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Writing Therapy: To Cultivate Gratitude, You First Need to Understand Yourself

July 31, 2022

My earliest memory of experiencing gratitude goes back to my preschool years. Pink pyjamas. I really wanted pyjamas to sleep in. My parents were finally stepping out of poverty, and having pyjamas to sleep stylishly in was hardly on their agenda.  

So imagine my sheer joy on that fateful day that I came home from school, and Mum presented me with pink pyjamas. I recall it had collars, mauve pipings, and – “It was on sale, and everyone was trying to grab at them. People stepped on my hands, but I managed to get you this. Happy?” Mum asked.  

Happy? No. Guilty, yes. But also this new feeling stirring within. Gratitude. It would me take a couple of decades to encounter this word again.

More Than Gratitude Journal

My second brush with gratitude was intentional. I actively went seeking it. Or rather, to be more accurate, I was seeking to build myself a better life – and I realised that the hero ingredient was gratitude. Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and academic sceptic, Cicero once said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others.” It took many years of studies, research and stifling of my inner voice, screaming out that Cicero was right before I finally accepted it. He was right.  Gratitude was an attitude that didn’t come naturally to me. ‘Self-absorbed’, ‘spoilt’, ‘pampered’, ‘princess-mentality’, and ‘short-tempered’ were some terms people closest to me had often used to describe me. They were right.

I knew I needed to tailor myself a strategy that would see me through the initial stages of building myself a life well-lived. One that was beyond the vague concept of ‘willpower’, one that wasn’t simply built on buzzwords and clever marketing. 

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others.” 
– Cicero

In my quest, I took classes from Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology. I deeply researched Christopher Peterson’s groundbreaking work on Character Strengths and Virtues. I enrolled in countless classes, seminars and workshops based on The Science of Wellness. Consequentially, Revel took form, but it wouldn’t be until late 2020 that I finally found the desire, the drive, and the strategy to start myself on my journey towards a live well-lived.

Process (Understand, Accept) Your Past to Excel in Your Present

In my attempts to over-compensate for my ‘princess-mentality’, I soon earned a new label: ‘Pushover’. I was frustrated, angry, and felt grossly used and misused. Balance was what I sought but never seemed able to implement in my life. This season of life marked the beginnings of my interest in Psychology.  

As I grew more desperate to ‘fix myself’ I started relying on my education in Child Psychology. I drew on theories and studies to understand my behaviours and emotions. I read voraciously on philosophy, astrology and numerology (don’t tell my Mum). I studied religions and beliefs (don’t tell my Mum). I reached out to people I had cut ties with to understand how they perceived me, and my decisions (and yep, don’t tell my Mum).

Writing Therapy

As I read, talked and reflected more – I finally began to see myself better. Suppressed memories resurfaced. Childhood emotions, adolescent decisions and negative behaviours were understood and processed through writing therapy which helped me discover so much about myself, my thoughts, reasons, patterns, and emotions. Writing therapy was the first necessary step in my journey.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 
– Maya Angelou

Writing therapy – also called journal therapy, is a form of expressive writing that benefits your mind and body. It is often used by life coaches and in counselling sessions, but it can be done individually as a self-care strategy, too.

As relatively busy adults (but this very often happens with people of all ages, including young children), we tend to suppress the most painful feelings associated with negative experiences in our lives. While this feels like the right thing to do to ‘carry on’ with life, we are actually moving forward crippled by unprocessed feelings and emotions. On the flip side, we might allow the negative experience to dominate our life. In either scenario, we are becoming emotionally trapped, with the inability to process and make peace with the sentiments we connect to the negative experiences.

How Writing Therapy Works: The Science of It

Labelling our emotions, and finding words to elaborate on events and experiences – words to honestly describe our pain and emotions can be hard. This is an activity which engages both sides of your brain.

  • The left side of your brain provides rational thinking.
  • The right side of your brain provides ideas and images.

As we consistently practice this, both sides of our brain work together to rationally help us process, and find creative ways to gain greater clarity and understanding. We begin to eventually see the negative experience as a context of our whole life, rather than it as something crippling certain domains of our lives.

Writing therapy engages both sides of our brain to work together to rationally help us process, and find creative ways to gain greater clarity and understanding.

How and When Should I Use Writing Therapy

I typically recommend two primary usages of writing therapy. Let’s explore some simple techniques and exercises you can use in your own personal writing therapy.

  1. To discover the root of your problems, and/or negative emotions.

    1. Uncensored lists / Writing sprints
      Create a list or pour out your feelings, uninterrupted. Don’t stop to think or consider anything. This exercise helps dislodge feelings and emotions which might have been affecting you without your knowledge. Once the list is done. Make time to examine each of them. Ask yourself if there is actual truth to what you wrote about, and how you might deal with them. Lists help you connect the dots between your feelings and the situations that are causing them or are caused by them. Some might be real, some might be imagined. By identifying them, you are now gaining control over how you respond to these feelings.

    2. Biography of yourself
      This helps you view yourself and the roles you play in your life. It’s a great tool for you to understand how far you have progressed in your life, and can also help you focus on your goals for the future.

  2. To heal from a negative experience.

    1. Unsent letters
      The point of this exercise is to be as honest as possible. The ultimate goal is for you to process your current emotions, but not create more issues by sending it out or sharing it with someone else.

    2. Writing sprints / Personal Reflection Journal
      Pour out your feelings, uninterrupted. Don’t stop to think or consider anything. This exercise helps dislodge feelings and emotions which might have been affecting you without your knowledge. Some might be real, some might be imagined. By identifying them, you are now gaining control over how you respond to these feelings.

    3. Three Good Things / Gratitude Journal
      Expressing gratitude daily trains your brain to eventually prioritise seeing the positive qualities of situations before the negative.

Writing therapy is fundamental to processing negative experiences, so we can properly move on with building a life well lived. Aside from prompt journals and diaries, we carry a healthy selection of positive affirmation tools that will keep you motivated in your journey. If you’re looking for ideas, take me up on my free consultations which are offered (almost) weekly, Saturdays in Singapore.

ann thomas revel

Ann Thomas

Co-creator of the 2023 Gratitude Planner, and Founder of Revel, Ann is a passionate advocate of Positive Psychology. Pioneering the retail of wellness journals – dubbed the ‘one-stop journal shop’, Ann is on her mission to simplify wellness by making it easy to understand, and making solutions easy to access.

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