Healing through Writing or Drawing and Empathic Responding


Laurie Anne Pearlman, Ph.D.
Trauma Research, Education, and Training Institute, Inc.
South Windsor, Connecticut, USA


Ervin Staub, Ph.D.
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
 Amherst, Massachusetts, USA


Copyright 1999 by Trauma, Research, Education and Training Institute, Inc.


Research has shown that writing and talking about painful experiences helps people heal. When people write or draw about difficult or painful things that have happened to them, how they felt about it, and how they make sense of or understand it, they often feel better. As people write, or draw about difficult experiences, they engage with them, rather than avoiding them. At first it may seem even more painful. But over time, they feel better.


When people who are traumatized talk with others about their experiences, that helps too. There are a few things that make a difference. One is that the person who is writing or drawing be as open and honest as possible about his or her feelings. Another helpful thing is for the people who are listening to hear without judging, criticizing, or asking hard questions.


One response to painful experiences can be to stop feeling and to withdraw from other people. When someone expresses feelings to another who listens without judging or persuading, healing moves forward. Being accepting and empathic is the most helpful response to others. There is healing in this process for the listeners, too. When people hear others' pain, they may open to their own pain and take another step in healing. These steps help to restore human connection, which is often broken through violence.


It can feel scary to write, draw, and talk about your most private feelings. It can feel like no one will understand, or people will think you're odd or even crazy. Most people find that others share some of the same feelings and thoughts, and that can be reassuring.


Nonjudgmental, or empathic, listening can also be challenging. Sometimes you want to ask, "Why did you do THAT?" Or you want to give the person advice: "If I were you, I would...." Or you might want to say, "You think it's bad for YOU: Listen to what happened to ME!" Or you might find yourself thinking, "If only he could let God in." But when someone is telling you about difficult feelings, it's most helpful just to listen. You might try mentally to put yourself in the other person's place. You might ask yourself while you're listening, "I wonder what I would REALLY have done or felt in the same situation." You might try to understand what the other person is telling you and open your heart to his or her pain. It's helpful to let the other person know when you think you understand. Some phrases can be helpful, like "It sounds like you felt..." or "That must have been really difficult for you."

If you find yourself deeply disagreeing or feeling judgmental or critical of the other person, it can help to ask yourself questions. You might wonder, "Why is this so hard for me to hear?" Sometimes the answer is that the person is describing something very familiar that you also find painful. We very naturally try to protect ourselves from pain, and one of the ways we do that, whether it is a good idea or not, is by creating a sense of difference and distance between ourselves and other people. That distance gets in the way of everyone's healing.


Sometimes just hearing another person's story can help us open to our own pain.  Hearing another person without judgment can also help us empathize or be compassionate with ourselves.






August 11,1999
 Healing through writing and empathic responding lecture.doc