January 8, 2019

Writing: A Form of Therapy? Or a Source of Insights?

Closeup of yellow flowers with text: Understanding Ourselves through Our Writing

As writers, we often joke about how writing can act as therapy. We writers have been known to explore issues, hopes, or fears through our stories.

None of this should come as a surprise to readers. To spend so much time writing a story, we have to write about topics that capture our emotions and interests.

That might mean we work out a history of rejection or abuse. We might name characters after those who hurt us or helped us. We might write about the world as we’d like it to be or how we fear it might become.

Personally, I’ve attached the name of my first agent rejection that hurt to a nobody, “spear-carrier” character. *grin* But I’ve also given the names of others who hurt me to a couple of my favorite heroic characters, attempting to erase some of the pain of my memories associated with them and their names.

Just from those two opposite examples, it’s obvious that writing can be therapeutic in different ways. And that doesn’t even touch on the many authors who have changed their genre or writing style due to technological breakthroughs, environmental dilemmas, world events, or politics, which led them to want to explore different issues, hopes, and fears.

Yet the longer I write, the more I realize how much writing has taught me about myself, beyond the typical therapeutic aspects. Writing—with its direct connection to our subconscious—gives us an open door to our brain and thought processes.

Writing Can Teach Us about Ourselves

Every time we struggle with writing in general or with a specific story, we have to analyze ourselves to get over whatever’s blocking us. We might have to learn to trust ourselves more, or maybe we discover that a work in progress isn’t resonating with us because it doesn’t ring true with our beliefs.

Is writing a form of therapy, a source of insights, or both? Click To TweetIf we struggle with our drafting process, we might realize that our brain requires more or less forethought before we take action. If we struggle with a certain stage of publishing, we might gain insights into our strengths and weaknesses that carry over into our day jobs or interactions with others.

We might be less likely to self-analyze when our writing is going well, but if we take the time to figure out what’s working and why things are going well, we can learn about ourselves from our successes as well.

Writers: Know Thyself

In other words, similar to therapy, writing can help us know ourselves:

  • What makes us energized or passionate to learn or take on a project?
  • What makes us motivated?
  • What triggers our self-doubt?
  • What or when does a project feel like a slog to us? What helps us over that obstacle?
  • What type of advice or support is most helpful to us?
  • What helps us overcome procrastination or self-doubt?
  • What goals do we have for success? What are our priorities?

Or from our stories, we can gain insights into our worldview and biases, and we might be able to infer:

  • Do we tend to think as an optimist or pessimist?
  • What traits do we find heroic or appealing in others?
  • What traits do we wish we had more of in ourselves?
  • What stereotypes or assumptions do we have about others that we might need to work on?
  • Which of our flaws are we forgiving of in others (and maybe we need to cut ourselves some slack)?
  • What situations scare us the most? What about it do we find scary?
  • How do we define or think of heroism or failure?
  • What does happiness or success or failure look like to us?

Insights I’ve Learned about Myself

In my case, writing—both of fiction and with this blog—revealed my strengths and weaknesses far better than years of therapy could ever do. *grin*

Discovering My Strengths

It wasn’t until I started this blog that I realized how much I enjoy teaching and helping others with lifelong learning. In other words, a huge aspect of my identity—and what helps me feel good about myself—was hidden from me before I started writing.

What can we learn about ourselves through our stories and writing process? Click To TweetWriting for this blog also revealed my strengths as a “maven”: someone who’s pathologically helpful, collects vasts stores of information, and has the ability to put that information into a useful context. Discovering that skill changed my life, as it led me into freelance developmental editing and a passion for sharing what I learn through my posts here.

On the fiction side, writing has helped me work with—and around—my brain’s quirks. I’m an organized, list-making plotter in the rest of my life, yet if I plot for writing, my brain wants to follow any “plan” to the nth degree, which doesn’t allow for spontaneous or organic storytelling. Pantsing—but with a strong knowledge of story structure—lets me find a better balance in writing, and at the same time, learning to trust myself to be spontaneous in writing has helped me better balance spontaneity and organization in the rest of my life too.

Digging into the psychology and fears of my characters has helped me recognize those same issues in family and friends, which then makes me more empathetic to what they’re going through. I’ve found myself more interested in listening to others—even (or especially) those I might have previously assumed I couldn’t relate to—because I never know where a story idea might come from. *smile*

Discovering My Weaknesses

I understand more about my weaknesses as well.

  • I’m contrarian, often wanting to procrastinate just because I know I shouldn’t.
  • I’m terrible at motivating myself to do things I don’t want to do—no matter how much I need to do them (like marketing).
  • I’m far too willing to give up sleep when I don’t take deadlines seriously enough until it’s too late.
  • My perfectionism holds me back if I don’t fight against it.
  • I have a fear of success and more self-doubt than I would have ever guessed at without digging into my issues.
  • When I get overwhelmed, I have the tendency to shut down completely.

I’ll interrupt what could be a very long recitation of my weaknesses (*smile*) to explain that even this type of knowledge has been helpful to me. What I now know about myself has helped me improve situations, relate to others, and judge my reactions in the non-writing aspects of my life too.

Is Self-Analysis Required for Writing Success?

What if we’re not the analytical type? Can we still succeed as writers?

Of course! There’s no single path to success as a writer, so even if we don’t have the ability to learn about ourselves, we can still succeed.

Some people are naturally less analytical than others. Some understand or enjoy digging into psychological issues less than others. Some simply aren’t able to apply situational insights to the bigger picture.

Success is still possible in all of those circumstances. But we can also ask ourselves whether we’re really not self-analytical, or do we just not pay attention to the lessons we could learn?

In other words, it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes and put words to things we might have learned about ourselves through our stories or the process of writing. If we can’t think of anything, there’s no harm.

But if we can identify aspects of ourselves, our strengths, or our weaknesses that we couldn’t before, we might be able to improve our circumstances or understanding in the rest of our life. And in my experience, feeling like we know ourselves can be empowering. *smile*

Have you ever used writing as therapy? If yes, how so and did it help? Does writing help you feel more in touch with yourself? What have you learned about yourself through writing? Has that understanding helped you in other, non-writing-related ways?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Jami, I’m studying in the field of psychotherapy, haha, so I do 100% think writing is therapy. Talk therapy is only one of the many types you can do! My writing made me realize that I’m more optimistic than I seem. I spend a lot of time railing against XYZ in my life and in the society, but in my stories, I find that I’m relentlessly optimistic. Also, I realize that I’m really into redeeming antagonists and villains. Some extremely horrible person turns out to have likable sides, or they later become a strong ally! In my real life too, I like to have a more complex and nuanced view of people, and I tend to believe in the best in others, which doesn’t always serve me well. I may be more easily duped, for instance. (My ex-friend took advantage of my naivety. I own that not everything about her was bad, but she was bad enough that I didn’t want to be friends with her anymore.) For what excites me most in story-writing, I find that I’m most exhilarated and alive when I write about relationship-related scenes. I’m generally less excited when I’m writing about things that are unrelated to relationships, which makes me feel almost guilty. Relationships don’t have to be the romantic type, though. Sometimes I try to spice up my interest by adding bits of relationship stuff within a scene that isn’t about relationships at all.


The Stoic discipline strongly encourages practitioners to write down their thoughts every day. Modern-day Stoic philosophers, such as Massimo Pigliucci, tout journaling as a means toward self-discovery and self-control.

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