Have you ever written a letter that you never sent or even planned to send? I have. Many of them. And if you are thinking “why?” I don’t blame you. After all, I know what I am thinking. I know what I am feeling. I don’t talk out loud to myself. So why would I write to myself? Or for myself?
But I assure you I am not the only one. And while it may not immediately make logical sense, there is a very good reason why so many of us write, even if the only reader will be ourselves.
Studies show that writers process feelings more quickly than non writers. Because it is not about if there is a reader of the writing, but the process of writing itself that allows us to process.
When we are overcome with emotion, we often lose our words. We don’t know how to express the intensity of the feelings running through us. Think about the universal reaction to something traumatic. We cover our mouths. We are beyond words. We have to protect what might come out as we are unsure of what it will be or if we can control it. So our eyes widen while our mouth opens with a silent (or not so silent) scream that we then cover with our hand. It is the universal sign for shock.
But then what comes next? Some cry. Some speak. Some escape. Some hide. And some write.
Those who write don’t process their emotions because they are stronger or smarter or more resilient. They process their emotions faster when they write because the act of writing and choosing specific words forces one to find a way of expressing a feeling and giving it a place that makes sense within the context of its description.
It may seem counterintuitive, but have you ever felt relieved when you go to the doctor in pain and after some questions and testing there is a diagnosis? While it seems strange to prefer to hear that something is wrong rather than nothing is wrong, the former has a benefit. Regardless of what we are told, we know something is wrong. So when that is validated with a diagnosis, it becomes objectively real. And if the problem exists, then it can be treated. When we are told that nothing is wrong and yet something is most definitely wrong, we are left with the same pain or issue, with no plan of action or anything to do about it. Having a diagnosis doesn’t in-and-of itself take the pain away, but it gives us hope that we can and will be able to do something to achieve that goal.
So too, writing about how we are feeling doesn’t automatically make the issue causing that feeling go away, but taking the time to write requires us to stop what we are doing, sit fairly still, concentrate, calm down and relax. And those are actions that help us process our emotions and start to heal. And then when we can acknowledge our feelings and understand them enough to choose the right words to describe them, that gives us a more objective level of understanding and distance from the feeling. We can then read out own words and then decide if we really do want to feel the way we are feeling, or if we want to choose to think and feel differently about the situation. If you don’t like the words you have chosen to describe yourself or your situation, you either need to change yourself or your situation or find another way to describe it. To edit is to further process and to grow.
So the next time you are at a loss for words from something that feels way too big to address, try sitting down and giving yourself ten minutes to write about it. You may just find those words after all, and when you do, you will likely feel that much clearer and better.