8 Tips for Taking Care of Yourself while Writing Painful Memories
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How do you protect yourself when writing about difficult times? How do you make sure you don’t relive painful experiences while writing them? How do you keep your heart open without getting sucked into negative energy or destructive old patterns? Which painful memories do you revisit, and to what extent? And how much should be included in your memoir? These questions came up for me recently while working on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness. Here are eight ways to make your way through painful memories while not losing yourself in the process:

  1.  Recognize your opportunities. Celebrate the therapeutic value of memoir writing. Knowing that writing painful memories may help heal them might make it easier to move forward. Think of it as therapy. Or medicine. It’s good for you. Consider this writing an exquisite, creative opportunity to heal, learn, and grow.
  2. Be gentle. Lay down your arsenal of judgments, blame, and shame. Soften your resistance. Be kind. Take a journey.
  3. Step outside your box. You can’t write about your challenges from the same perspective from which you lived them. As Einstein said,“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” You have to step outside your box to see the larger picture. It’s easier to have compassion and experience forgiveness from this wider perspective.
  4. Give it space. If you’re not writing, maybe it’s because you’re not ready to write about your painful memories. Back off. Take a break. Work on something else. Read. Clean your house. When you’re ready, try again. But be careful! Many writers are procrastinators. If you are one of them, give yourself psychological space. This means you get your butt in the chair even though you don’t feel like it, but you work in small increments of time. I’ve heard that people should not write traumatic material for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Set a timer. Do not exceed the time limit that feels right for you when writing about distressing emotions.
  5. Check in with your body. When you sit down for your shortened writing session, tune in to how your body feels in the chair. Are your shoulders up around your ears? Are you clenching your jaw? Is your brow furrowed? Are you squinting? Do a quick scan of your body and relax the tension you’re holding. Take a few slow, deep breaths, and gently ease into your writing. You may feel like bolting, which might make you write fast. Slow down—and try to maintain the connection with your body that you established when you first sat down.
  6. Welcome discomfort. My therapist once told me, “It’s not your job to be comfortable; it’s your job to live your life.” I’ve noticed these past couple years as I’ve dealt with grief, anger, and anxiety that when I’m in pain—whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological—I react in one of two ways: I resist it or I try to escape it. The classic fight or flight. It may seem counterintuitive, but when you welcome your discomfort with a loving, open heart, the distress softens, and in some cases dissolves completely. I once had a lucid dream that demonstrated this. I dreamed a boa constrictor was coming at me from a crack in the wall. I was terrified until I realized I was dreaming, and said to myself, “Oh, this is a dream. This snake isn’t real; it’s a representation of my fear.” I then connected with my heart, looked the snake in the eyes, and said, “I love you” several times until the snake morphed into a beautiful queen, passing me her royal scepter.
  7. Up your self-care. Make a “Joy & Well-Being List,” itemizing at least thirty things that make you feel good and bring you pleasure. Hang it somewhere you’ll see it, and make sure you do at least one thing on your list every day. Here are a few items on my list: read and write poetry, spend time in nature, meditate, visit a garden, take a walk, get my nails done, go thrift-store shopping, bring fresh flowers into the house, visit friends, laugh, practice yoga, create an art project, take a nap, soak in the tub, go to a museum, have sex. You get the idea.
  8. Befriend uncertainty. Accept not-knowing. You can’t figure everything out. Asking why something is the way it is can be a trap. Explore and probe, but know when to let go. Be willing to not have all the answers. Sometimes the journey is in our questions. Remember the American proverb, “Let go or be dragged.” Know when it’s time to settle into the mystery.

 

How do you take care of yourself while writing painful memories? I’d love to hear your tricks of the trade, your secret coping mechanisms, or anything you’ve tried that’s worked for you.

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Comments
  • Bella Mahaya Carter

     Juanita K.: So glad this post helped.

  • I got a lot of good ideas on how to write painful memories from your post, as your article provided the answer to something I have been struggling with, how to write painful memories. Thank you.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Mary Ellen Latela: You are a wise woman!  The “delays” are essential, a vital part of this process. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Suzanne Stormon: Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree, it's a balancing act. I sometimes wonder how to honor my pain without building a shrine to it. Sometimes we just need to move on. I think the fluctuating you're talking about is absolutely normal—and the only way to get through to the other side! Good luck.

  • Mary Ellen Latela

    Bella, several times I have heard speakers (with good intentions) discuss sexual abuse, domestic violence, rape. I think it's essential never to bleed on your audience. There are some painful topics in my past which I can discuss because time has passed, I've had excellent therapy, my emotions are in a good place, my motivation is NOT for myself but to help someone else. Catharsis is very private, very confidential. Writing about those events can break your heart over and over, if you are not ready. When I recently wrote about a very painful part of my past, it was after a few years of working through, talking about how to articulate, how to protect myself, how to empower others through my story, and how to stay well through it all.... This mean a few delays, but I think in the right time the story was told and I am ok and life moves on. Mary Ellen Latela

  • Suzanne Stormon

    Thanks for the tips. I put the memoir about the time I was in the hospital for six months away for almost a year. I found I was getting so depressed reliving it. I'm back to it now and am writing in short spirts every day. I make sure I'm working on other, more positive, things at the same time.

    It's difficult to maintain my distance from the anger and sadness that resulted from that experience, but I think I'm doing a pretty good job at it now. The idea of welcoming discomfort is interesting. It is a balancing act, but a necessary one. I'm  sure I'll fluctuate between welcoming and fighting it off as I finish the book.

