A friend once told me that the only time she writes in her journal is when she’s just broken up with a guy.
I suspect a lot of people can relate to this desire — something about heartbreak makes us feel poetic and creative — like pouring our psychic guts out all over the page.
But how effective is this strategy, really, in terms of helping us cope with the dissolution of the relationship?
Back in 2012, psychologists published a study that suggested simply writing about your emotions surrounding the breakup can make you feel worse than when you started.
More recently though, another set of psychologists, at Villanova University, found that a particular type of journaling can reduce the emotional distress associated with a breakup: writing a “redemptive narrative.”
The researchers say redemptive narratives “encompass the idea that negative life events or circumstances can be meaningful points in individuals’ lives that result in positive outcomes or silver linings.”
In other words, it’s a story that outlines how you turned suffering — in this case, a breakup — into a positive experience. Maybe, for example, you learned something important about yourself or relationships in general.
To test the effectiveness of redemptive narratives, the researchers recruited about 100 adults who had recently gone through a breakup to participate in a four-day online daily diary study.
Specifically, they were interested in whether redemptive narratives or a strategy called “cognitive processing” could help people deal with breakups. Cognitive processing involves changing your interpretation of a negative emotional event.
For the study, one-third of participants were told to journal from a self-focused perspective; one-third to journal from a relationship-focused perspective; and one-third to write anything they wanted about the relationship’s end. Participants journaled for an average 8.5 minutes a day.
Then, the researchers reviewed all the journal entries and looked for words linked to redemptive narratives and words linked to cognitive reappraisal.
For example, one person who wrote in a redemptive-narrative style said, “‘I am really sad that we broke up, but maybe it’s for the best. I am better off without somebody who doesn’t treat me right.” People who used cognitive processing included words like “because,” “think,” and “should.”
As it turns out, cognitive processing and redemptive narratives independently reduced the emotional distress people felt, which the researchers measured using questionnaires. But redemptive narratives were even more effective than cognitive processing.
In other words, as University of Massachusetts Amherst professor of psychological and brain sciences Susan Krass Whitbourne writes in a blog post for Psychology Today:
The simple act of writing wasn’t enough to cause change, nor was the ability to reframe the relationship’s ending in more intellectual terms. Instead, it was the reshaping of memories of the breakup, and the role the breakup played in the individual’s personal story, that seemed to reveal the silver lining.
Of course, this study lasted only four days, so it’s unclear whether redemptive narratives work to reduce emotional distress in the long run.
It’s also worth noting that the researchers didn’t find that redemptive narratives eliminated emotional distress — just reduced it. So you probably shouldn’t use this strategy expecting to be relieved of your entire emotional burden.
That said, writing a redemptive narrative is a free and relatively easy way to cope with a breakup — and if it’s not helping, you can always stop.
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