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The invention of writing is very recent when compared to the evolution of human beings whose beginnings go back one million years. The first traces of drawings are from about 30,000 years BC, based on the drawings found in the Lascaux cave in Dordogne and the Chauvez cave in Ardèche[1]. At the time, the Neanderthal man (homo sapiens) was gradually disappearing, being replaced by the present species (homo sapiens sapiens). It is not know at what moment of their evolution humans took the step toward syntax, which allowed them to go beyond communication through simple orders, and to express themselves in alternative ways by using articulated language which can be broken down into syllables and phenomena[2].

Writing was invented much later, in Mesopotamia, before 2,600 BC. Being phonetic, it served to establish reports and calculations of harvests. 850 years later, Hammurabi’s code[3] was the first example of legislation that set rules concerning human behaviours. 1000 years later, we have the invention of the Greek alphabet during the 9th century BC. It is made up of vowels and consonants, which made it possible to leave written traces of reflection on the human being, and which translated into the first philosophical texts dating back to the 8th century BC. The Socratic dictum: know yourself, inscribed on some temples from Antiquity, still applies today. Ever since, men and women have continued to develop their thoughts through writing. To the extent that writing enables taking a distance from oneself, it allows for observing oneself during reflection, for the purpose of pursuing reflection ever further, as far as the discovery of new elements.

 

The aim of this article is to describe the various ways of using writing in the work on oneself. Without going into the development of these approaches, we can underscore that the philosophers from Antiquity endeavoured to describe what is characteristic of human beings, that is, their functioning, their way of entering into relationships with others, and their approach to the world. They proposed attitudes and practices for improvement by developing models of societies which would enable human beings to function in a different way by taking more into account what is most essential in them.

 

Writing was a tool for the mystics to read their intimate experience with God. There is a profusion of writings from very different personalities. We can give as examples Saint Augustine’s confessions (1), Saint Thomas Aquinas’ summa (2), Saint Theresa of Avila’s and Saint John of the cross’ reflections and poems, (3) and (4). To the extent that they sought to progress through using writing, they are some of the forerunners of the recent approaches to the work on oneself in human sciences.

 

I will now describe autobiographical narration, and then, the use of writing in psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy, for the purpose of situating the convergences and the divergences with the PRH analysis method.

 

1)     Autobiographical narrative

 

Autobiographical narrative as a means of reflection

 

Autobiography has been used for a long time as a means of reflection and of development of one’s thoughts, where individuals take a position before events they experienced. It has several functions:

 

  • Regaining control of their lives, when persons have the feeling of suffering life.
  • Putting back together their inner life after various serious traumas.
  • Liberating repressed emotions for the purpose of experiencing abreaction (catharsis), but also giving them new meaning.
  • Bringing closure to a period of life by turning the page to start anew.
  • Preserving memories for posterity, especially for their children and grandchildren, so as to keep memories alive.

There is a variant when the act of writing does not have self-knowledge as an objective, but rather that of leaving a record, either for oneself, or for sharing with certain chosen people.

We must also point out that a narrative is not always written by the narrator, especially within the context of a study. It happens that an interlocutor records the story and presents it or transcribes it later on.

Lastly, there are many books of testimonies where people described the trials experienced, how they overcame these experiences, what helped and marked them, and how they were transformed interiorly. The aim of this article is not to present this. What I want to do is to describe, in a few pages, the objectives of autobiographic narrative and its benefits for the authors.

 

Nathalie Joly published a study in “Sociology of Work” on the way operators of enterprises noted important events and the way in which they reacted. In general, it is a matter of keeping track of what exerts a certain pressure on individuals. However, it is possible to transform this pressure into something positive: the workers “produce paper, knowing that it is a vehicle for history, and the seeking of the historical meaning is precisely what motivates the work of writing”. We can observe that persons progress in their knowhow, which can be transmitted to others (5). 

 

Autobiographical writing in the context of a study

 

Anne Brun made an analysis of autobiography and of analytical treatment, in the works of Michel Leiris. Leiris had written a first autobiography because he had been disappointed with analytical treatment, and because he had not been able to go as far back as what he thought was his original trauma, that is, the primal scene. Anne Brun pointed out, as a second element, the omnipresence of death in the works of the writer, and that autobiographical writing is a way of struggling against the catastrophic anxiety of psychic death. Here, writing has the function of leaving a record, what she calls “erecting one’s statue, or writing one’s memories in stone and crystallizing what is living within”. In this type of writing, the writer is focused on himself, but does not seek to reach beyond where he is; he is in some way prisoner of himself (6).

