Choose processing

Opening Up By Writing It Down is a book about the benefits of expressive writing. It was a life-changing read for me. It explores how often we carry our most difficult experiences in secret, locking them in our brains where they cannot be adequately processed. When we release these experiences—either verbally or in writing—we begin to organize and understand them. Authors James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth explain, “Writing about the thoughts and feelings connected with unexpected experiences forces us to bring together their many facets. Once we can distill complex experiences into more understandable packages, we can begin to move beyond them.”

Expressive writing is available to us all. We just need something to write on (or speak into, like a voice recorder). Because nobody else has to be present for expressive writing (or talking) to work, those of us who are not ready to share our experiences with others can still use the technique.

One of the many lessons the book brought to my attention is the difference between venting and processing. This is an important distinction whether we practice expressive writing or not. Here’s how they contrast:

Venting is a way to express frustration or anger about an experience. It is not a self-reflective exercise, but it is often a self-righteous one, since it helps us look and feel “right” about our view of things. In the short term, venting can feel good. But after the initial benefits dissipate, we tend to feel worse. The authors write, “[C]omplaining . . . will not be particularly healing. Indeed, it may be harmful. Many studies have demonstrated that blindly venting anger often makes us angrier.”

Processing is about making sense of an experience and its meaning in our life. It helps us reflect on our thoughts, feelings, and actions. In the short term, processing is often uncomfortable, since it requires us to revisit difficult moments. But in the long term, it can clear our minds, help us solve problems, and improve our happiness and physical health.

To recap, venting helps momentarily but hurts in the long run, while processing hurts momentarily but helps in the long run. If you want to grow and develop, choose processing.

As with anything, expressive writing has its limits. For example, the authors note that we should not use expressive writing as a substitute for taking action. It can complement our action, but should not replace it.

In a future note, I will share some expressive-writing exercises that you can try, should you be interested. In the meantime, here’s a great, quick guide from UC Berkeley.

Thanks for reading! I hope this helps.


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Relating learning to our own experiences
"My plan is to triple our complaints."