopting a pet

Plenty of cats and dogs at humane shelters may die if not adopted. Choose a pet that fits your lifestyle. Understand that owning a pet is not for everyone; pets involve additional responsibility, which can be added-on stress. If your circumstances do not allow you to own a pet, offer to walk a friend’s dog regularly, babysit a vacationer’s cats, or volunteer at an animal shelter, clinic, or pet store.