  • Karen Szklany Gault: Thanks for reading and posting. That's a great habit. I try to do that too. But sometimes forget!

  • Thanks,Lene Fogelberg.Glad this post resonated with you.

  • Great post.   I usually make sure I tap into things about my life that I love right now...even if it's sitting in my porch to sip iced tea and chat with my neighbors.

  • Wonderful, wonderful advice!! This is spot on. Great insights.

  • Eileen Obser: Thanks, Eileen. You're right. It can happen to any of us, which is why it's important to pay attention and take care of ourselves.

  • Eileen Obser

    Very well said -- all of it. I've been running memoir writing workshops for over 20 years, and there have been a few times -- thankfully not more than that -- when new memoirists went a bit farther than they could handle. It can happen to any of us, actually, no matter how "seasoned" we are. I'll be sharing your blog with my students, for sure.

  • Sonya Weiss: So sorry to hear about your parents. That must have been very painful. Sending you love.

  • Catherine Marshall-Smith: Glad you found my advice helpful. I think it applies to any kind of writing that connects you with deep inner issues. I'm confident you'll keep moving forward and your story will, in tme, answer all your questions. Patience, trust, faith—these are some of life's greatest treasures!

  • Susan Cook Bonifant: Thanks for reading and sharing. I'm so happy to hear that what I wrote resonated with you! I have to keep reminding myself about the importance of shorter writing periods and checking in with my body.

  • Laurel: Thanks for your comment. I'm glad this post helped you feel less alone, and I hope you are getting the support you need, which can make all the difference. Blessings to you.

  • Naomi Heilig: I love what you said: "Write with the hope that putting your pain on the page might help you see it with clarity for the first time." Beautiful and true! Words to write and live by! Have you written a memoir about loss? If so, or if it's forthcoming, I'd love to read it!

  • Jill Jepson: Writing is among the best medicines I know! Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing!

  • Patricia Robertson: I love what you say about healing having its own timeline. And often when I feel like I "should" be over something, I'm not. I can't count the number of times I've said to myself, "This again?" But I know that each time around I take a deeper cut, until one day I realize a particular demon has vanished.

    Thanks for reminding me what Jung said about our dark sides containing gold. So true!

  • Carole Avila: Thank you for reading and sharing. It's so valuable to hear what's worked for you.I absolutely agree that when one person has the courage to share their story of abuse, or some other secret, it gives everyone else permission to do the same. And this is how we heal. The only way to release what's toxic is to let it come up and out. 

    I don't see your other two books as procrastination. I see them as successful self-care. You weren't ready to complete the abuse book. So you did what you could. Isn't that wonderful!

    I'm so glad my post helped you breathe easier today. I'm amazed how easy it is for people to negate their talents and gifts and not realize how much they're doing right! So it's a blessing when we gain this perspective. I'm happy you got there today, pleased you glimpsed your own greatness!

  • Cate Warren: Please forgive my delayed response. Your 6/10 comment is stunning. I couldn't agree with your more. It sounds like you are a true spiritual warrior! Good luck with your work. It sounds like you're doing great. And I have no doubt whatsoever that your PTSD blog is going to be full of wisdom, wit, and great writing! You're so thoughtful, smart, articulate, and generous. These qualities make great bloggers, writers, people! 

  • Patricia Robertson

    Carole, you will finish your book when you are ready to finish it. Healing has it's own timeline. Congratulations on the progress you have made so far.

  • Carole Avila

    Bella,

    Thank you for all these fabulous suggestions. I am under contract for my non-fiction book on sexual abuse, The Long Term Effects of Sexual Abuse, and it should have been written two years ago! I didn't allow myself to feel the emotional repercussions of abuse as a child and have been enduring so many unexpected reactions.

    There are three things that have helped me the most as I've written this book based on my coaching work and past experience: Writing, working with other abuse victims, and keeping close to my writing community.

    Other people have motivated me and generously remind me of why it is important write this book--when one person is willing to share their story of abuse, it makes it easier for others to share. When we let go of the secrets, we open our lives up to finally living right. It's still painful, but we live more honestly. By networking with other writers and other abuse victims, I am finally seeing the light at the end of this tunnel--that is to say the first draft of my book is nearly complete. The support of other people has been absolutely critical in this venture.

    During the hard times, I wrote two other books that were published. Yes, that might have been procrastination--a way to avoid the emotional pain of dealing with the abuse issues that crept up that I thought I dealt with long ago, but it was a constructive outlet.

    As I continue to work on my abuse book, two more fiction works have been drafted and are being polished. Writing is a coping method that has been my saving grace.

    After reading your list of suggestions, I see that I have done all these as I interacted with other survivors and writers along the way. I gave myself space by writing other books. Bella, I find myself breathing easier today as you have helped me to realize that I did more things right than I gave myself credit for, and I thank you for this.

    Sincerely, Carole Avila

    Author, Eve's Amulet-Book 1 and Death House

  • Jill Jepson

    Excellent advice, Bella, and so important to many of us who are using the page to make our way through pain.

    I'm also sharing this to FB.

  • Naomi Heilig

    I have become more and more amazed at the power of writing to morph my cobwebs into clarity. I have written out my pain over years as much as because I wanted to as because I had to. I was compelled to understand what had happened to me and writing it slowly brought understanding. I endured the death of my mother when I was five,the suicide of a beloved sister who had been a longterm psychiatric patient, and the death of my father the same year my sister died. I was left with no immediate family at 28.  I wrote in order to understand what the hell had happened in my life.  It worked.  I can now talk about it, although I could not, before.  Write with the hope that putting your pain on the page might help you see it with clarity for the first time.