My training as a counsellor involved keeping a practice journal. I thought it would be just keeping records of the stages of my learning with a bit of personal development thrown in.
It wasn’t, because as I was writing it, something else was going on inside me. Someone was talking and someone else was listening, like two people holding a dialogue in my head. When I stopped for a moment, something else happened.
In the gaps between the writing, ‘talking’ and ‘listening’ became ‘reflecting’. Now the paragraphs were like mirrors, endlessly throwing richer meanings back at me, all of this made so much worse as English is not my mother tongue. This made me feel doubtful and uncertain.
I felt vulnerable and realised that this journal writing was more than record keeping. It was an art form, complex and challenging like writing a novel. Writing my journal was a powerful therapeutic process, not just because of its analytical and reflective demands but also because of the artistic and creative challenges involved.
I experienced writing my journal as a highly focused, sort of meditative thing, which let me look behind the written word to a deeper sense of self, and a more intuitive experience of reality. On one level, it proved a practical tool for looking at my attitudes, beliefs, motivations and behaviours. On another level, it set free powerful artistic and creative energies, giving my life a new intensity, at the same time making me painfully aware of the inaccuracies and ambiguities inherent in ordinary, everyday language.
I didn’t know whether it was because I am not English that the English language spoke more than the actual words. Something was happening and I had to pursue what it was.
Living in this kind of semantic suspense, with ambiguity, uncertainty and vulnerability on my shoulder, became less uncomfortable, and often internal dialogue and reflection occurred bringing new insights. At the same time, I realised that in my self-disclosing, intense style of writing I was expressing and articulating emotional and spiritual processes not unique to me but experienced by many others.
Western literature is full of ‘journals’, ‘diaries’ and related writings all sharing this intense, passionate need for self-expression and self-articulation, sometimes narcissistic or pathological in origin, but often a genuine search for meaning and, by implication, self-realisation. Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Rilke’s Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Amiel’s Journals, Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, Söderberg’s Doctor Glas, Anne Frank’s Diary, Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Sartre’s Nausea, Barbellion’s Journal of a Disappointed Man and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It goes on.
In ancient Greece books were thought to possess therapeutic quality, ‘medicine for the soul’ as inscribed over the door at the library at Thebes. In more recent times, Dr. Neil Frude of Cardiff suggested that books be prescribed like medicine, helping patients with problems such as stress, anxiety, anger, low self-esteem, certain types of depression and addictive behaviours, as a way of reading themselves better.
Reading some literature may have a therapeutic effect, writing could also add another dimension to the therapeutic process, in healing and empowering the patients by allowing them to articulate, express and thus own their thoughts, feelings and actions.
This was clear to me when working as a student counsellor. Many students, who were used to writing their learning down anyway, had a strong need for self-expression and self-articulation through the written word. Without being prompted, they would write their problems down, either as notes or even poetry, sometimes as letters or, in particularly painful circumstances, use their writing for confession.
The cathartic effect was immediate, but it also gave the students an opportunity to reflect on their writing later helping them gain insight and understanding in their own time. It could be said that the free flow of speech in face-to-face counselling becomes like a form of slowed down ‘speech’ in the act of writing. Or, as Kate Thompson so aptly puts it: “Writing is speaking and reading is listening in the conversation with the self.”(1)
‘Waking up to oneself’: What a thought that it is through writing as an act of creative self-expression that inner ferment begins, waking the psyche from its sleep or, to use Heidegger’s expression, from the ‘forgetfulness of existence’, setting alight change and healing.
I feel that therapeutic writing engenders a more holistic healing process than even music, art, dance or drama therapy, since it brings into play all three centres of the writer at the same time: mind, heart and body. There is the physical act of writing down in so many word symbols the story that is told from the heart. In this sense, therapeutic writing has something unique for me, although it does share aspects with other forms of self-expression.
Music, art and dance therapies are considered by many to be the most direct way to spontaneous intuitive insight and to deeper understanding, reflecting the old Zen adage ‘speaking about a thing is missing the mark’. There is of course always the danger of getting bogged down in the description of experience, its intellectualisation, and thus missing experience itself. This happens to me if I am not careful.
