Some reading for your long weekend.
October 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ best known novel, Tarzan of the Apes. In this short piece Jason Haslam, editor of the Oxford World’s Classics anniversary edition of the novel, questions why “Tarzan struck a chord with a large and wide-ranging audience 100 years ago, in ways that transformed the character from just another pulp hero and into an American cultural icon and a global phenomenon”:
I pose these questions not to answer them here (this is simply a short entry, after all), but to point to the difficult but valuable discussions a seemingly “simple” artefact of popular culture can raise. One hundred years on, Tarzan’s yell still has a way of echoing with various audiences and in varying ways.
Expressive writing, the act of writing about your feelings and emotions, has been demonstrated to have benefits for both physical and psychological well-being. But in this article Wray Herbert reports on new research that found the opposite effect for people who were going through a divorce.
University of Arizona psychological scientist David Sbarra and colleagues decided to investigate the underpinnings of expressive writing, but they wanted to do more than that. They also wanted to see if they might improve upon the intervention. They had the idea that writing a coherent story about the difficult experience of ending a marriage might have benefits beyond simply writing about anger and guilt and humiliation. They suspected that narrative itself has psychological value, helping to integrate thoughts and emotions into something that makes sense and has meaning.
So they designed an experiment to compare traditional expressive writing with a novel variation based of storytelling. They recruited men and women who were recently separated and randomly assigned them to one or the other intervention. Those in the traditional therapy were told to write for three days about their private thoughts and feelings, while those in the novel therapy were instructed to narrate the story of their marriage and its dissolution. They could write the story in the first-person or as an observer, but the key was to have a coherent tale, with a beginning, a middle, and an imagined end somewhere in the future. A third group, the controls, simply wrote about their day — when the alarm woke them, what they ate for breakfast, and so forth. The scientists predicted that those who did the writing intervention — either traditional or narrative — would do better than controls, and that those who crafted a coherent story would do better than those who merely wrote about feelings.
The surprise finding:
When the scientists evaluated the volunteers’ emotional condition up to nine months later, they found that those who were prone to brooding or actively seeking meaning did significantly worse following a writing intervention — either the traditional or the story writing. This was the exact opposite of what they had predicted. Looked at another way, it means that those who wrote about the quotidian details of their daily lives — the controls — fared best over the long haul.
The researchers suggest some possible reasons for this result:
Although it’s common for people to look for meaning in traumatic experiences, many never actually find the meaning they are seeking. A prolonged search that fails to find meaning just makes things worse, and writing interventions may exacerbate the sense of futility. It’s possible that engaging in expressive writing while the experience is still unfolding — still raw and upsetting — may intensify rather than lessen the distress. The act of writing might could also make people focus narrowly on themselves and their neediness. . . . It’s plausible that writing about boring and ordinary stuff helps divorcing men and women to re-engage in their daily lives without focusing on emotional pain and loss.
This research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
But see the following related article.
Over on the Huffington Post blog Lisa Arends has advice on how writing can help people cope after divorce: “Writing has a way of helping you make sense of the senseless and find your path again.”
This statement seemingly contradicts the study results discussed above. However, there is a big difference in methodology. In the study cited above, people simply wrote about their experiences and feelings and then were done. But Arends suggests a more elaborate and extensive process of writing that allows for working through the experience to understand and find meaning in it. Her writing process includes the following steps:
- write a rough draft
Her description of the first step, prewriting, sounds a lot like the writing that the participants in the study above did. Here’s what Arends has to say about prewriting:
This is the time to purge all of the negative emotions. Do not censor yourself. Do not worry about sentence structure or grammar; simply let the words flow. This stage is wonderful for helping to cleanse the mind of all of the poisonous emotions that can damage the self or others if bottled up or inappropriately expressed. Stay at this stage until the anger has lessened to the point where rationality has returned.
But the difference comes in the next three steps of the writing process. These steps encourage people to go beyond the pain of the moment in search of meaning:
2. write a rough draft:
After you have purged your mind of the initial anger and hurt, it is time to start making sense of your trauma. Craft your preliminary version, focusing on organizing your thoughts and ideas. This is the time to begin making sense of your story. Examine cause and effect. Consider different perspectives. Blend the raw emotion from your pre-writing with rational thought born from time and distance.
The editing process allows you to find distance from your story. Each time you read it, especially as your focus is on the mechanics rather than the content, you will find that you become slightly more removed from the pain. Read it as though it is not your story. Are your thoughts and feelings clear? Is there figurative language that helps others relate? As you work to make yourself understood, you will understand yourself even better.
This step can be as simple as an anonymous blog post, sharing your writing with a counselor, pastor, friend or even leaving your typed, unsigned writing on a coffee shop table. Regardless of your methods, this step fulfills two critical components. First, when we hold something in, we often begin to view it as something shameful that should be kept from the light of day. Releasing your story helps to relieve some of that shame and guilt that we are all prone to keep close. Furthermore, when you publish your words, you let go of them. They are no longer yours alone, but they become part of the larger narrative that weaves us all together. By sharing your writing, you are showing that you own your story. It is yours to tell as you wish. This helps to take you out of a victim mode and casts you as the author of your life.
Arends concludes the article with some writing suggestions to help people going through divorce write—and right—the rest of their story.
Writing is not the only way to deal with a traumatic experience, and it doesn’t work for everybody. But the steps outlined here may provide a way for people to begin to come to terms with the painful experiences of their lives.
Vera I. Fahlberg, M.D., author of A Child’s Journey Through Placement (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2012), discusses the importance of life story for adopted children:
It is difficult to grow up to be a psychologically-healthy adult without having had to one’s own history. Traditionally, the family is the repository of knowledge about the child. Children separated from their families of origin do not have daily access to this source of information about their personal histories. It becomes more difficult for them to develop a strong sense of self and to understand how the past may influence present behaviors. Without this awareness, it will be more difficult for them to make conscious choices and to take responsibility for their own behaviors. For this reason, we believe a Lifebook should be made for each child. It is never too late or too early to make a Lifebook.
The Lifebook is designed to enable the child to understand significant events in the past, confront the feelings that are secondary to these events, and become more fully involved in the future planning of their lives. Frequently, the first step is to learn how he explains himself to himself, and what he understands his situation to be. This means listening for the child’s perceptions of these matters. Until we do this, we won’t know if we are to expand their information or correct their perceptions. Each time the Lifebook is read, the child is likely to understand the message in a slightly different way, reflecting her current intellectual abilities and psychological needs.