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Using Expressive Writing to Heal Trauma – Dr James Pennebaker, PhD

Using Expressive Writing to Heal Trauma – Dr James Pennebaker, PhD

James Pennebaker, PhD, is Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas – Austin and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, Opening Up, and other books. He is an internationally recognised expert on the connection between writing and better health. In this session, we explore the fascinating healing power of expressive writing, and how it can be used as an effective treatment for traumatic experiences and emotional wounds. This interview was recorded as part of our 2020 Holistic Change Summit, which featured sessions with 25 world leading psychologists, neuroscientists and authors, who shared their latest evidence based approaches to behaviour change.

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Dr Pennebaker’s books: Dr Pennebaker’s website:

Affirmations to Heal the Inner Critic

Affirmations to Heal the Inner Critic

The Inner Critic—everyone is familiar with it. It’s the voice that silences you. It undermines your confidence in facing the blank page, and speaks to your doubts and the part of you that fears writing your stories down, expressing yourself, having your full voice. The clever critical voice can be nasty, telling you such things as:

  • Your story doesn’t matter.
  • Your life is not that interesting. 
  • No one would care about my little stories. 
  • My family will be mad if I write this. 
  • How do I know what I’m writing is a real memory?
  • My writing is so bad.
  • No one will want to read this.
  • How do I know what the truth is?
  • I’m not a real writer.

Make a list of what the critic says. Allow this inner voice to speak freely, keeping your pen and paper nearby. The more you know about what the critic says that stops you from writing, the more you will be able to counteract its effect.


Affirmations are positive thoughts and feelings that counter the doubts and negative voices in our heads. Affirmations are a positive, healing, and comforting way of bringing balance into our minds and hearts.

The following affirmations will help to counteract the negative voices of the inner critic. Once you understand how an affirmation works as a counteractive voice, you can create your own specific affirmations that balance the specific voices of your own inner critic.

Enter your safe place of relaxation, knowing that you bring with you the burden of your inner critic. Feel this burden on your shoulders and all the places in your body where you are tense with the fears and worries your critic brings.

Rest into your safe place in a relaxed position. Allow each voice to come to your consciousness, holding it while you repeat to yourself, “I have a right to write my story. My voice matters. What I think and feel is important.”

Such self-affirming comments help balance out the minimization that occurs with the critic-censor.

Repeat each affirmation three times while you bring the golden light into your body, noticing places where you are tense and tight, where you feel any kind of block. Ask your muscles to relax to let go of the critic’s power over you. Repeat, “My muscles are warm and heavy, and I am letting go of the critic voice. I am creating new affirmations to use each time I feel my resolve to write slipping.”

Below is a list of affirmations to counteract the inner critic. Make up your own to fit your critic specifically.

  • My life is unique and I want to share my wisdom.
  • My stories are important to me, affirming who I am.
  • I will not share my writing self with anyone who might criticize me.
  • Publishing is not the goal of my first draft, so I will write just as I wish.
  • I can’t prove my memories so I will write what I remember and not worry about it.
  • I give myself permission to write.
  • If memories I don’t like arise, I can write something else.
  • I will breathe into love and acceptance as I write.
  • Each time I write is a stepping stone to freedom
  • When I write the truth, I balance my world.
  • My family is not reading this while I write.
  • I will not let my critic stop me.
  • My life is important, and my thoughts and experiences matter.

Take a cleansing breath, allowing your affirmations to create a sense of strength and confidence in your body.

Fear, Shame, and the Dark Past

The reaction of family and loved ones, and family dynamics that label our writing as disloyal or wrong, keep many people from writing their truths. Often the writer is overwhelmed with fear and shame, and feels she must remain silent.

