Expressive Writing: What It Is And How To Do It

expressive writing
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Did you enjoy writing stories as a child? Or maybe you kept a diary?

As adults, we tend to not choose writing as an outlet for creativity and self-expression (unless you’re an author or poet). Instead, our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and reflections remain largely internalized, feeding the inner chatter that constantly goes on in our minds.

The idea of keeping a diary or journaling may feel whimsical and leave you asking the “so what” question.

I started to write again nearly three years ago, at 38. As a student and academic, I have always enjoyed the process of writing. During a period of emotional upheaval, I turned to writing for a very different purpose. The trigger was the sudden end of a long-term relationship and the loss of everything I had known as my life for four years. I was struck with an intense feeling of not knowing who I was anymore, combined with the pain of heartbreak and rejection.

Initially, I lamented the pain and sat with the discomfort of difficult emotions and feelings in full-blown victimhood. As time passed, I began to get tired of the emotional pain.

One day, I was struck by an aha moment.

I realized that I could harness the power of pain to push me forward on a path of self-discovery and authenticity. It was time to work on myself, and that had to start with asking some uncomfortable questions.

How do I show up in relationships?

What self-sabotaging behaviors am I repeating?

Why do I have an urge to fix my partners?

Putting pen to paper seemed like a natural way to explore my thoughts and feelings. To gain a deeper understanding of the person I once was and the person I truly am. I began journaling as a way of emptying my head at the end of the day. It helped me sleep better. Slowly, I started writing longer self-expressive and reflective pieces as a cathartic release. To process what was happening at that time and in my past.

Writing is a powerful tool to explore our inner world, connect with our true selves, and encourage self-growth. It can be extremely helpful when processing many of life’s challenges such as bereavement, childhood trauma, divorce, escaping a toxic relationship, or ill health.

Let’s delve into the practice of expressive writing in more detail as I explain this writing style and how you can work it into your own self-discovery journey.

What is expressive writing?

Expressive writing is a formal term for something quite simple – using the written word to articulate what is on your mind and in your heart. It is personal and emotional writing that comes from the core. It is written as a stream of consciousness without regard to punctuation, grammar, and other writing conventions. There is no right or wrong format, although it may have the arc of a story, like traditional narrative writing, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

The focus is more on the feelings you experience rather than the detail of events, memories, places, or people in the contents of the narrative. You are paying attention to how you feel and think about what happened or is happening and actively reflecting on an issue to make better meaning and sense of it.

You are meant to let your deepest emotions, feelings, and thoughts loose as a healthy outlet to declutter the mind. Without judgment or editing.

The origins of expressive writing

James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist, was the first researcher to study the therapeutic effects of writing. In 1986, he ran a seminal study using expressive writing. Over four days, participants wrote continuously for 15 minutes. A control group wrote objectively about superficial topics. In contrast, an experimental group wrote about traumatic life experiences or their most challenging times. The latter were told to let go, to write freely, and to include their deepest thoughts.

The study revealed that the participants who had written about their hidden feelings and traumatic experiences made significantly fewer trips to their doctor in the subsequent six months.

Numerous studies have shown a strong connection between using expressive writing to write out your emotions and thoughts and improved physical, mental, and emotional health.

It is a common therapeutic tool in areas of psychology, mental health, trauma, and physical illnesses. It is a cathartic way of allowing patients to create distance from their emotions as they articulate them onto the page and assist themselves in healing from their experiences.

Is it different from journaling?

Like a diary or journal, expressive writing is a private space where you can write freely, without any constraints or inhibitions. But, unlike journaling which can be used to keep a daily record of events or practice gratitude, expressive writing is a much more intimate, purposeful, and emotional style of writing.

Expressive writing is best understood as a specific form of therapeutic journaling. It has its own distinct purpose and intended outcome, albeit there are synergies with other forms of journaling. Expressive writing goes beyond recording daily events and noting surface-level details of how you think and feel in the moment.

Instead, it’s a private space to delve into one’s deepest feelings and emotions, and to process and release an emotional build-up that stems from a particular event or interaction. It demands self-reflection and complete honesty, and it yields self-awareness and acceptance.

