Embracing Necessary Negativity: Journaling to HealSeptember 13 , 2013

Let’s say you feel like crap.  And — this time — you know it’s driven by something external.  Maybe you lost your job, someone dear to you passed on, you didn’t get a promotion you’d been expecting, or an important relationship just ended.  This is the necessary negativity in our lives — the negativity that comes to all of us sooner or later.   And it still feels like crap.   (read about necessary vs. gratuitous negativity here)  It’s clear from the research that the only way to manage these negative emotions in a healthy way is to let them in.  That’s right.  Let. Them. In.

The key is to go towards the pain, to be present for it and allow it to work through your body and your mind.   Over the next several posts we’ll be talking about tools you can use to go into this pain, work through it and ultimately come out the other side having grown from the experience.   (*** One critically important caveat is to check-in with yourself.  If you are showing signs of severe depression — not able to get out of bed for several mornings, consistent sleep disturbances or suicidal thoughts —  seek immediate help from a licensed therapist or psychologist.  It’s not the time to work through your pain alone.)

Today I’ll focus on one of the most well-studied and well-understood tools for working through negative emotions:   expressive writing.

The Research

More than 200 studies over 25 years have evaluated the benefits of expressive writing about emotional upheaval.  These studies show that there are profound benefits — less depression, reduced anxiety, better overall health, fewer doctor visits, improved immune function and better sleep.   Students who go through the process get better grades and laid-off employees find new jobs more quickly.

It sounds sort of woo-woo, and no one knows exactly why this works so well, but researchers believe that expressive writing helps us organize events and emotions in our mind.  This allows us to make some sense of what happened, to come to terms with it or to start to accept it.  Instead of keeping busy suppressing these thoughts, expressive writing forces us to really dig in and sort them out.

How To Do the Expressive Writing Method

  • Pick a time and place where you won’t be disturbed
  • Write for a minimum of 15 minutes
  • Write continuously.  Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or making whole sentences.  Just write.
  • Do this for 4 consecutive days
  • Hand-write or type on a computer, it doesn’t matter
  • Write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about this upsetting experience. Let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your greatest fears or hopes, people you have loved or love now, or your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?  It is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.
  • This writing is for you and not to be shared.  When writing, plan to throw away, delete or burn whatever you write.

For many people doing this writing makes them more upset for a time.  But just like watching a sad movie this typically goes away in an hour or two while the benefits can last a lifetime.

Your Task

If things are going well for you right now, there’s no need to do this process.  But if you are struggling with some emotional upheaval in your life, take on this simple writing assignment.  Commit to working through the difficult emotions and you’ll start to have a better understanding  and feel more control, which will ultimately help you get past these challenges and grow from them.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach
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