The inner voices that haunt many of us say things like:

  • You can’t write that, it would hurt (your mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandmother, etc. insert name here).
  • My siblings and relatives won’t agree with my truth.
  • I am afraid of being rejected by my family if I write my truth.
  • I can’t write what really happened—it’s too embarrassing.
  • My family always wants to know what I’m writing—so if I don’t write, then I don’t have to deal with them.
  • I feel shame and guilt when I write.
  • I feel angry when I write.
  • I feel helpless and little when I write.
  • The past is too overwhelming and shameful.
  • The past is too dark and nothing good happened.

Breathing deeply, invite white and golden light into your mind and body as these fears/worries/negative voices arise. Listen to your own voices, and write down what they say. Pay attention to each one, then counter it with reassurance and comfort, such as:

  • You don’t have to write anything that disturbs you.
  • What you write remains private and contained. No one needs to hear it. You don’t have to share your work for now, or even talk about the fact that you write.

Suggestions to complete your meditations and affirmation

If the dark past is demanding your attention, write for a brief period, then put it away. It is more intense to write in present tense. If you want to put the past farther away, use third person (he/she) and past tense.

Finish your writing sessions with a white and golden light meditation. Write positive stories to balance the darkness. The more you work with the inner critic, and keep writing anyway, the more freedom you will find. Your self-esteem will increase, and you will feel emotionally stronger.

You may want to work with one critic voice, paired with one affirmation. Try to keep your time with these meditations simple and welcoming. If at any time you become uncomfortable and feel that the journey into the past is too much, you may choose to stop the meditation and do something nurturing in present time. Leave the memories alone until you feel ready to deal with them. 

If you are in therapy, you might bring these experiences to the attention of your therapist. If you feel tight and stiff places in your body, you might consider holistic approaches to healing, such as massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic work. There are a variety of healing approaches that integrate mind and body.

Take good care of yourself, as a person and as a writer.

Note. These meditations can be a means to get in touch with layers of memory and to come to the writing with a more relaxed attitude. However, if you are concerned about unpleasant memories coming up, or don’t feel comfortable in a deeply relaxed state, the exercises may not be for you. They are suggestions for relaxation only, with no promises for specific results.

Writing Your Memoir Despite Family Guilt and Critical Voices

Writing Your Memoir Despite Family Guilt and Critical Voices

When we first decide to write, we feel good about it—we have memories and stories that have shaped who we are. We want to explore our live, capture times long gone and preserve them in story form. Leave a legacy about our lives. But other voices compete with our writing: “What will people think; you should be ashamed; you will embarrass the family. Don’t air dirty laundry; you know only part of the truth, so be quiet. Your mother will roll over in her grave if she found out you wrote that.” 

We all know these voices. They make us throw down the pen, sit back and turn on the TV. We don’t want to lose our family. We don’t want to make them angry. Writing a memoir is an act of courage, even defiance against powerful family dynamics. Are writing for ourselves primarily but these voices always come up.

As a family therapist, I have worked with many families, and because of my background, I’m in a position to help my coaching clients understand the source of their resistance to writing their stories and discover the source of the critic voices.

When we write memoir, we reclaim our own voice, we stake a claim to our version of the story. Every family has multiple story lines. There is the “official” version, controlled by the most powerful people in the family, usually the parents or those who have the most to lose. The “lesser” points of view—most often held by the children or those who have less power—are often not believed or accepted as true. 

Who decides what version of a story to believe? Who is not listened to? Whose point of view is unwanted? The answers to these questions will be decided by family dynamics and power.

In most families there is a “scapegoat,” or a clown, or the most sensitive one. People in these roles may hold a unique, and unpopular, view of the family stories, and those with the most power may try to suppress it. 

A memoirist must begin by writing her story in a protected bubble so the story can evolve. Take care of your writing environment and protect you from forces that will derail your efforts.

