Healing vs. Processing: How to Use Your Trauma for Big Transformations

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Don't let your stories only live inside you

I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. I’m also not a licensed therapist, so none of this should be taken as medical advice. But I am an author who has firsthand experience with how the writing process has the power to transform grief and trauma.

While the rest of the world is busy ignoring or hiding their pain, artists use their wounds as catalysts to kick start creativity.

Ever wonder why you get teary-eyed watching people you don’t know overcome their struggles in a movie? Nothing is happening to you personally. But those onscreen actors are putting their pain on display for you. Every. Single. Cell. in an actor’s body is forced into the action of reliving trauma.

Unlike an Academy nominated actor, we aren’t normally called to access our worst experiences for the world to see during regular business hours. Most of us do emotionally safe work during the day and go home.

But even ordinary 9-to-5ers can take their cues from artists and use some of the most difficult parts of their lives in their writing. At least on the weekends.

For me, this experience comes with the territory as an author. If I don’t lay bare my most honest experiences, I’ll easily lose my audience.

I’ve even said, “oh my god this is a horrible situation, but at least I can write about it later” to get through some major ordeal. I don’t morph my life to get better writing, but when a situation challenges me, I know that I can sort out my feelings on paper. I did it when I faced medical malpractice and I did it with my miscarriage.

Here’s the key: Events that happen to us in life are neutral. We infuse them with positive or negative connotations.

Even if we interpret an experience as terrible, the interpretation is based on our own bias and judgments. The meaning always comes from us not from some external force.

My miscarriage, for example, was something I interpreted as painful, as you might expect most humans would. However, with some research, you discover that miscarriages are not uncommon. Having as many as five miscarriages isn’t even considered a cause for concern by most doctors.

Considering what the medical community knows, what if my perspective was different? Image I was a woman who didn’t feel particularly maternal and lived with an abusive partner when I found out I was pregnant? Might a miscarriage in those circumstances come as a relief?

We string events together and interject more meaning than we realize. We assume that what we feel in a given situation is what all people would feel in the same moment. But that’s not necessarily the case.

But this knowledge about meaning gives writers a remarkable gift: we have the power to shift meaning around regarding the events that have happened to us.

Many people choose not to speak about their personal difficulties and instead just stew in them. This can lead them to harbor wounds that can be the catalyst for detrimental experiences later. However, if we choose to address these monsters under our beds, we take control over our experiences or at least our own interpretations of them.

Here are four benefits of choosing to write about your experiences:

  • You get the bad shit out of you

We’ve all known someone who was tightlipped about some traumatic event, so much so that we fear their pain could overwhelm them from the inside out. Even science has proven that keeping trauma and grief locked inside can lead to mental harm and eventually physical health problems that can even be passed down to the next generation. That means the very act of writing out a story and being truthful about it has the potential of getting the offending culprit out of you. You put distance between you and the event when it is on paper.

  • You get to focus on the experience from your perspective

Another valuable benefit of choosing to write about your experiences, is that you pick what parts to tell and what parts to leave out. The act of choosing what to emphasize gives you a sense of control over the traumatic event that you may not have had when the experience occurred. This isn’t saying you should lie about any part of your story. But we all know that when you choose to relay events from memory, you will naturally detail what was the most compelling for you.

  • Your story will revise you

I used to attend Rosemary Daniel’s women’s writing group the Zona Rosa. I was surprised to discover the kinds of tragedies the women in the writing group had overcome. I believe their resiliency was due to their ability to tell their stories. A quote that was often used in the group was: “Revision revises us.”

Getting your story out is like laying down raw material that hasn’t yet been formed into anything. Think of a lump of clay for a sculptor. But after you write your story and go back and start cutting and rearranging the specific details, you are in the process of revising not only the words on the page, but the interpretation of that event. Again, this is not to imply that you are making misleading statements. Instead you are trying to find your truth. You are owning it. It becomes a journey of truth that has the power to reshape the way you see yourself.

  • You make meaning for your readers

By doing all the above you will naturally begin to add new meaning to your writing. Unlike the day in and day out of reality, there are no random, neutral acts in a play, memoir, or a novel. Every single sentence must be used to make a statement about your overall theme. Even if you are only writing for yourself, your writing should adhere to a main idea, preferably a universal theme. This universal theme has the power to transform not just you but also others. How many people could empathize with the transformative power of your pain?

A Note on the Word Healing

I never use the word healing in writing about pain. That word conjures visions of traveling charlatan ministers during the Dust Bowl who would smack sick or crippled folks on the head and cure them of their demon troubles. My writing has never cured me of anything. But my pain has fueled my talents and subsequently relieved me from getting stuck in my own grief.

I think of it more as processing trauma than healing myself of it.

To process pain means that you’ve been through some kind of struggle that is so strong, so compelling that to keep it inside could destroy you so you must get it out of you. It’s this processing of pain that often makes artists real visionaries. It gives them the power to take failure or tragedy and turn it into something that makes life better for others.

Does this alleviate the pain? Not completely.

But the pain no longer has the power to control you. It now has a function, a role that leads us to a higher level.

“Just that process of getting it down led me to insights that helped get me out of it,” said actress/director Bryce Dallas Howard about her postpartum depression in an episode of Marie TV.  

Her depression lasted for 18 months and she recovered with the help of therapists, but she acknowledges her writing process as the path that lead her to where she is artistically today.  “I don’t know if this is the right thing to say… I never fully healed from it,” Howard admits. Her writing wasn’t an attempt to remove the experience like someone erasing a bad memory or surgically cutting out a tumor. Instead she got on top of her trauma and harnessed it for her own creative endeavors.

This is the difference between healing vs. processing.

Writing is a process. Artists move forward because they’ve learned the secrets of harnessing their pain for something bigger than themselves.

If you need to heal something, see a doctor. But if you believe your wounds have shaped you, consider writing about them. You never know who will read what you wrote and be transformed in the process.