 

Cécile de Bary summarized the results of a colloquium on the theme of: “What is specific to writing about self”. Autobiography is very present in the contemporary literary field. In the 19th century, this genre expressed itself through correspondence called “ordinary autobiography” as for example in the work of George Sand: “History of My Life”. A new development took place since the 70’s of the 20th century, where the narration of one’s life has entered into human sciences. Sociology is now interested in the social aspect as manifested in individuals. This same approach, through narration of one’s life, was also used with a view to self-development, called by Michel Foucault “the technique for self-esteem”, which is self-training; in this way, the narration allows for self-development while at the same time thinking about training, in as much as this same narration sheds light on the “competency to learn”. Autobiography becomes a research tool concerning people’s ways of functioning in the social, educational sciences, and sociology areas (7).

 

Magali Urbain, in the framework of “Le Grain”, Social Pedagogy Workshops, published a presentation of the work of philosopher Guy de Villers, “The Life Story, an Autobiographical Process of Liberation”. This process can reinforce the withdrawing into oneself, but it can also contribute to self-liberation and to interdependent commitments. Whenever writing one’s life story is encouraged, the process is used in three domains: education, research and intervention at the individual as well as at the collective level. The writer becomes a “narrator” implementing a project of self-understanding, but this type of narration is also meant for someone else who will read it, or to whom what was written will be communicated. This process of writing one’s life story has three effects: epistemic, that is, the production of new knowledge relative to the narrators’ past, implications regarding their future, and the analysis of their resources also as constraints and even obstacles on their journey. The second effect concerns education: it involves ongoing work on the meaning of their life, since the writers acquire new perspectives regarding their life, and make adjustments to their identity dynamics. The third effect is clearly therapeutic, since during their journey, the writers free themselves from certain obstacles by clarifying their painful history.

There is insistence on the use of the narrator’s experience on the one hand, and on the competencies of the accompanist (educator, researcher, practitioner) on the other hand, who must be able to guide the narrator so that he/she will do effective work. They provide the tools for analysis, they facilitate the emergence of the object of the narrator’s search, and they meet the more technical requirements relative to the treatment of the narrative. The narrator is at the centre of the process. The narrator does not need to have diplomas, or even to know how to write. However narrators must be able to call upon their biographical memory and to put their memories into a narrative format. They must be capable of self-reflection (8).

 

Autobiographical narrative as a personal initiative

 

This involves a practice that individuals can implement spontaneously, for the purpose of taking ownership of their life anew, when they feel they are drifting. Such examples are common. Here is the example of Thierry: being alcohol-dependent, going through a separation from his spouse, risking going back to drinking, he decided, according to his own words, to “put things in writing”. He felt he was at a turning point in this mid-life period. He was aware that he was responsible for having failed in his life as a couple, and for having lost his work and house. He had not yet found another life project. In his story, he tried to clarify his past, and to identify his deficiencies, while at the same time exploring his relationship with alcohol. While practicing writing, Thierry understood and integrated that he had to be patient with himself, and that he could not skip a stage, which he called “giving some time to time”. During his journey, he lived an emotional attachment on a helper who had become a friend. When she said that she could not continue to journey with him, he at first felt a lot of frustration, but he integrated that he had to rely upon his own resources, and that he was not to hang onto others. He understood and accepted that his friend’s words were giving him back his freedom. In this way, writing was a means for his growth journey: the fact of writing enabled him to receive his lived experience, to enter deeper into it through writing, to accept it, and to make constructive decisions so as to progress (9).

 

2)     The use of writing in psychiatry, psychologyandpsychotherapy

 

Writing workshops and group meetings

 

Writing workshops are now quite a common practice in the work with patients suffering from psychopathological disorders. They are facilitated by psychologists, nurses or educators. These practices are diverse and varied, depending on the theoretical training and on the creative inspiration of the facilitators; the methods used also vary. For example, the facilitator can start from a current theme, and ask the participant to explore his/her personal experience of that theme; they can give a series of words and ask the participant to write a text, on the spot, starting from these words, which invites improvisation; when writing workshops are used in the context of an institution, residents are sometimes invited to write about institutional life with its personal implications and to do so in a journal; this journal can also include a reflection on current events and the production of poems and of drawings.