  1. Observe the power dynamics in your family. If critic voices stop you, write down what you’re hearing. Try to find the original source of those voices in your family background.
  2. Begin with an image—a photograph is often an excellent prompt. Write in your own natural voice.
  3. If the voices say: “I don’t know how to write; my family will hate me; how do I know I am writing the truth.” don’t stop. Write anyway. Your critic/family protector will try to silence you. If you were silenced when you were growing up, you will need to work through it now.
  4. DO NOT hit the delete button when you feel critical after writing. DO protect your writing from curious family or friend invaders. Treat your work like a young plant that needs protection. 
  5. Find supportive people to write with. Write in cafés, or in writing group where you feel support.
  6. Remember: if you’ve been abused, neglected, forgotten, or silenced, you likely learned not to value your own point of view. Writing your own story can change that. Keep “telling it like it is.”
  7. Write for five minutes. Another fifteen minutes. Stretch your ability to stick with a story. When you feel like stopping, write for five minutes more. We are tempted to stop as we get close to a core emotion.
Writing with a Beginner’s Mind

Writing with a Beginner’s Mind

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes about freeing the mind through meditation, creating the possibility of a fresh and truly open mind, especially when approaching new things. He says that we should look at everything with curiosity and acceptance, and be both vulnerable enough and strong enough to not know everything, to withstand discomfort and be humble.

When you write with a beginner’s mind, you will see your family story through new eyes. When you write your story the way you see it, not the way it has always been told, you free yourself from the strictures of a “right” way to view the world. Perhaps you are the one in the family who doesn’t agree with the point of view of other family members. You may feel lonely or even crazy under such circumstances. But still, this is what you know, this is your truth. 

Using beginner’s mind gives us permission to write what we don’t know and to write what has never been written before. It is a healthy, open approach to writing from your heart and putting the critical voices aside.

Writing and meditation have much in common: inner listening, quiet and isolation, openness. Sometimes we resist writing just as we resist being alone with ourselves. We stay busy and don’t take time to escape from the demands of a noisy, outward-directed life. The Buddhists call a mind filled with these mental distractions a “monkey mind.” Like a monkey, it chatters away, distracting us from our true self, a deeper part of ourselves that might be called spiritual.

Meditation is about awareness without attachment to a particular idea or thought. When we meditate, our thoughts are allowed to pass across the mind like clouds. When we write, critical thoughts can get in the way as we judge and critique our writing, and ourselves. Part of our healing practice is to accept our inner creative voices, to hear the deeper truth of who we are. We need to write with openness.

Meditation to Relax

To encourage our inner listening process, it helps to put aside the stresses of regular life and relax. We need to let go of our busy thoughts as we make room for other voices, feelings, and parts of ourselves. 

To help access our inner listening, we can learn to relax and focus on our breath. Breathing well and deeply is the basis for all letting go of stress. When we focus on our breath and our relaxed muscles, we can feel ourselves getting pleasantly heavier and warmer. When we relax the tension in our muscles, a tense mind lets go as well, promoting the flow of creativity.

When you’re ready to do this relaxation meditation, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Set a timer for twenty or thirty minutes. After you learn how to relax, you can obtain the same benefit in less time.

Settle in a comfortable place and take some deep breaths. Feel yourself becoming present and aware of your body. This will enhance listening to your inner voice, the positive one, the one that nurtures you, the one that supports all your efforts to write and to speak.

Bring to mind an image of a living being that makes you happy. Some people think of a loved one—a mother, father, aunt, uncle, friend, or favorite pet. Feel the feelings you have when you are being hugged or touched lovingly by this person or being. As you think of this, imagine golden light flowing down from the top of your head into your shoulders, and let it spill down your body, breathing deeply without forcing, just gentle breaths. Allow yourself to feel the warmth that this visualization brings, filling your body with well-being.

Feel the warmth in your wrists and hands, your fingers, your arms. Let your muscles relax, the muscles of your body and mind that sometimes keep you tight. Ask them to allow you to write, to express yourself. Think of being encouraged by your pet or favorite person. Have fun with this; don’t be too serious. Imagine being gently massaged or comforted. Breathe these feelings into your body. If you have a favorite, safe place, either in real life or in your imagination, bring it to mind now.