How could expressive writing help you?

You do not need to have journaled before, and you do not need to be a writer at all to benefit from expressive writing. We know that writing with pen and paper is good for decluttering the mind, but it is also helpful for your heart and soul. So how could expressive writing benefit your well-being?

1. It can provide meaning

Expressive writing allows you to organize your thoughts and create a story of empowerment and reflection about what happened. This further helps you process and find meaning in the event and your interactions with others.

2. It brings emotional insights

Writing freely in the moment, without self-judgment, editing or censoring feels incredibly liberating. It can lead to important emotional insights that are otherwise overlooked or remain hidden. You might realize, for example, that the anger you felt when your friend canceled on you last minute was actually hurt and sadness triggered by an underlying fear of rejection or unworthiness.

3. You can improve your relationships

Understanding yourself better means having a greater awareness of the behaviors, habits, and patterns that do and do not serve you well in the important relationships in your life. Writing expressively can also help reframe your thoughts about relationship problems more objectively and foster positive communication with your partner.

4. It is a way to challenge limiting beliefs and stories

Exploring who you have been in the past encourages you to question why you made certain choices and why you reacted and behaved that way. This leads you to challenge the limiting beliefs and negative stories that misguide and hold you back.

5. It is linked to better health

Expressive writing can improve your mood, reduce stress, ease mental fatigue, and make you feel lighter and less burdened. All by identifying and releasing your feelings and thoughts.

6. You can find new ways forward

During difficult times, you can feel overwhelmed by a range of emotions, and it can be hard to make sense of what is happening. In better times, expressive writing gives you the time and space to clear your mind of the messy emotions and thoughts attached to that experience and develop a fresh perspective.

How to begin your expressive writing practice

Start your expressive writing journey by choosing your pen and paper. You do not need anything fancy, but selecting a notebook or journal that makes it enjoyable for you to sit down and write is important. Also, think about where and when you want to write. You may choose to create a relaxing space with a candle and soft music or sit quietly in nature. Be sure to pick somewhere that allows you to write without interruption.

1. Make time for it

How often you choose to practice expressive writing is a personal choice. It might be once a day or once a week. It does not have to be a huge commitment for you to get results. Studies have found that 15-20 minutes is the optimum time to write; however, spending 5-10 minutes can be enough. The key is the consistency of practice.

2. Choose a topic

What you choose to write about is completely up to you. The only criterion is that it should be personal and important to you. Try to pick a different topic each time you write, although you can revisit a topic if you feel there is more to explore or an alternative perspective you can apply.

3. Use prompts

Some days you may struggle to know what to write about, and the words may not flow naturally. If this happens, consider prompts such as:

  • What doubts, fears, and worries have been playing on my mind recently?
  • When did I feel most happy and fulfilled today, and when did I feel unhappy?
  • It is time to let go of…
  • What do I need right now?

4. Write continuously and without judgment

Once you begin, let the words flow, and do not worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar, and structure. Keep your pen on the paper and write down what comes to mind at that moment. Without filtering it or pausing to edit. This is an experience for you alone, so really express your emotions and do not let fear hold you back.

5. Reflect

When you have finished writing, you can give yourself some time to reflect on what you have written. Do so with compassion and a sense of inquiry. Alternatively, you may choose to tear it up or shred it. Since you will not share your writing with anyone else, you can decide what to do with it. Choosing to tear up the pages may free you to write more openly and feel a greater sense of letting go of difficult emotions.

Are you ready to get started?

There is strength in using expressive writing to lay bare our truths and embrace our vulnerability. As the 13th-century mystic and poet Rumi wrote: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Writing gives us the power to observe and develop a deeper level of self-awareness and compassion. To reclaim some measure of agency in the story of our own life.

You do not have to be a professional writer to write expressively. You do not need eloquent words or a fancy notebook. Whoever you are, you can use expressive writing to help navigate and make sense of your experiences. To develop self-awareness and knowledge that will serve you well in the present and future.

Pick up a pen and express yourself rather than bottling it up.

Start to get to know and understand yourself better.

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