 

Writing workshops are used in geriatrics to enable elderly persons to integrate their history in a positive way. Participants are residents of homes or institutions, some still live at home, but they have joined clubs or benefit from in home services. In one approach, they are asked to write a fictitious letter to someone. In this way, participants approach what they feel toward their reality, which is a way of processing it, for the purpose of enduring less the inconveniences of advanced age and of situating themselves in a positive way toward their reality (10).

 

In another approach, elderly persons are asked to write their life story. The main idea is to transmit one’s own history, that of one’s family or that of one’s social group. When they write in this way, persons present their individual history, but it contributes to the construction of the collective history. With this method, at each stage, the facilitator establishes, with the individual, what seems useful and important to reflect on, for the next narration. The facilitator is active: they can draw the narrator’s attention on one or another element that they perceive as important. Sometimes, the narrator had wanted to keep silent about certain essential aspects of their history, like having been part of the resistance during the Second World War. The facilitator also provides technical help so that the story becomes accessible and understandable to those who will read it. The writing workshop can also take the form of the evocation of memories in a group, which has a stimulating effect: someone’s memories awaken those of others who then share theirs, which has a vitalizing effect in participants. Such workshops in retirement homes are appreciated not only for the effects produced in participants as individuals, but also as participants in a group, since it serves as a lever to evoke their shared past. (11).

 

Work in writing can be proposed to sober alcohol-dependent persons. In some centres, writing workshops are practiced, but very often group meetings[4] are organized. The psychic functioning of patients is often characterized by their difficulty in getting in touch with their personal feelings, hence the functioning of seeking to fill a psychological ill-being through consuming alcohol. Accompanying these patients once they have sobered up aims at helping them recognize their feelings and emotions and at integrating them in their global functioning, at reflecting on their emotional life and on their long standing dysfunctions. Participants learn to develop other ways of functioning which are at the service of life; they begin a journey where they feel they exist, free and responsible. They begin to take charge or their life instead of allowing themselves to be dominated by former reflex ways of functioning.

 

The author of this article has developed a method for group meetings with persons suffering from addictions, mostly alcohol-dependent. A training itinerary, which lasts for two years, is proposed to participants. It involves weekly two-hour meetings. The themes are linked to psychological and behavioural dependency and are regrouped in five cycles: the healthy personality (which refers to PRH themes such as the self-image, the ideal self, the being, the deep conscience…), various elements of vulnerability (including PRH themes such as aspirations and needs, non-existence, disproportionate reactions…), the co-morbidities (pathologies associated with alcoholism), various psychosomatic phenomena, (eating disorders, sleep disorders, stress, sexuality, etc.), how to progress (the “trigger”, putting order in one’s live, managing one’s emotions, accepting one’s illness, becoming vigilant, motivations, learning to dialogue, etc.). At the end of each meeting, the text of the intervention is handed out to participants. The last part of the text includes questions asking each participant to describe their personal problem, in relation to the theme covered, and to try to explore it more deeply. A certain number of participants answer these questions in writing and then go deeper into those themes in a private interview with a team member (12, 13, 14, 15, 16,).

 

Writing is also used with adolescents in difficulties. In one practice, pre-adolescents are invited to write about their violent behaviours and fantasies. These pre-adolescents had serious difficulties with writing at the beginning. Writing, as a literary production, can be considered as a successful metaphor that contains new meaning for the one writing; it also presents an outlet for the impulsive, which is destructive if not channelled and thought through. Writing enables one to work things out, to the extent that expression through words is developed and mastered, while outbursts of violence procure pleasure at the moment of their execution. The subject learns to distance himself from this archaic way of functioning (17).

Another way of working with suicidal adolescents is through the use of a “tag-wall”: adolescents are invited to write their projections on a wall as tags. The hypothesis is to invite these youths to get their thought process underway, instead of acting through behaviours (a suicide attempt is an act which has not been thought through, reflected upon). In this way, a psychological work of reintegration of the elements of the psyche begins with writing, and the adolescents can take ownership of their own thoughts anew. Also, they enter into a relationship with the other adolescents who are writing on the same wall: they can identify with them, and differentiate themselves. The writing wall is a surface that is symbolically part of the scene of reality (what is visible) and of the psychic scene (inner life). The therapeutic action consists in enabling adolescents to develop their own thought process so as to begin to structure their inner life, which enables them to put aside behaviours which have not been thought through (18).

