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Monday, 14 May 2018

Writing for Therapy

It's 2018's UK Mental Health Awareness Week this week and I've been asked to contribute a poem to Ink Sweat and Tears Online magazine (see below for a link) who are doing a feature to mark the week.  Being invited was a perfectly timed spur for me, because I have a long list of topics for this blog
and writing for therapy is one of them. I've not written a blog article for too long having been overly occupied, and even bogged down, with other matters.  I needed an excuse to re-engage with writing!

Personal Writing

Poetry is one of 3 important Ps for me
the others being photography and philosophy.  I've turned to the thoughts of great thinkers many times and found them comforting and illuminating, and I've also found wandering around in beautiful and peaceful places with a camera around my neck to be balm for the spirit.  Poetry is similar to photography in some ways you need the right theme for the moment (although sometimes one presents itself by chance and good fortune), a flash of light, patience and hard work poems nearly always need working on and a good choice of frame (verse structure for instance) so do good photographs camera angles, lens selection, settings and processing, for instance. 

I did not start writing poetry as a means of therapy or to get over something.  I started writing it because I liked poetry, felt greatly engaged by it and wanted to have a go myself.  I can't say that most of the writing I do is for the purpose of being therapeutic, but I can say that quite a lot of it has ended up being that anyway and I've also turned to poetry at some points in my life to express what I was finding very hard to express in any other way.  I'd argue, in addition, that doing anything you like and which brings you a kind of inner peace is therapeutic
after all "therapeutic" means a treatment that heals from disease or hardship...and, most of the time,  life is nothing if not difficult.

The one thing I most want to say here is that therapeutic poetry should not be solely about dealing with pain and sadness.  Just as no good photographer takes pictures solely under stormy or blue skies, but rather tries to portray and reveal what's there as best as they can, so I believe poets should do something similar and I believe that exploring both light and dark are good forms of therapy.  A good photograph can be uplifting and joyous and take us to a good (and perhaps) better place, and poetry should do that, and indeed does do that, too.  When I write whilst feeling good about something it feels to me as good a form of therapy as dancing is.

Finding release in expressing strong feelings of any type fits in holistically with my own take on both philosophy and therapy
what is the point of just concentrating on what's hard if we can't also begin to move onto what's good? 

I certainly don't want to diminish the power of writing about suffering, but it's well covered that plenty of work on dark things goes on in writing and therapy and we all can all quote many examples of that, and writing about the process is common. I wanted to add a different angle, and therapy, photography and poetry are normally looking for new angles aren't they.  Nevertheless, it was my father's death that prompted the biggest burst of therapeutic writing for me.  I wrote many poems in the two or three years after his death and also a few during the time he had terminal cancer.  It was the most powerful method I had of coming to terms with things but many of the poems were celebratory as well as sad.  I've picked out a poem to include here that shows both sides.


On our route round Connemara
the wind sketched pools
in a wild-flower bog
then blotched
the undug peat with rain.

On the Ardnamurchan ferry
the swell took us
away from Tobermory
long enough
to watch seals in the bay.

On Islay, a rainbow
the sky opening
its kiosk
with important news

I’d got my first job.

How much I miss you.

Writing in Therapy

All the arts can be therapeutic and the links are strong.  Which of us, for instance, has not found comfort in a song or piece of music at some point?  We are drawn to music at weddings and funerals to mark and express important things.  Art galleries are also places where we can find solace or peace.  Sometimes an event or situation in a client's life will remind one of the two of us of a poem.  It's not unusual for poems to be quoted in my therapy room and people generally find that helpful.  It's also been shown by academic studies that writing events and feelings down in a journal can result in greater healing and one study even showed that writing therapeutically can improve your immune system. 

I'm a humanistic therapist so I don't insist on any activity for my clients – there are clients who don't want to write anything down and that's fine, but there do seem to be many more who find the idea of writing things down very helpful
and some also like to draw or paint.  I have often suggested to ones who are struggling that they might consider writing down their thoughts and feelings – perhaps as a journal, a poem, a mind-map, a letter to themselves or their younger or older selves, or perhaps a letter to another person who has had a profound influence on them (whether positive or negative).  Normally, this letter would not be sent – and in most cases it would be impossible or extremely unwise to send it anyway – but that is not the point.  Letters enable us to express things that we are holding onto, perhaps in a way that we can begin to move on from them.  I've had clients who wrote to fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, lovers, friends, bosses etc.  Some of these were dead or were people that the client had no interest in speaking to again but nevertheless felt unfinished business with.

With a letter, as with a poem, a photograph or any form of art, it's often a good idea to have a few goals in mind before starting to write – it may be important to make 4 or 5 particular points and so it's a good thing to plan for that.  If it's a letter, I suggest keeping it shortish (maybe 2 or 3 sides at most) as this keeps things focussed.  It's often a good idea for the letter to have a balance – good things as well as difficult things, as this helps processing and coming to terms.  Of course sometimes there are no good things, or, in the case of a loss of someone who is greatly loved, there may be few or no bad things. It always seems more therapeutic and personal to write things down by hand rather than typing (I do the same thing with my first poetry drafts).

I always encourage clients (whether individuals or couples) to reach out for good things as well as to work through bad ones.  Although it's almost certainly bad experiences that have brought them to therapy, I hope for them to be on their journey with a renewed desire to find peace, happiness, joy and contentment.  Just as it's good in therapy to get in deep with really difficult matters, so it is good to encourage clients to rediscover or re-engage with things that have previously brought them peace – and if there is little of that, then to begin a journey to try to find it.   

It can help therapy to bring writing (and drawings or other types of art) to counselling sessions.  Sometimes clients find themselves too emotional to read their work out in sessions with me and that's fine.  I offer to read it for them.  Most often we will work through the contents of the writing, but for some people the act of writing and reading is enough.  Afterwards, some clients may want to keep the writing to hand so they can revisit it, and others may prefer to find some sort of therapeutic and ritual ending for it – just as a funeral says goodbye to a body, scattering the ashes of a piece of writing that you have burned can be a good way of finding some closure.

To conclude, I have found writing to be healing and helpful in my own life and I've seen how it can also help clients with things they are finding tough.  I've also seen how it can be a way of finding and exploring brighter places as well as darker ones.

David is a fully qualified and BACP Accredited and registered Person Centred Counsellor.  You can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

The poem mentioned is called There is Nothing to Me but Sea and was written at a time when I felt too far away from the sea.  There was a kind of longing but I still wanted the poem to be upbeat and fun.  It's on Ink Sweat and Tears and appeared on 18/5/18:

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