Chuang Tzu is clear that language and, by implication, reflective thought can be used in an equally powerful way to initiate self-realisation. “Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares; but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.”(2)
Trying to make sense of my counselling life, as a trainee or as a client, would have been more difficult through music, art, dance or drama therapy. I found writing things down, even if only as key words or notes of great value. Karen Horney in her book Self-Analysis states: “Frequently a person will miss the significance of a connection at first sight, but will notice it later when he lets his mind dwell on his notes. Findings or unanswered questions that are not well entrenched are often forgotten, and a return to them may revive them. Or he may see the old findings in a different light.”(3)
Reading is my first step in learning counselling, whether to reflect on my own development or others. In Irvin Yalom’s collection of short stories Love’s Executioner and Other Tales Of Psychotherapy he fictionalises several case studies. While we observe his ‘heroes’ closely and empathically, we cannot help but take an occasional questioning look at ourselves and find therapeutic value in doing so.
Our strengthening empathic alliance with the characters in Yalom’s stories place us in the same position as the clients and the storyteller as the therapist. Clearly, the tales – however generous the empathy and compassion are from the author – are always told from the vantage-point of an ‘authority’ figure, the therapist, which as in face-to-face counselling challenges us, the readers, with the issues of power and compliance in our therapist-writer ↔ client-reader relationship.
‘Night-sea crossing’: The most challenging step in learning to be a counsellor was writing my journal, it was a highly focused activity, which almost always generated thought-transcending and reality-transforming creative energies. Journals and diaries exist in fiction and non-fiction, though not always with the writers’ avowed and conscious intention to bring about therapeutic change in them!
Yet this is a major aim of therapeutic writing and the basic tenet in any ‘positive psychology’. To quote Karen Horney again: “Whatever he (the diarist) sets down on paper should serve one purpose only, that of recognizing himself.”(4) To reach that goal, of self-recognition, the diarist sets out on a dangerous voyage into the unknown, consciously charting the delusional movements of the mind and learning how to navigate safely between Scylla and Charybdis. Then, when least expected, a new dawn greets the diarist.
Is this just a happy ending? Of course it isn’t! What counts is the journey. What appears like an ending is only a hiatus, an interlude. The show must go on. And in life one never can be sure. Our self-appointed hero, the diarist, has chosen the path of personal growth and development, a journey from the outer to the inner – a gradual shifting away of attention from the outer form, or information-based reality, to an inner plane of seeing and knowing, or a higher level of consciousness. The accent is always on change, change in an evolutionary sense.
In much of twentieth-century literature, if there is change, we see personalities in disintegration, for example Maugham’s Christmas Holiday or The Moon and Sixpence, or Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, H.G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly, Sartre’s La Nausée, or Camus’s L’Etranger. And often, what may initially appear as change is revealed to be no more than stereotypical personalities moving around in their stories like pieces of furniture being rearranged again and again to look different.
‘Bibliotherapy’: Just imagine if some of our contemporary authors were coming out as writing therapists, it would add an exciting new dimension to fictional literature of the twenty-first century and give a healing quality to their work that might benefit author and reader alike.
Irvin Yalom’s Love’s Executioner and other Tales of Psychotherapy shows ‘bibliotherapy’ to be a genre of literature which invites the reader to go beyond what is generally expected to be a ‘good read’, i.e. a moving, entertaining, stimulating, thought-provoking piece of writing.
The most challenging potentiality of ‘bibliotherapy’ is when writing and reading become pathways for healing, highly focused, almost meditative activities, which take both author and reader beyond the written word to a deeper sense of self, and to a more intuitive experience of reality.
It would be fantastic if there were a catalogue, a list of possible ‘therapeutic literature’. I don’t yet know why I am drawn to this work. I feel a vague murmuring that we are missing a trick with not using our vast wealth of literature to promote wellness and healing.
I have touched on my personal favourites in this blog but there are so many more out there. Thank you, Irvin Yalom for setting the hares leaping as to the possibility of healing through words.
- Thompson, K. (2006) Coming out as Writing Therapists; Lapidus, Vol. 2, 20.
- Chuang Tzu. (1971) Translated by James Legge, arranged by Clae Waltham. New York: Ace Books; chap. 26.
- Horney, K. (1970) Self-Analysis. New York: Norton; 171 – 172.
The diary referred to is to be published in 2018.
The title is: ‘You Can Counsel’ My Mandatory Diary Dr Arnfrid Beier