SELF-UNDERSTANDING

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Autobiography, diary, intensive journal, and psychological readings

 There are thousands of helpful psychology books. Books are often used by therapists in a kind of therapy called bibliotherapy, in which patients read and discuss psychological material in a group or with the therapist (Fuhriman, Barlow, & Wanlass, 1989). Therapists of all persuasions recommend selected readings to their clients. Undoubtedly, we discover new things about ourselves by reading of others' experiences--their thoughts, feelings, dreams, needs, altruism, emotional problems, destructive urges, relationships, and frustrations. We are similar in some ways to every other person. There may, in fact, be a slight tendency in us to do almost anything anyone has ever done (see method #1). Their emotions are our emotions. Their urges our urges. Their insights become our new awareness. To know ourselves, we must know others of "our own kind" intimately. Much of that knowledge is in books and available to us, if we are open-minded.

All that Mankind has done, thought, gained or been, it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books
-Thomas Carlyle

 Keeping journals and diaries help us pull together useful information from books, from observing events in our own lives, from talking with others, from our own thoughts, dreams, feelings, and internal drives. I especially encourage students to take personalized notes while they read useful psychology books. But I discourage writing a summary (like for an exam) of what they have read; you aren't preparing to take an exam; instead, write down exactly how you can use the information you have just read. Knowledge that is used is of much more value than stored knowledge; in fact, if you don't use new information within a couple of days, it isn't likely to ever be used and you may not store it for long. A journal is an excellent place to figure out how to improve yourself and your life. Daily diaries can serve you in many other ways, most of these ways are quite conscious but by thinking and writing in a diary we gain new ideas and a different perspective. Certainly intimate diaries provide fascinating insight-laden reading weeks, months, and years later. Journals can involve in-depth probing, as you will soon see.

 Therapists frequently take a careful social history, like a biography, before undertaking therapy. Knowing the background, the possible causes, facilitates finding the cures (see chapter 2). Books, such as John Bradshaw's Family Secrets, can guide your exploration for two or three generations back. It is amazing how often our problems are rooted in the problems and traumas of our parents' and grandparents' childhood. We can only know ourselves by knowing our family history. Writing an autobiography, incorporating your family history, greatly increases your awareness of the events underlying today's events and feelings. It can be fascinating and healing. The knowledge can also be a wonderful legacy to your children.

 Many writers of autobiographies have commented about the powerful emotions, insights, and finally personal relief from re-living stressful periods of their lives, e.g. Steinum, 1992. Wegscheider-Cruse (1992) guides you through the process of writing your own history. Rico (1991) documents the value of self-healing by writing your way through a crisis, much as you would do when keeping a diary. Since 1985, James Pennebaker has done a remarkable series of laboratory-based studies assessing the value of writing about traumatic events in your life. The results document the emotional and physical health benefits from putting emotional upheavals into words. The researchers have also been surprised that serious traumas have occurred in 50% of the lives of even young, upper-middle class college students. The young people have been willing to openly write about deaths, rape, family violence, suicide attempts, drug problems, and other horrors. In a study with Joshua Smyth, Pennebaker found that writing about emotional crises resulted in much fewer visits to the Health Service. The process of "writing your deepest thoughts and feelings" seems to translate the disturbing and often chaotic experience into language that tells a coherent story. This story-telling thought process seems to be the key to gaining mental and physical benefits. Apparently the written "story" changes how the person organizes and thinks about the trauma. In some of the studies, the writing was done for 15-30 minutes per day for 3-5 days. The writers were encouraged to also relate their stressful experience to their childhood, relationships, who they are and want to be, etc. As the stories became more insightful and understandable over time, the benefits increased. Keep in mind that this experimental form of self-treatment takes little or no professional time and is something you can do at any time. Lepore and Smyth (2002) have summarized this interesting and important research about expressive writing.

 Some cautions are in order, however: trauma sufferers remind me that learning to cope with old traumas takes a long time, not just 100 minutes. Also, if remembering a trauma still makes you distraught ("re-traumatized"), it is wise to have someone, a friend or a therapist, with you during this writing process. Also, for some people, especially those who's experiences haven't been believed before, an especially important part may be sharing the traumatic memory with someone who will listen carefully and care, be very supportive, and reassure you that they believe your description. Surely another important part is to come to believe in some detail that you now know how to handle that trauma and others equally challenging. All this learning takes time.

 Later, in this section, we will discuss the value of writing a journal, seeing clearly your "life script," and finding meaning in your life via personal myths (Valley-Fox & Keen, 1992).