 

The use of writing in individual work on oneself

 

James Pennebaker has been using a self-exploration method through writing since 1980. His research is presented in his book “Opening up” where he describes that he wanted to discover the common denominator of three phenomena:

  • People say that they learn something new when they speak about their experience;
  • Lie detectors show that mind and body relax after avowal of a crime [5] ;
  • The development of insight enables individuals to understand better the causes of their psychosomatic manifestations, which results in improved health.

In order to find answers, Pennebaker asked persons to write for 15 to 20 minutes a day for 3 or 4 days, and gave them the following instructions: “continuously describe the most perturbing or traumatic experience of your whole life. Do not be concerned with how you are going to write, that is, about spelling, grammar, or sentence construction. I would like you to develop in your writing your deepest thoughts and emotions concerning that experience. Describe what happened, what you have felt and what you are feeling now, concerning what happened.”

Surprising results were confirmed through clinical evaluations. Those who translated their emotions into words observed improvements to their health, including lower blood pressure, strengthening of their immune system, and alleviation of asthma and of symptoms of arthritis. Moreover, their psychological health improved: less signs of stress, anxiety and depression; also, their memory improved. In fact, this minimal amount of expressive writing has led to greater success in exams for some students, and accelerated the return to work for some unemployed people.

Three theories are currently being verified through research:

 

  • Confronting important memories brings mental and physical relief. However, if persons try to repress their felt experience concerning traumatic events, they feel tense and physically stressed. This also increases the probability of illnesses and of psychological problems.
  • The fact of recounting our history seems to enable us to bring closure, and is conducive to a state of rest.
  • The verbal expression of emotions desensitizes persons to these same emotions, which is similar to what is proposed in some approaches to help persons overcome phobias.

The combination of these approaches improves interpersonal relationships, which can be considered as another proof of their benefits (19).

 

Kate Niederhoffer and James Pennebaker back up the theory of traumatic experiences, basing themselves on the following observations: individual reactions after a trauma can be classified under three groups:

 

  • some forget the trauma and go on with their lives;
  • others speak about it in detail for some days, and then for some weeks;
  • only a minority (20 to 30 %) remain in pain for years.

The results of research have proved that persons are plagued by negative feelings if they do not speak about their trauma because of inhibition. When the expression of emotions is encouraged, persons can cry and be upset by that experience in the short-term. However, in the long-term, we observe positive effects on their behaviour. The fact of exteriorizing emotions allows people to feel better. Concerning this, verbal and non-verbal expression has the same effect, contrary to Freud’s theory that brought everything back to verbal expression (psychoanalytic treatment). The fact of confiding a trauma reduces the signs of physiological stress, and it allows for a better understanding and integration of that experience. Also, the more persons use words having positive content, the more their health improves, which is not the case for those who use words having negative emotional content.

Authors are particularly attentive to the cognitive processes: a traumatic experience induces disconnection from the “core of self” and from the person’s identity, which leads to some anxiety, ruminations, or dreams, in as much as human beings always seek to understand the meaning of what is happening to them. For as long as they have not achieved understanding, these phenomena continue. Moreover, it has been proven that human beings better remember disruptive events than successful ones. In therapy, it is proposed to construct a story to explain the anxiety, in order to understand the past and its consequences in the present (20).

 

Pennebaker’s research bears on the effect of emotional expression, both at the verbal and non-verbal level, on the state of health of the persons taking part in this process. In France, we now use the term “expressive writing”. A. Piolat and R. Bannour, in reference to Pennebaker, published a study on the effect of expressive writing on the state of anxiety of students. The latter were invited to express their feelings in relation to a positive event (passing an exam) and to a negative event (failing an exam). Students used a richer emotional vocabulary when describing a positive event than when relating a negative event. Consequently, their level of anxiety is greater when they are describing a negative event, which suggests that the fact of not verbalizing emotions increases the level of anxiety (21). In their next publication, the same authors presented a synthesis of the work done concerning the improvement of physical health, in the writers, when they describe their emotions. Several theories resulting from research on cognitive functioning explain how the process of emotional regulation operates during a written confession (disinhibition theory, cognitive processing theory, self-regulation theory, exposure theory). These uphold that it is important to understand the cognitive process at work, at the moment of producing written texts related to a written emotional confession: these depend on the resources available in the working memory on the one hand, and on the capacity to put intrusive thoughts aside when writing on the other hand (dysfunctions that prevent one from focusing on the exteriorization of the emotional material) (22).

