Psychotherapy is often called the “talking cure." Whether you are an Adlerian, Freudian, Jungian, or even unfashionably Kleinian most of the cure involves conversations. Others have climbed on the ladder. Indeed there is a range of therapeutic options mostly, but not exclusively, involving talk.

Cynics point to a valuelessness of “therapism” where the mildest life set-back seems to call for a trauma counsellor, a relationship therapist or a self-esteem educator. People learn never to cope on their own. Indeed, Britain’s favourite poem, Kipling’s “If," with lines like: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same” speaks to the value of stoicism, not therapy-seeking."

So we have a curious array of people happy to call themselves “Emotion Ventilationist” in therapy for everything. And despite their so called disapproval of labelling, are happy to describe their opponents as ‘denialists’, so subtly, echoing the climate and holocaust sceptics.

Psychologist have noted a distinction between what they call ‘sensitisers’ and ‘repressors’. The former see “letting it all hang out” as essential to well-being; the latter “putting it out of the mind and keeping busy” as a lot more beneficial. The latter argue the former leads to self-indulgence, self-pity and introspection addiction, while the former see the stoical repressors as emotionally buttoned up and out of touch with their emotions.

The research literature is as equally, rather equivocal in which works best. It’s a case of horses for courses: depends on the person, the problem, the therapist and the therapy.

But there is another therapy known to many over the years: writing as therapy. Poets have encapsulated great pain and pleasure as well as awe and awefulness in sparse beautifully crafted words.

Over the past few decades the therapeutic power of writing has been discovered. Old people are encouraged first to learn to write but then to tell their story.

The task can require serious, introspection: an attempt to make sense of the past. To examine it from various angles rather than simple to try to shift blame onto others.

This is much more than simple trying to write pretty sentences. It is about singling out experiences, events and people that contributed to one’s life. Seeing cause and effect, understanding psychological processes can significantly increase self-understanding. Suddenly things become apparent: patterns observed explanations obvious.

Writing is also often redemptive. And it helps because nearly always it involves some commitment to change. Autobiographical writing is about the past; another country. A place where things were done differently. A place of no return. Hence the journey theme in so many accounts. So now one can move on: change.

In counselling they call it “therapeutic alliance”. It’s the feeling that one is better accepted, respected and understood by the therapist to whom all hearts are often, all desires known. The same is true of the reaction to readers. Old people, prisoners, disturbed children are often surprised, then delighted by the reaction of others to their stories. People take an interest and many writers feel they become allies helping them in the journey.

One consequence of writing ones story leads to an interest in the experience of others. It stimulates the reading of other auto-biographies particularly those who have had similar experiences.

And there is now a veritable cornucopia of writings to choose from. Alas perhaps the ‘confessional’ auto-biography has become very popular. There are now dozens of agonising books about child abuse by parents, priests and relatives. One suspects the popularity of this genre is, in some instances, a motivation for writing the book and exaggerating the issues.

Of course writing a book is not necessarily confined to the literate. One can dictate a book and have that transcribed. Indeed many writers do dictate pacing up and down and hearing as much as tasting their own words.

It does take some effort. Most people begin with classes. The “writer in residence”, the eclectic therapist, the insightful carer often has to persuade the doubting and diffident person in their care to have a go. We hear, of course, nearly always, and only the success stories. Clearly writing does not work for all.

But it’s amazingly cheap and effective. And possibly also non-addictive though there are exceptions to that

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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