 These methods--reading books, writing your history and autobiography, keeping a journal--are serious, time-consuming, long-term, down-to-earth, and reasonable efforts. Doing all three would require great, sustained effort which may amount to a change in lifestyle. Ask yourself if you are motivated to undertake any of these long-term tasks. A dedicated self-helper and aspiring psychotherapist will be.

 Reading psychology books and keeping a journal do not deal with unconscious factors exclusively, of course. But read Freud and see if you don't uncover your Oedipus/Electra complex or some other sexual experiences in childhood. (I clearly remember at age five being fascinated by my mother's breasts and hoping she would come and help me take a bath.) Write your history, consulting with your parents and siblings, and see if you don't view your childhood differently. If there has been friction with a parent, try to see "where they were coming from." Keep a journal for several weeks and observe to see if you have cycles (PMS or reoccurring relationships or high-and-low productivity) or if you experience the same emotion over and over. These are useful insights.

Purposes

Steps

STEP ONE: Write your autobiography. Decide what psychological mysteries you'd like to solve and what self-improvements you'd like to make.

 Many people say, "My life is dull. I'm just ordinary." But I've listened to thousands of life histories and I've never heard an uninteresting life if the person is willing to honestly share his/her soul--the details and depth, the joy and the pain, of the self. A Gestalt therapist, Erving Polster (1987), has written a book, Every Person's Life is Worth a Novel. It says you are interesting; please believe it. Reading this book or autobiographies should inspire you to write your own story. Not only would writing an autobiography be a therapeutic experience for you, it would also be fascinating and helpful to your children and grandchildren. Indeed, a question and answer outline for just such a book is published by Kamen (1987) called, A Grandparents' Book: Thoughts, Memories, and Hopes For a Grandchild. What a wonderful idea. However, keep in mind that writing your history for others, is a very different process from writing privately for self-understanding and self-improvement. It is the latter we will focus on.

 I can not emphasize too much the importance of knowing the psychological background of your grandparents--what was their childhood like? How were they treated by their parents? What were their hopes and aspirations, successes and failures? How did your mother/father get along with their siblings and what roles did they play--hero, scapegoat, lost child, victim...? Were there abuse or deaths or traumas in their histories? Under what circumstances were you born? How did you get along with your siblings and what role did you play? (See Blevins, 1993.) What kind of relationship did your parents have? Remember that building trust is an important aspect of coping psychologically. To trust and feel secure we must be saved many times when we are small. If we experience serious psychic traumas, we may become unglued, e.g. we may repress or forget the experience or believe similar burdens are our role in life or seek futilely to repeat the trauma over and over in hopes we can work it out with a wonderful ending. Bradshaw (1994) will take you deeply into the psychological morass of your family history, especially the consequences of any addictions or abuse or sickness. Such a guide is important. The chances may not be very high that big awful secrets will be uncovered in your past, but when addiction, crime, psychosis, infidelity, brutality, etc. are a part of your background, you can bet it has had a significant but often hidden impact on your life. You have a right to know. A probing history is a major undertaking and an important introduction to your autobiography.

 One of the more helpful brief procedures for letting a small group get to know you is a "life graph"--a line drawn year by year showing the highs and lows of your life. Ron Konzak (nd) has a book and a nine-foot graph for such a history (a blackboard works well). He says it helps you understand yourself better; I saw the life graph as primarily a way to disclose to others the most important events and stages of your life. Friends or group members will not read your 100-page autobiography, but they will attend carefully to a 15-minute graph of your ups and downs, and use that information to understand, empathize, and help you as best they can.

 Your reading and writing of reading notes, an autobiography, and/or a journal will be more profitable if you have some specific self-understanding or self-change goals in mind, perhaps only 3 or 4. Thus, this method begins with an autobiographical review of your life which will help you decide where you want to go from here. But first, make a tentative list of some things you might want to understand better about yourself and make another list of things you might want to change about yourself. Pay particular attention to these areas (and others that occur to you) as you write your autobiography. For each "mystery" and each "problem" make up a work sheet for ideas, books to read, possible explanations, possible self-improvement approaches and so on. You will be "researching" your problem.