 

3)     Convergences with PRH analysis

 

There are several types of convergences: concerning the form, or, in other words, the meaning of the work of writing, concerning the exploration of the human material, and concerning the method.

The mystical forerunners did not have the intention of transmitting to others their way of exploring their inner world. Their aim was to explore their relationship with God and then, encouraged by their insights, to make God more accessible to human beings, to enable them to get closer to Him and, in turn, to enter into an intimate relationship with Him. We can underscore convergences with PRH analysis concerning the form: it is a matter of exploring their inner lived experience through very subtle sensations, and of always trying to go further in their exploration, until the fine point is clearly perceived. Through this practice, new contents emerge, which can be generalized to the extent that these writings continue to speak to readers from then up until now.

 

The human material is explored in autobiographical narrative. This practice is current for self-exploration, and for recording one’s memories; during the writing, there will be new insights; a motivation can be to explore past traumas as far as their origin, which can include the observation of one’s dreams, their description and a search for their meaning. By comparing various narratives, three general aims emerge: obtaining new knowledge, self-development, and the will to heal from specific problems. We can say that these practices are often spontaneously implemented, without a learned or guided method, but the aim is close to that of PRH analysis: to explore one’s experience until something new emerges.

 

A second way of using autobiographical narrative is for research purposes: what is involved is a self-training technique that allows for training oneself as well as for structuring one’s thought – narrators acquire new knowledge about themselves. The result is self-liberation: persons exist more, on the one hand, and commit themselves in life, with others and in solidarity with them, on the other hand. It always involves work on one’s experience; an educator-facilitator can provide tools to guide the narration.

 

Concerning the practice of writing, the method proposed by Pennebaker seems to have the most convergences with PRH analysis, but it seems to focus mainly on the descriptive part of the work of analysis of one’s experience. Niederhoffer and Pennebaker use the term “self-disclosure” when persons discover hidden content: this is left to their personal initiative. They underscore the importance of the expression of emotions, which allows for freeing a content kept secret for a long time.

 

The analysis of sensations having psychological content is the basic tool of the PRH psycho-pedagogy. This method is described in a recent book published by PRH-International. It is practiced for the purpose of discovering oneself through the explorations of one’s inner reality, which means that it uses and deepens one’s experience. From this perspective, it has similarities with other psychological approaches, especially the various methods of humanistic psychotherapies which were developed in the aftermath of Carl Rogers (23). PRH analysis begins with naming a sensation; it continues with the exploration of its content while at the same time questioning it, for the purpose of finding hidden material not revealed at first sight. The analysis is pursued with the will to enter deeper into its content until it has revealed its facets and new elements have appeared. The integration of the new in one’s field of awareness allows for orienting one’s life in a different way.

 

I would like to conclude by quoting a paragraph from the new book of PRH International: “Over and above acquiring a method, individuals are invited to choose a path to life in depth. They are then helped to experience their strengths and their personal resources. They can discover the richness of their personality and better identify their limitations. They ask themselves questions regarding their lives, their behavior, and their reactions. Gradually, it becomes possible for them to express themselves in an original, authentic, and creative way, and to choose a way of life more in keeping with who they are and with reality. Every little bit of truth gathered during their analyses contributes to their awareness, their choices, and their progress.”(24)

 

 

Semur-en-Auxois, July 13, 2012, Dr. Thomas Wallenhorst, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, 5 rue du Lycée, F-21140 Semur-en-Auxois, France

 

[1] The 2 caves are located in France.

[2] A phenomenon is the smallest unit of language.

[3] 1793 – 1750  BC, 1st king of the 6th Babylonian dynasty.

[4] Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are the ones who initiated group meetings, starting in 1930

[5]The use of lie detectors is a common practice in criminal investigation in the United States.

[6]This article was originally written in French. Most references were left in the original language.

 

 

 

 

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