In this blog post, I discuss how to use journaling and freewriting to help break those unserving cycles in your life, based on advancements in developmental psychology. Note that I am not a psychologist and I encourage you to do your own reading and study as well.
I’ve been writing this blog for a few years and I’ve always hoped that something I share on it helps someone. As someone who has come through a lot, I’ve also figured out a lot and am passionate about sharing things I’ve learned along the way.
Today I want to share a simple exercise I learned recently. It helps tremendously with emotional healing and breaking unserving cycles.
Survival instincts and overlearning
Developmental psychology teaches us that humans as children are very sensitive. This is because as a child, survival depends on our caregiver(s). Everything is heightened for children, because a child’s brain development at that stage perceives any and every response from a caregiver as the difference between life and death.
This is true even in loving, safe and nurturing upbringings. It’s a basic function of the developing brain to keep you alive. It’s the survival instinct.
As a child grows, they learn. They develop conscious and unconscious learnings.
These can be helpful, like looking both ways before crossing the street. But something that also happens is that children will “overlearn” something. This is the idea that what fires together wires together.
Is this only about traumatic experiences?
This can be ANY experience. It doesn’t need to be a trauma (though it certainly can be). Regardless of what the impactful event was, what happens is that the part of us that overlearned something remains at that age, while the rest of us continues to develop.
This can result in our holding ourselves back, or finding ourselves in repeating cycles that frustrate us.
That’s where this journaling exercise comes in
That’s where this simple exercise comes in. It was developed by a psychologist named Dr. James W. Pennebaker. This exercise has been shown in something like 300 studies to have quantitative and qualitative positive effects for people who do it. I’ve been doing it and it’s absolutely helped me.
It only takes 15 minutes, 4 days in a row. But do promise yourself you’ll do the 4 days in a row.
Here’s what to do
- Choose your event and time
- Choose one impactful event you remember from your early years. Not something super recent. It’s okay if it’s not obvious why that event is the one popping to mind, but just go with whatever event comes to mind.
- Once you have chosen one impactful event, set your phone for 15 minutes and make sure you will be undisturbed.
- Now write about it as if you were back in that event. Just freewrite about your experience of it as if you were back there, from your own perspective and experience.
- And then write about it as if you are showing up on the scene as an adult now.
- That’s it. Just write nonstop on these two things for 15 minutes. If you run out of things to write and there’s still time left, start at the beginning and keep going.
- Repeat for 4 days in a row
- And then do this for 4 days in a row.
- Use the same impactful event for the 4 days.
- Option to burn the pages (be firesafe please).
You can burn these after you’re done writing (please be firesafe). The idea isn’t to reread any of this, the value is in the activity of the writing itself.
Some important notes
The purpose of this writing is to help that part of you that overlearned something that’s no longer serving you. You’re going to help that part of yourself to be heard and to gently integrate with the other parts of you that have continued to grow and develop. In neurological-speak, it helps to integrate all the resourcefulness and abilities you have with the part of you that stopped learning out of self-protection.
Another thing to note – especially for folks who have experienced trauma: if you feel it’s retraumatizing or just too much (if you find you’re upset for more than 2 hours after) then you should back off for the time being and seek a professional therapist. Or maybe you’re just not ready yet. That’s okay. Give yourself the love, space and access to the supports you need.
Make sure you focus on one event for the 4 days. If you have a list of events you want to work through, that’s great! They’ll each need 4 days.
The results might not appear to be immediate, or maybe they will for you. But I encourage you to pay attention to how you approach situations differently, or even how differently you feel in those same situations.
If you loved this, you might enjoy this other content I’ve written here. And if you happen to love Tarot, I love using Tarot as an empowerment and reflective tool too! I have lots of content on that over here, and I’ve created a deck here.
Blessings and empowerment to you.