I’ve had a writing journal on and off since I was 14 years old. I still have those books but I find them hard to read because it’s a lot of teenage angst-filled writing, mostly about which boy I liked. I didn’t start writing again in a journal again until I was in my 20’s. I used it as a means to do writing exercises and problem-solve. I would write about my issues but I would just write down whatever mental loop I was experiencing, often with no clear solution or way out.
When I was seeing a psychoanalyst, I would often write about feelings generated from sessions, sharing them with my therapist. That seemed to help clarify things and get them out of my head, which was a positive step. I did not always generate solutions using this method.
Last year, I came across a book which helped me be able to use writing as an effective problem-solving tool. It was an adjunct to therapy I used with a behavioral psychiatrist who was focused on moving past my feelings to thinking and seeing issues in an objective way. The book which helped transform my writing was a book called If The Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Kasl. Although the subtitle says, “A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path”, you do not need to be a Buddhist, be on a particular spiritual path to use the methods outlined in this book. It is one of the truly effective self-help books I have ever bought because it is focused on the practical. The only criticism I have is that in one section where she walks you through questions to ask yourself gets muddied and I had to figure out what she meant to ask rather than what she actually asked. But this only happened on one page. I can look into it if anyone wants me to get specific.
I don’t use all her questions each and every time I sit down to problem-solve through writing. I took what I learned and adapted it in a way that seems to work for me. These are the steps I take:
1. I write down the problem or situation, even if it comes to me in a dream. My dream interpretations typically reveal to me a problem that my mind is wrestling with. Do not underestimate the ability of your dreams to help you figure something out.
2. I write down what I think the problem or situation is about, trying to draw on prevalent themes in what I wrote in #1 so I can try to get a more objective perspective on the problem. If you try to look at the themes, it helps you understand the specifics that you wrote down in Step 1.
3. Given the themes, I write down what issues I may have with them, what I don’t like about them, or how I think the themes affect my thinking, feelings, and actions.
4. The most important step: I try to think about alternate ways I can handle the situation and feelings that I wrote in Steps 1-3 that would be more effective than what I am currently doing.
For a concrete example, below is an example of how I used writing with the above method to work out a personal issue. The issue was reflected in a dream that I had last night. Here is what I wrote in my journal:
Dream: I’m sitting at a table with my coworkers. Harry is sitting across from me. A person on my side of the table says something and Joe makes a work-inappropriate comment. I get up, feeling angry, and say something like, “That’s a completely inappropriate thing to say at work.” and I walk out on my team members.
Comments on my dream: 1) I am angry at my workers. 2) Unlike my usual behavior in this type of situation, I say something and do something to show my displeasure. 3) It’s not usually Joe who I feel says something inappropriate. That must mean that I find it easier to tell Harry how I’m really feeling compared with my other coworkers. “Things they say” is the problem, not necessarily Harry or the specific thing he said.
Issues with coworkers that I am actually having a problem with “what they say and the way they say things”: 1) I do not like when people speak in a way that is/says – a) I don’t believe you; b) You’re not doing this right; c) What’s wrong with you people?; d) angry, frustrated delivery. The theme behind these things: “It feels like a personal attack.”
The natural response i feel is two-fold: 1) I want to defend the accused party; 2) I want to return the attack and hurt the other party by criticizing them or complaining.
Things I can do to short-circuit this loop: 1) Identify that I’m feeling like I’m being personally attacked; 2) Realize that I am reacting to a critical judgment; 3) If it’s not directed at me, learn to let it go & not get emotionally involved; 4) Take some deep breaths; 5) Take a break or go for a walk around the block; 6) Get advice. Ask others how they handled this situation when it happens to them; 7) Try to look at the critical party in a sympathetic or empathetic light; 8. If I am part of the conversation, say something about it in a constructive way, like trying to redirect the conversation towards an interest in problem-solving.
Sometimes when you write, thoughts may arise that are not immediately part of the dream or situation. Write them down anyway. They are probably clues to the situation and could help you.
The goal of writing as a problem-solving tool is to get ideas out of your head, onto paper and to give you hope and motivation, whatever the issue.