When you are relaxed, when the mind and body are in harmony and your thoughts are flowing freely like a stream, rest in the peace of this state for a few minutes, then write for five minutes or longer.

Meditation to Your Past Self

Now you will be guided into remembering earlier parts of your life. Follow the exercise as far as you like. If you become uncomfortable, stop and return to the present.

See yourself at the age you are now. Picture how you look, what you are wearing, the shape of your life. See yourself in your mind’s eye: your body, your clothes in your favorite colors, your hair, face, and skin. See the people you spend time with, the things you are most proud of. 

Now imagine the calendar flying back to ten years ago. What did you look like then? What style of clothes were you wearing? Where were your favorite restaurants or clubs? What did you do in your leisure time? See if you can remember who you spent time with and what you did. What were your hopes and dreams?

Go back another ten years and ask yourself these same questions. Decade by decade, revisit who you were, what you were doing, what you were feeling, wanting, and dreaming.

Notice—but don’t dwell on—any issues and problems that you faced during each decade. What were you trying to heal or avoid? How did that work for you? Think about your hopes and dreams. What was the best part about your life? How did you feel about yourself during each period of your life? What was your favorite color, food, vacation? Who were your friends, pets? What books influenced your life?

See yourself all the way back into your adolescence and then into childhood. See your body, feel how it felt to be twenty, fifteen, ten, five. See yourself in your clothes, inside your room, in your house. Who were the people in your family back then? What did they look like, sound like? Notice the memories that have formed you and are a part of you.

Now pick up your pen and write about one of the scenes you just pictured. Write a vignette; sketch out what you remember without anchoring it to a story. This memory exercise can help you bring the past into focus and help you picture important scenes in your life that may have receded into your unconscious mind.

Writing Prompts

  1. Write about what “Beginner’s Mind” means to you. What new beginnings have you had in your life? List at least ten.
  2. Find photos for each decade of your life. Write about these topics for each decade:
    • What was most important to you during these years?
    • What was the best part of your life; the worst?
    • Write about your hopes and dreams.
    • Describe your favorite clothes, and activities.
    • What were your mother and father like during this time?
    • How about brothers, sisters, or other family members?
  3. Describe your grandmother; your grandfather.
  4. What life lessons did you learn from them?
  5. What legacy did they pass on to you?
Tips: Writing to Heal, to Become Whole

Tips: Writing to Heal, to Become Whole

  • Freewrite regularly. Don’t take your pen off the paper and don’t censor.
  • Write your truth for 20 minutes every day.
  • Don’t listen to the critic. Or work with the critic: write down what it says and answer it back. Create a dialogue where your creative voice has the last word.
  • Discover the source of the critic—parental voices, teachers, or society.
  • Write stories about the origin of that negative, critical voice.
  • Weave back and forth between the dark and the light stories.
  • Use the timeline to help organize and structure your stories.
  • Write vignettes—don’t worry about a whole story or book.
  • Research the background, setting, and history of the times and places you are writing about.
  • Fictionalize as needed to create scenes and story flow.
  • Use photos to help you remember. Write what happened before and after the photo was taken.
  • Write the untold stories of your mother, father, grandparents.
  • You can heal the past of your ancestors through writing the truth and letting it go.
  • Write about the future. Studies show that writing positive stories is healing too.


      Be Your Best Writing Pal

  • Nurture your writing self. Give yourself a “writing date,” like a coffee date at a café. Enjoy your coffee while you write. Turn off your phone and the Internet.
  • Alice Miller, a psychologist who specializes in healing abuse, talks about how we need a “Compassionate Witness” to help us heal. Your writing group is a way to have your past and your dark and light stories be witnessed.
  • Join organizations that support writers.
  • Go to book readings to hear how authors get their books written and published. 
  • Join a writing group that respects memoir and true stories.
  • Protect your writing from intrusion. Treat it like a tender, young plant.