By Justin Haley Phillips
Life is hard.
There’s no getting around it. We are all faced with waves of emotions, piles of responsibilities, and unavoidable twists and turns as we journey forward. Sometimes we are able to adjust our sails accordingly and weather the storm with ease. Sometimes we capsize, left to sputter and flounder and flail.
For every gale that life throws at us, however, there is an anchor (or at least a life vest): a way to cope.
This could be anything from traditional therapy to meditation and yoga, spending time at the gym, or — as in my case — writing. I’ve been a writer ever since I could hold a pencil so it makes sense that, when the clouds have gathered overhead, I turn to the lined pages that have always been there for me.
Those pages allow me to stay afloat.
Whether it’s writing poetry, crafting a story, or just pouring out my feelings, I always feel better afterward, as though a pressure valve has been released. And over the years, I’ve been able to isolate a few particularly powerful exercises that have kept my head above water on countless occasions. They don’t “fix” my problems, but they show me the bigger picture and offer me greater clarity which allows me to then formulate ways to fix them myself.
It sounds so cliché, but this one is invaluable. When you bottle up your darkness — your anger and your hurt and your confusion — it poisons you slowly. It eats away at you like a cancer. It starts to define you. It begins to chart your course for you, and that’s not healthy. But when you let it out and let it breathe, it can begin to heal.
All you have to do is write it down.
Whatever is troubling you, put it on paper. Even if no one else ever reads it, even if you burn it afterward, you have pulled that darkness outside of yourself and that makes a difference. It lets you take ownership of your experiences; this is how you reclaim your power and take back the wheel.
As stated on this site, “Keeping a journal helps you establish order when your world feels like it’s in chaos.”
Don’t think too hard about it. This isn’t a blog for the world to see, it doesn’t require perfect grammar or cohesive structure. When I start writing about something that has me emotionally charged, the words act like breadcrumbs, each thought leading to the next until I arrive at a destination and suddenly I have new insight or motivation or even a plan of action.
This trail of breadcrumbs will not happen in the same way if you simply sit and think. You have to write, bring it into the physical world, make it real, make it solid. Thoughts can dissipate and be quickly forgotten, or easily veer off on a tangent and another tangent and another. It’s flimsy and it’s flighty. Writing it down keeps the path beneath your feet.
By being willing to sit, and to write, and to explore, you open the doors to greater awareness and insight.
2. The Snapshot Story
I was first introduced to flash fiction in college when I joined a writers group. The definition varies, but for me it is essentially a snapshot of a moment… but through words instead of a captured image. There’s no plot, no storyline to follow, it’s pure experience: vivid description and visceral feeling. After a series of emotionally abusive relationships I started using this technique to frame specific abusive events, and suddenly I felt stronger, less victimized.
The trick that makes it work so well as a coping mechanism is to use “she” (or “he” or “they”) instead of “I.” This puts even more distance between you and your pain. The “she” in the story becomes a sort of worry doll into which we can place our hurt. And suddenly the story becomes its own separate entity, living outside of us.
It also gives you an outsider’s perspective as you turn your story into a literal story. Describing the details of the experience lets you see the bigger picture. With this wider view, you are better able to connect the dots and gain greater understanding of your situation and where to go from there.
A different angle on this exercise is to take one of those moments from your past and rewrite it the way you wish it had happened. Tell the story the way it would have gone if you were faced with it again, and could handle it in the most ideal way you can imagine. This is another way to expand your awareness, and it empowers you to approach similar events in the future with greater fortitude and foresight.
3. The BFF Letter
This one is massive, so don’t let its apparent simplicity fool you. This exercise has changed my life. I’ve used it not only for tough times but also birthdays and holidays; it makes me feel incredibly loved in a way that no one can ever tarnish or diminish.
Similar to the way that the previous exercise removes you from your story, this exercise also asks you to separate yourself from your experience. Split yourself into two people: I call these the Observer and the Experiencer.
The Experiencer is the part of you right smack dab in the middle of the emotional turmoil, while the Observer is the part of you that is able to think clearly and logically. Both are important; neither is better or worse than the other.
In this case, your Observer is going to write a letter to your Experiencer. Think of it as writing a letter to your best friend if she (or he/they) were in your shoes. What would you tell her to make her feel better? Consider also what you need to hear.
Make this letter as long as you can; offer support, encouragement, compassion, forgiveness. Tell her how proud you are of her for everything that she’s overcome, and everything she has taken on. Praise her skills and talents, her kindness, all her strengths. And offer understanding for her weaknesses. Maybe even give her a kick in the butt if she needs it.
Keep it honest but loving.
Remind her that the reason she got into trouble wasn’t because she was dumb but because she believed in someone who didn’t deserve it, and that having faith in humanity is a good thing.
Remind her that the voices in her head that tell her she’s not good enough are not her thoughts, that they belong to others who probably didn’t think they themselves were good enough either.
Remind her that mistakes are important because they’re the best way to learn. Remind her of who she really is.
And there you have it: my personal emergency tool kit to ride out the storms of life.
These are the exercises that have served as my therapy through all manner of dark times, big and small. They have helped me heal and helped me grow. They have allowed me to find myself and define myself. They have kept me safe from the deluge time and again.
And my wish is that they may now do the same for you.
P.S. If you wish to join a supportive community for writers (and aspiring writers), please feel free to join me here.
Justin Haley Phillips is a free spirit, an adventurer, a nerd, a people-loving introvert and, above all, a writer. Her purpose with words has always been to express herself with the intention of letting others know they are not alone. She has loved and lost, fought and failed, but always gets back up again, fiercer than ever! Haley can be found in libraries, on road trips, staring at the sky, leaving behind sticky notes with positive affirmations on them, or curled up with a cuppa and a good book.
Editor: Dana Gornall