How to Make Sense of Challenging Experiences

If you find yourself confused, trying to make sense of events, or emotionally overwhelmed (who hasn’t?), one technique that can help is called expressive writing.

Expressive writing has a long tradition in the social sciences (starting as a method in the 1980s), most notably developed by James Pennebaker of the University of Texas.

Expressive writing is what you might expect. You write non-stop for 10-15 minutes to make sense of an emotional experience. It is often meant to be done each day over several days. It is a technique that has been used in hundreds of scientific studies, most notably to help individuals suffering from PTSD.1

In Organizational Learning and Performance, I talk about different metaphors of learning to add nuance to understanding the process of learning. One of the metaphors is of the self as a “developing author,” meaning you develop your ability to construct meaning from your experiences.2 This is the essence of expressive writing as a technique. You construct a new way of thinking about an event that can help you productively move forward.

For example, a group of professionals who had lost their jobs (with an average tenure of 20 years in the organization) were voluntarily recruited to a “Writing in Transition” project by an outplacement firm. Participants were asked to write for 20 minutes a day for five consecutive days. The prompt was to write “about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding the layoff and how their lives, both personal and professional, had been affected.”3 The participants were then tracked over eight months. Impressively, those in the expressive writing condition were twice as likely to have accepted full-time jobs over that time.

Interestingly, the individuals who engaged in expressive writing did not take more job search actions (applications, etc.) than the control group. So what accounts for their increase in receiving job offers? Seemingly they were more effective in job interviews, perhaps because they had made sense of their job loss and were less troubled by it and were therefore more effective in an interview.4 As the researchers state, “Writing about the thoughts and feelings surrounding job loss may enable terminated employees to work through the negative feelings and to assimilate and attain closure on the loss, thus achieving a new perspective.”5

Thus, expressive writing helps construct a new perspective. As the organizational psychologist, Karl Weick, states, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”6 In expressive writing, you see what you think by seeing what you write. Weick’s question attunes us to the knowledge transforming effect of writing. With expressive writing, the point is not to engage in knowledge telling (e.g “I did this, then that, then…), but by writing we construct and reframe the experience.7 At its best, we produce a more realistic, compassionate, and empowering story.

You might be skeptical, however, that simply writing about a negative event will lead to a newfound perspective. I’d largely agree, despite the evidence of the research paradigm. In writing about an event, I’d also include identifying cognitive distortions in what you wrote.

Cognitive distortions such as being overly critical of yourself (“It was all my fault”), overgeneralizing (“I am always going to fail.”), should statements (“I should have known better.”) have been outlined by many practitioners and writers in the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (see for example, Checklist of Positive and Negative Distortions). Identifying cognitive distortions helps you see your interpretations more objectively. In this way, the event will have a weaker hold over you. This accords with a summary of how expressive writing works, where some kind of “thoughtful analysis” is critical in re-interpreting events.8

And, keep in mind that the results of expressive writing do not need to be oppressively stored in journals. In fact, some research suggests that physically discarding written thoughts by ripping up the paper and throwing it away can help you “mentally discard” the thoughts as well.9

Thus, to promote learning and development, try expressive writing as a technique. Not only does it help us to construct a story to make sense of our experience but analyzing our assumptions can help us gain objectivity. It can help us learn and take productive steps forward, just as with the individuals who lost their jobs.

  1. Pennebaker, 2018; Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016
  2. Inspired by Constructive Developmental Theory, see Kegan & Lahey, 2009
  3. Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994, p. 725
  4. Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016
  5. Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994, p. 731
  6. Weick, 1995
  7. Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1987
  8. Pennebaker & Smyth, 2016
  9. see Briñol, Gascó, Petty, & Horcajo, 2012

References:

Briñol, P., Gascó, M., Petty, R. E., & Horcajo, J. (2012). Treating thoughts as material objects can increase or decrease their impact on evaluation. Psychological Science, 24(1), 41-47.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization. Harvard Business School Publishing.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2018). Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226-229.

Pennebaker, J. W. & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1987). Knowledge telling and knowledge transforming in written composition. In S. Rosenberg (ed.), Advances in applied psycholinguistics (pp. 142–175). Cambridge University Press.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37(3), 722-733.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Sage Publications.

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