Best possible self intervention and other goal related writing exercises

Work through stuck places and create powerful goal momentum with these evidence-based, easily actionable activities

So, I’ve been re-reading about the best possible self intervention and other expressive writing tools recently including the intensely positive experience method. I thought you’d definitely want to hear about this. I think there’s a clear link between doing these exercises and goal progress. Have you got about 10 minutes? I’ll share and give you a few things to try out…

Below you'll find: 

  1. Benefits of writing about emotionally challenging events 
  2. Best possible self intervention
  3. Intensely positive experience intervention 
  4. Why writing exercises seem to work 
  5. Conclusion 

Writing about a traumatic life event

The best possible self intervention came about thanks in part to a load of research in the 80s where people wrote about an event that was emotionally challenging or traumatic.

They were told to write for 15 to 20 minutes for three days in a row. I’ve put the exact instructions below if you'd like to try it. 

The results were really interesting… they found differences in health i.e. less health problems (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986) and they also found that people’s immune systems became stronger (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988).

One other finding was that compared to a control group, people who wrote about a difficult event found a job more quickly after being let go (Spera, Buhrfeind, & Pennebaker, 1994) ... Pretty amazing… Of course, it’s worth adding that the improvements were significant but not like monumental… most of the time we’re talking about a 10%-30% improvement on average. It's important to manage expectations. 

Instructions for Traumatic Event Writing Exercise

“For the next three days, I would like for you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about an extremely important emotional issue that has affected you and your life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing, or on different topics each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential. Don’t worry about spelling, sentence structure or grammar. The only rule is that once you begin writing, continue to do so until your time is up.”

The Best Possible Self Intervention

It’s interesting that even before the well known best possible self intervention, there were these other writing exercises that seem just as interesting to me now.

So, because the thing that was making these exercises work was up for debate and might not have been the negative event itself, Laura King decided to see if a positive writing exercise would work. She got people to write about their best possible future self.

She did four days instead of three, same length of time (20 minutes) and found all the same positive results… more subjective well-being, better health. 

One weird finding… She had three groups, best-possible-self group, control group, and the third group did two days traumatic incident writing and two days best-possible-self writing. The group that did both didn’t experience the same benefits. Weird!

One possible explanation was that people were expecting to write about trauma for the whole four days, so they were holding stuff back in the first two days and therefore didn’t get the full benefit of the first bit.

It would be interesting to see if someone who did only 2 days and only the best-possible-self intervention would see a significant improvement… If they didn’t it would mean either 2 days wasn’t enough or the interaction of the two exercises stopped their benefits. 

I’ve already told you about 2 ways this exercise might work: the new insights and the potential change in self-regulation… King also mentioned that the best-possible-self exercise might work because:

  1. There’s more focus on what’s important to the person
  2. It might cause a change in priorities in a helpful way
  3. It might cause the writer to explore a new part of their motivation
  4. It may also help with conflicts… for example conflicting goals or other stuck places

Man, I love this research. The best possible self intervention is part of my annual positive psychology plan. I currently do it 3 times a year at strategic times. It helps keep me hopeful and connected to a sense of the self I want to be even in tough times. 

Instructions for Best Possible Self Intervention (4 days, 20 minutes each)

“Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realisation of all of your life dreams. Now write about what you imagined.”

A few final and important points about the best possible self intervention

There were a few more things that really stood out to me… So first… they questioned the people who did the exercise, and it was described as “difficult”, “important”, and “emotional”. These seem to me to hit the nail on the head.  All of the exercises above tick these three boxes.

It might be that writing exercises like this work when the topic is difficult and emotional – i.e., not usually spoken about, and meaningful enough to hold the imagination and attention long enough to create a story. I think it’s fair to say that both trauma and un-realised dreams are difficult, emotional, and important. 

You can view the original study here

Intensely positive experience - writing intervention

Almost there… just one more really interesting activity. This one, by the same researchers as those who tested the best possible self intervention, asked people to write about an intensely positive experience from the past as opposed to an intensely negative one. It went back to the original three days for 20 minutes methodology… and yeah, same great results were found… improved mood, fewer health visits, less illness.

The instructions said that the experience can include anything that embodies a powerful positive emotion like awe, happiness, or ecstasy. Experiences might be about family, children, vacation, graduation etc).

If you're interested in finding out more, the original paper is a fascinating read

Instructions for intensely positive experience intervention (3 days, 20 mins per day)

“Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘‘being hit’’ by a book or painting or from some great creative moment. Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself in that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re-experience the emotions involved” 

Why do you think these writing exercises work? 

Researchers thought about this a lot. There are a few theories knocking around...

In terms of the earlier trauma writing studies, some thought maybe it’s cathartic to talk about such events in detail. There’s this idea that when stuff doesn’t get shared it’s stored as a kind of pent-up energy which is like a stress on the body and weakens the immune system, and with these writing exercises there is a release that happens. I wonder if it's possible that un-spoken, unmaterialised hopes and dreams could have a similar impact, explaining one reason for the positive impact of the best possible self intervention.

Some really interesting studies tested variations of the trauma exercise to see if it provided any new insights. In one study they decided to get people to write about a traumatic event but one that was made up… (clever curious researchers eh!) and they found similar positive results (Greenberg, Wortman, and Stone, 1996).

Could be good news for someone who doesn’t fancy writing about their trauma. There was another study where people wrote only about the positive aspects of a traumatic experience, and they again found the same health improvements. (King and Miner, 2000).

Another theory was that it works because of people making sense of things. So, when people write for 15-20 minutes, within that process, there’s a growing sense of complex causes and consequences, and this can create insights. This might include for example a clearer understanding of negative emotions and positive emotions related to events. (Pennebaker, 1993).

One other connected idea is that writing might create more self-regulation… This is the ability to understand and manage behaviour. This is one bit that seems especially interesting to me because managing myself and making progress toward my goals feel like they have a strong connection.  

The healing and goal affirming power of writing – a conclusion

So, what do you think? Will you try the best possible self intervention? or maybe another one of them? 

There’re five pretty solid options I reckon…

  1. writing about an emotionally difficult incident (3 days in a row, 15-20mins)
  2. writing about only the positive aspects of a traumatic incident (3 days in a row, 15-20mins)
  3. writing about a made-up traumatic incident (3 days in a row, 15-20mins)
  4. your best possible future self intervention (4 days in a row, 15-20mins)
  5. and writing about an intensely positive experience. (3 days in a row, 20mins)

Which one sounds best to you? 

The best possible self intervention is part of my plan already, and I'm intrigued by the positive aspect of a traumatic incident and writing about a made-up traumatic incident. 

I think the thing I found most interesting is… past difficulties and the future I really want may have something in common. They’re not easy to write about but the benefits are clear. There must be something in writing down our deepest thoughts and feelings. Maybe this points to something that is needed more in society in general. How comfortable do people feel sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings with each other… 

It seems that writing expressively, and in a story-like way, creates multiple positive results, whether the topic is positive (goals and possible self) or negative (past trauma). Things including mood, health and success improve. Although how this works is still a… work in progress, I’d say the research certainly warrants giving it a go! What do you think?

Did you reach the outcome you wanted to at the beginning? 

References

Greenberg, M. A., Wortman, C. B., & Stone, A. A. (1996). Emotional expression and physical health: Revising traumatic memories or fostering self-regulation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 588-602.

King, L. A., & Miner, K. N. (2000). Writing about the perceived benefits of traumatic events: Implications for physical health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1993). Putting stress into words: Health, linguistic, and therapeutic implications. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 539-548.

Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 274-281.

Pennebaker, J.W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K.,&Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 239-245.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D., & Pennebaker, J.W. (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, 37, 722-733.

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