I’ve been a writer longer then I’ve been a therapist, and so it comes to me as no surprise that writing, and narrative, have seeped into my work. What I want to share with you are some thoughts on how you can encourage clients to tap into the healing power of writing and narrative, and some good reasons (in my humble opinion) for doing so. Many clients may already be keeping a journal even before they come into therapy, but I find that people often limit themselves in journal writing to either venting their emotions, or simply recording the day’s events.

There is nothing wrong with venting feelings or recording events, and either of these uses of writing can be therapeutic. What I’m interested in, though, is helping clients to “shift their story” through writing. What do I mean by this? Many people, by the time they finally decide to seek therapy, are often in crisis and “stuck in their stories.” In the tradition of narrative therapy, I like to pay attention to what people tell me when I meet with them for the first time, and I’m very interested in how they “story” their lives. Usually it goes something like this: “I’m a horrible loser, and I keep doing the same thing over and over and I don’t want to but I can’t stop.” They usually tell the worst version of their life story.

The interesting thing is that these “stuck” stories that clients express are usually true! They simply aren’t the whole story. I often think that I wouldn’t want someone to write a story about my life with only the negative parts, and leave out any of my strengths. This is precisely what someone stuck in depression or addiction usually does—express a somewhat factual but only partial account of their lives. What I find is that when someone who is stuck like this keeps a journal, it usually only serves to reinforce their “stuckness” and goes something like this: “Well, I messed up again today. That’s no surprise, given that a loser I am.” (This would NOT be a therapeutic use of writing!)

If a client expresses that they have an interest or willingness to try writing in a journal, I will ask them to imagine the blank page as a safe space where they can try out new ideas and new stories about themselves without being judged. And this is where I feel that writing can be most therapeutic. I will ask clients to write about a success that they had during the week, no matter how small that success is, and write about it in great detail. Additionally, it can be useful to ask a client to explore who they would be if they didn’t feel so stuck in their problem. Most important, I ask the client to imagine themselves as being on a journey, where they can travel away from their current story about themselves and end up somewhere else. And through writing, they can explore that “somewhere else” in a safe manner. No one else ever has to see what they write.

More important than any particular writing technique or style is the power of allowing a blank page to become much more than a blank page. When a person truly allows a piece of paper (or blank screen) to become a safe space for exploring dreams, wishes, hidden strengths and values, an amazing transformation occurs. Suddenly the horrible story of being stuck is revealed to be just that, a story. And since stories are written, they can be revised, especially if we are the ones who wrote the story in the first place. Writing then becomes an empowering act that sparks the client’s creativity and imagination.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy