Men of few words could do with writing them down

There’s a reason why counselling works, but writing a journal can have the same benefits

A trouble shared is shared through words and the naming of one’s feelings in words is calming.

A trouble shared is shared through words and the naming of one’s feelings in words is calming.

 

Men of few words are, in my experience, more common than women of few words. When the man of few words speaks at all it is with a certain tetchiness as though he resents having been forced to break his silence.

It is entirely possible that the cause of his tetchiness is, in itself, his reluctance to speak. In psychological jargon, putting your feelings into words is called “affect labelling” and it is known to have a calming effect.

This was underlined in a recent study of emotional statements on Twitter. The researchers from universities in China, the Netherlands and the US were interested whether “affect labelling” applied in the twitterverse. They identified about 100,000 tweets in which people declared what their emotional state was (happy, sad, angry and so on). An algorithm then identified and analysed tweets from the same people for six hours before and six hours after they made their emotional statement.

This established that the emotional intensity of tweets fell over the subsequent six hours suggesting that expressing one’s feeling in writing in this way calms the emotion.

Twitter aside, this underlines the benefits of talking about your feelings. When people say that a trouble shared is a trouble halved they are, in a way, talking about this effect. A trouble shared is shared through words and the naming of one’s feelings in words is calming.

This may also be a reason why going to counselling and talking for an hour about your issues can leave you feeling better at the end of it, even if the basic causes have not been addressed in that session. And hearing yourself voicing your thoughts out loud for the first time can give you a whole new perspective as many of us have found out.

But you don’t have to go to Twitter or to a counsellor to get some of these benefits. For instance, if you get into the habit of writing a journal every day about how you’re feeling and put a name to those feelings, you will almost always feel better when you have finished. I have been doing this for 20 or 30 years and it has made a huge difference to my life both emotionally and practically.

The idea of writing out whatever is in your mind without worrying about how you express yourself was popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. It has benefits on multiple levels – planning your day, looking at your emotional issues, figuring out the meaning of life: you can write about anything you want to write about. I would recommend it to anybody to try and I would also recommend that you keep it to yourself, otherwise you’ll start censoring yourself.

Start talking to yourself in writing about whatever comes into your head

To do journalling, you sit down with pen, keyboard, phone or tablet and start talking to yourself in writing about whatever comes into your head. Julia Cameron recommends writing three pages by hand but I have no patience with handwriting and I don’t think in pages so I just keep going until I’ve nothing else to say or it’s time to go do something else.

Why does putting your feelings into words work? Nobody really knows. Maybe the act of verbalising the emotion distracts you from it or maybe it withdraws energy from the emotional part of your brain which tends to direct energy to wherever it’s needed at the time.

In that Twitter study I mentioned above it was found that women calm down more quickly than men after making an emotional statement. This is useful to know.

Why? Because if you have a female partner and if she is given to complaining to you (maybe with reason) now and then about your failings, remember that as she puts words on her feelings she is rapidly calming down. So think twice before replying in kind and ramping up the argument.

This might actually be one of those occasions on which it pays to be a man of few words.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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