Expressive Writing | A Creative Path To Well Being
We are delighted to welcome our newest creative contributor to the team!
Belinda Bennetts is a therapeutic writing facilitator, poet, and author of non – fiction. In her work she helps people rediscover their creativity through intuitively guided creative writing experiences. Her core teaching includes writing to awaken, which guides people on an intimate journey of self inquiry and discovery to help them rediscover their true nature, authentic voice and calling in the world.She also facilitates write to wellness programs within businesses, helping individuals achieve better work/life balance and creatively deal with the common stresses of modern life.
Belinda is the author of Fear to Love – An Inner Journey Home, a memoir, which was published in 2016.
‘Writing makes a map, and there is something about a journey that begs to have its passage marked’ Christina Baldwin
No one can really describe what rock bottom feels like. When you’re so in the depths of despair you literally don’t know who you are anymore. I don’t even think I had the energy to think those thoughts, as I stood in front of my mirror in 2015. Everything I thought I was, my entire identity, lay shattered in pieces. My marriage was over, I had sold up my home, immigrated half way across the world to Northern Ireland, and there I was – a single mum in the depths of darkness, with no idea how I was going to make it through the next day. If it had been three years prior that all of this had happened, I’d have fallen prey to the toxic habits I had leaned on in the past. But this time I had a beautiful child to protect.
As I continued to look at the stranger in the mirror, I began to cry. Tears rolled slowly down my cheeks, and I let them. I cried and cried, for what felt like hours. You know that feeling when you just bawl your eyes out, so hard there is nothing left, and you end up on a heap on the floor? That was me.
A few days later, as I sat alone in my kitchen after putting my daughter to bed, I pulled out my journal. I can’t remember now what I wrote that night – all I know is that from that moment on, I couldn’t stop the pull to pour out all of my thoughts and feelings onto the page. After a while I switched from journal to laptop and day after day, for what seemed like forever, I wrote. Often, I would cry. Tears would drop onto my keyboard, and I’d wipe them away. For three intense months I poured my heart and soul out onto the page. Finally, I typed the words ‘The End.’
Some time afterwards I opened the document and began to read what I had written. When I reached the end, I realised something – that even though I had been in a heightened state of emotion as I wrote, my writing appeared to follow what I can only describe as stages or steps. Three to be precise. I named the stages:
SELF-INQUIRY, SURRENDER, AND COMING HOME.
My hours of uninhibited expressive writing had been guided by something beyond my conscious thinking, and I had been taken on a healing journey that enabled me to venture into places within that I had been too scared to go to because they were so painful. My writing had taken me way beyond the reality I was facing at the time, it took me back into early childhood, back to the very beginning stages when I had first started setting beliefs about who I was.
Once these places had been explored and transferred to the page in front of me, I was able to gain a different perspective on them. It somehow diffused the intense emotion and gave me the space to see there was a part of me that was unbroken, wise, and able to help me rediscover who I was. In essence:
I was able to identify and become witness to the stories I had created about who I was in the world
I was able to heal from emotional wounds that I hadn’t even realised were holding me back
I was able to see the truth of who I was beneath everything that told me I was someone else
My life transformed as a result of this. I began to experience a much more realistic and whole relationship with myself and others, and I slowly but surely nurtured myself back into joy.
I decided later to publish my story, in the hopes it would help others who might be going through something similar. What I have come to learn over the years is that we are not all as different as we think we are. We all go through stuff – we all have our bags we carry.
After publishing my book, which I called ‘Fear to Love – An Inner Journey Home,’ I found myself wondering if there was some way, I could use the three-step journey I had been taken on and create a program that helped others. I wanted to know more about expressive writing first though, and so I began to do some research.
The first person I discovered was memoirist and teacher Mark Matousek. As I read about his books, I could see he had experienced a similar journey through expressive writing, and I could strongly relate to his philosophy:
‘When you tell the truth, your story changes, and when your story changes, your life is transformed.’
Later I discovered a man named Dr James Pennebaker, chair of Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and pioneer in the research of expressive writing. In his landmark project, conducted in 1986, he developed an expressive writing prompt to uncover the potential health benefits of writing about emotional upheaval. Results of his study showed that not only did expressive writing help people process and release trauma, it also boosted immunity and increased healing. Today, his research project has been replicated hundreds of times with positive outcomes.
I decided to go further back, and discovered that writing as a form of therapy existed years before Pennebaker’s study. One of the most well-known examples of this is The Diary of Anne Frank, written during the two years she was in hiding with her family from the Nazi’s in the Netherlands. One would not be out of place to assume her diary was a means of coping with the severe anxiety and distress caused through fear of being discovered.
Examples can also be found in Ancient Greece in the word catharsis, which means ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’ and refers to the purification and purging of emotions through art, that results in renewal and restoration.
Discovering meaning in the writing
Finally, I read about psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, of the University of Iowa. Her studies helped me understand my journey even more. She suggested that simply reliving upsetting events without focussing on meaning is not positive. We need to find meaning in our experiences to allow people to develop greater awareness of the positive aspects of stressful events, and how they have shaped us into who we are.
“You need focused thought as well as emotions,” says Lutgendorf. “Individuals need to find meaning in memories, as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
Dr James Pennebaker draws a parallel when he writes “people who talk about things over and over in the same ways aren’t getting any better. There has to be growth or change in the way they view their experiences.”
I could see this in my writing, when I went through what I called the coming home stage.
I began to feel a calling to create a space for others to begin their own expressive writing journeys, in whatever capacity was right for them. I spent months working on my first course, which I called WRITE TO AWAKEN. Once it was completed, I approached the Crescent Art Centre in Belfast, and asked if they would consider including it as part of their program for the Belfast Book Festival. They said yes.
I was absolutely blown away by how the simple exercises and guided visualisations I chose for the program allowed participants to go exactly where they needed to go. Their own inner wisdom guided them, and the program, as one participant said,
“Really spoke to the depths that writing can take us on our personal journey of revelation and understanding.”
Since then, my work has developed in ways I would never have imagined possible, and I am fortunate enough to work with individuals and groups from all walks of life, from women who have been involved in the Justice system, to groups who wish to reconnect with their creativity. As I create different programs to meet different needs, I have discovered is that expressive writing can be used in whatever capacity the individual requires. For example, not everyone needs to delve into childhood memories, and not everyone has painful experiences they need to process. Yet they still benefit immensely from expressive writing as it can help them release the stresses of day to day life and be a space in which they can really connect to themselves.
Whatever stage you are at on your life journey, expressive writing can give you the space to, as one of my participants so beautifully said, “explore your inner being and creativity.”
In every program, from Writing for Mindfulness, to Uncage your Creativity, I witness the power expressive writing can have. For example, in one of the Write to Awaken courses, a lady was able to release the belief that she was not enough. It happened during an exercise in which I get the group to imagine putting something they wish they didn’t have into a box, which is then sealed and buried. They then write about how this feels to them, and afterwards share what they have written with the group. The lady I refer to wrote of how ‘not being enough’ had been a belief she had carried for years but hadn’t realised it. She spoke of how releasing it was like letting go of an intimate part of herself, but that in the letting go she was opening herself to a more honest and loving connection with herself.
Author | Belinda Bennetts | Writer