Selfauthoring.com is a series of online writing exercises designed to help people articulate the past, present and future. It’s based in part on the work done by James Pennebaker. His book on the topic is called Opening Up by Writing it Down. The future authoring program, which we have studied most intently, has helped thousands of university students improve their grades (+20%) and decrease the probability of dropout (-25%). A paper detailing some of those results can be found here.
Selfauthoring.com user: Hi Dr Peterson, I started doing the ‘Past Authoring’ exercise this evening. I was pretty sure before I started that I’d made peace with most of the events in my life. But very quickly into the exercise I was hit with a sudden wave of feeling that everything is pointless, call it depression maybe. I’m pretty sure it was related to the prospect of looking into my past as I don’t get these feelings very often anymore. My question is; should I wait until I’m feeling better and go back to the exercise, or should I stare into the abyss and see what the abyss has to say?
My reply: That is not uncommon. The research indicates that initial unhappiness may result. But the effect over months is beneficial. The “abyss” indicates that there are events in your life that you are still carrying. Writing your way through them should be helpful. It’s standard practice for facing the unknown to start with fear, even dread. There is an exception, however: Writing about very recent trauma (say, more recently than 18 months) might be ill-advised as, without some temporal delay, there can be little difference between remembering and being re-traumatized. It is for this reason that “trauma counselling” in the immediate aftermath of a terrible event can do more harm than good. I would also say, however, that you don’t have to terrify yourself to benefit. Start with just a sketch of the event that is bothering you. Wait a day or two. Then come back to it, and fill in some details. It doesn’t hurt to have a period of sleep in between writing episodes. It’s also good to concentrate on what you have learned from the event (particularly if that learning lowers your future risk of the same negative events).
Selfauthoring.com user: I’m going to sleep on it tonight and resume tomorrow. It’s an uncomfortable exercise for me but I can tell it will be beneficial. I guess these waves of feeling that everything is pointless is part of the process of cutting through to what’s meaningful to me, right? Thanks again for your support, and keep up the good work. I really appreciate the material that you’re putting out on the web. All the best.
My reply: Don’t feel that you have to push yourself too hard. Even tentatively encountering feelings of dread and anxiety can be helpful, as long as you get something written down. Do a bad job, if necessary. There’s nothing like a good bad job to get you started.