 Peter Madison (1969), author of Personality Development in College, offered for several years a college course in personality development based on an autobiography, a daily journal, and readings about case studies. The outline below for an autobiography comes from his experience. But first some comments about writing a life history (for personal insight). Try to focus on the events that have emotional significance for you, events that influenced your behavior, feelings, and values. Don't list where you lived or went to school or what organizations you belonged to (it's not a resume), unless these facts had impact on your self-concept, goals, reactions to others, etc. In fact, some of the most important factors in your development may be things that did not happen: not having love, not having friends, not having parents who attended to your school work (or non-work), not having responsibilities, not having dates, not having career plans, not having anyone to share personal feelings with, etc. Include these. Sometimes little things make a difference: mom talking to you about sex, dad teaching you to drive carefully, long talks with your sister, childhood sexual experiences, liking a teacher, and so on. Lastly, it is important to be frank and to give details. Yet, keep in mind that others may find your writings, so consider using a code name for yourself and others. Keep this information in a safe, private place. Sometimes very secret events can be recorded in vague, non-specific terms, so only you can understand clearly. One should be cautious.

 This is Madison's suggested outline for an autobiography:

  1. A general introduction of yourself: who you are, something about your family and your position in the family, other important people in your life at this time, and so on.

  2. Early childhood memories: outstanding events without regard to order, any "peak" or "awful" experiences. Just describe a few events at this point (see later topics), don't analyze for significance.

  3. Unusual childhood ideas or misconceptions: we all have had some strange ideas, such as who are our real parents, how are babies made, what is death, what caused parents to drink or fight, what does it mean to "go to work," what does "going crazy" mean, etc.

  4. Your self concept as a young child: how you felt about yourself, abilities or weaknesses you assumed you had, how you thought others reacted to you (loving? trusting? critical? competitive?). Were you self-confident or nervous? When you made a mistake, was your reaction "I'm terrible" or "I need to work harder?"

  5. Significant others in your original family and present situation: for each person, including siblings and others in the household, describe the general nature of the relationship, earliest memories, and feelings for each other then and now. Relationships are the essence of our lives.

     Similarly, Bentz (1989), who has written about Becoming Mature, asks women to write about significant others in different stages of their life, e.g. preschool, 6-12, 13-18, 19-25, and 26+. What did each person think of you (attributions) and expect of you? How did you react to those attributions and expectations? What impact did they have on your life? What effect did organizations, such as scouts or sports, and institutions, such as church, have on you? Then, with Bentz, these autobiographies were discussed in groups, where each person learns to understand and control the "voices" from the past that influence her adult life.

  6. How you handled life's developmental crises: considering each of the stages of personality development in Table 9.1 and moral development in chapter 3, describe how and how well you got through those critical periods.

  7. Describe yourself from different perspectives: how do others view you, e.g. the opposite sex? your teachers and bosses? your peers? What do you think you're really like? Ideally, what would you like to be like? Do you express feelings or suppress them? Do you take risks or play it safe?

  8. How you resemble and differ from your parents and other members of the family? Make physical, personality, attitudinal, values, and behavioral comparisons.

  9. Family relations: How did your parents relate to each other? Were you dependent or independent as a child and teenager? How do you relate to your spouse? How did your parents relate to you and your siblings? How do you relate to your children? How did your siblings get along? How do your children get along?

  10. How do significant others see your future?

  11. Sexual history: Early memories, how you learned about sex, attitudes (early and later) toward sex and toward both sexes, temptations, good and bad experiences.

  12. School and work history: parents', friends' and your attitudes about school and your career. How much of your time goes into work and how much into fun? Is that about right?

  13. Friendships, loves, and social life: throughout your life, including early friends, your "gang," first love, sports, religious activities, co-workers, best friends, lovers, etc. What kinds of communities did you live in?

  14. Crises, regrets, and peak experiences: describe your three greatest crises and three most wonderful experiences. What would you have liked to have happened differently in your life? What did you need you didn't get?

  15. Future changes you would like to make in your life: describe your major goals in one, five, ten and twenty years. What self-improvements are needed to achieve those goals? Which self-help projects should be started first?

  16. Reactions to writing the autobiography: before, during, and after doing the writing.

  17. Realistic expectations: not what you hope will happen in your life, but what is most likely.

  18. Life graph: summarize your life by plotting year by year the ups and downs of your life from birth to now. Note on the graph, using little symbols or phrases, the causes of the "highs" and "lows."

 A book by Leman and Carlson (1989), Unlocking the Secrets of Your Childhood Memories, might help you find the significance of your childhood experiences. Also, if appropriate, ask a parent, sibling, or close friend to review a rough draft of your autobiography. Get their views and reactions--that is likely to be revealing. Add these other opinions to your write-up.

 Writing the autobiography, a major undertaking, should put your life in perspective and help you see the major directions you are moving in--or where you aren't making much movement. You will probably find some other areas of your life you would like to understand better. Add them to your list of mysteries.


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