Writing can be used as a tool for understanding the origins of our strong emotional reactions, thought patterns and the underlying beliefs we hold, providing a space for us to choose positive action bringing us closer to ourselves and others.

Strong emotional reactions like fear, anger, anxiety, jealousy and doubt, greatly affect our sense of well-being and make it difficult to maintain our harmonious connections with others.

When we aren’t aware of what is the cause of our emotional reactions we usually look outside of ourselves for the apparent cause of a disturbance. In this way, we usually end up blaming ourselves or those around us for how we feel.

It’s pretty crazy, but in most cases, these emotions are not inherently connected to the situation in front of us but are a result of the deeper beliefs we hold about how the world should or shouldn’t be.

All of the emotions we experience are a reaction to our thoughts. What we feel in our bodies as our emotions is our body reacting to our thoughts, and it’s our thoughts which are determined by the beliefs we hold.

Brown Cows Are Scary!

If I believe brown cows are scary, then whenever I see a brown cow I’ll begin thinking: How do I get away from this brown cow? How will I defend myself from the brown cow if it comes closer? And how will I attack the brown cow if it tries to hurt me or someone I care about? And if there’s a herd of brown cows, just forget about it!

All of these thoughts originate from the belief that brown cows are scary. It’s these thoughts which give rise to the feelings of aggression and distrust I’m feeling.

We might not come across too many brown cows in everyday life, so this belief won’t really affect us all that often. But, for a belief like, You’re selfish if you ask for what you need. This is a belief that’s more likely to affect us in everyday life, and will definitely influence the relationship with ourselves and others.

If I’m holding this belief without being aware I hold it, the chance that this belief will cause me some trouble is quite high. I will most likely see other people who ask for what they need as selfish, and I will probably feel somewhat repressed and even resentful of those around me because I don’t feel my own needs are being acknowledged or met.

This might appear completely obvious from the perspective of already knowing the belief that’s behind all the commotion, however, blaming external situations (people, places, things) for how we feel is exactly what occurs when we aren’t aware of the underlying beliefs shaping our thoughts and feelings.

What we usually experience are the surface level emotions which drift into our awareness when they become so strong we can’t ignore them any longer.

The only thing we are aware of at this point is our unpleasant feelings and the apparent cause for our feelings which exists outside of us.

When we become aware of how this belief originally formed, we are in a position to then re-assess this belief and see if it’s still serving us in our current experience of life or not. And from this point we can choose to update the belief or let it go altogether.

Writing Makes It Easier to See What’s under the Surface

It’s not easy uncovering the beliefs behind our thoughts and feelings. If beliefs affect the thoughts we have, and our thoughts determine the emotions we feel, we can use our emotions as an access point into our thoughts and the underlying beliefs we hold.

Writing is an excellent way of bringing more awareness to our strong emotional reactions. With writing, we can target the specific reactions we’d like to learn more about. When we do this we can begin to see the different components of our reactions and ultimately how those reactions first formed.

I first mentioned this technique in episode 010: Knowing When to Jump Ship and also episode 014: Making It Easier to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone.

Writing Technique in a Nutshell:

  • Write down our feelings/thoughts/beliefs.
  • Write down the facts of the situation.
  • Ask questions to explore something more deeply.

It’s a powerful technique for bringing awareness to a troubling emotion so we better understand what’s actually going on and take the best course of action moving forward – for ourselves and those around us.

What Actually Happens When We Write?

When we write we are bringing our inner-experience (thoughts, emotions and other physical sensations) out onto the page which results in a greater awareness of what is going on for us. Seeing our inner-experience in front of us allows us to view all the pieces from a different perspective and we can see everything that’s going on more clearly.

Let’s take a look at how writing works to uncover what’s laying just under the surface. I’ll use a real example from my past:

“I Feel Angry When My Housemate Shuts the Cupboard Doors Too Loud.”

Last year I was living in a shared apartment with two other housemates. And one of them shut the cupboard doors in the kitchen without being too concerned about how loud or not-loud it would be. And often there was a loud BANG! every time this happened. Every time I heard this bang I instantly felt strong feelings of anger rise in me.

I thought about confronting my housemate about this but I was confused as to why I felt so angry. It didn’t seem like my reaction was in proportion to what had actually occurred. I didn’t know if I was being too sensitive or my housemate was being really inconsiderate! But I did know that I was really mad!

I decided to start writing down how I felt to understand what was going on before I confronted my housemate about their inconsiderate behaviour.

I feel really angry at J for always slamming the cupboard doors! Seriously, what the hell! Don’t they know how loud it is?

We were just talking in the kitchen and having a great time. So why are they slamming the cupboard doors? Maybe they don’t know… Well, I guess they aren’t doing it to annoy me on purpose. They seem to be shutting the door and aren’t really concerned with how loud it is. Maybe that’s just how they were brought up… maybe it didn’t matter how quietly you shut the cupboard doors in their family? …

But then if my housemate isn’t doing it to annoy me then why am I feeling so angry every time they bang the cupboards?

The moment I wrote this I could feel the focus change from my housemate to myself.

Just the simple act of writing down how I felt brought me to this point of awareness. So I continued writing to see what the cause of my reaction was.

Why do I feel so angry when they bang the cupboards?

Because I feel wrong, I feel like my housemate is angry at me and I don’t know why. I haven’t done anything wrong. I was just sitting in my room and they banged the cupboard door. I haven’t done anything to them to make them feel angry at me. But I feel like they are.

Did someone get angry at me for banging the cupboard doors when I was younger…?

Yes, my mum would sometimes walk around the kitchen shutting cupboards and drawers loudly when she was angry or frustrated.

Did I think she was angry at me?

Yes, I didn’t know why she was angry but it felt like it was always my fault somehow that she was upset.

So right here I’ve come to a point where I can see my reaction was not actually caused by her at all, but my own past experiences with my mother and feeling like I was the cause of my mother’s upset.

Knowing the actual cause for my feelings of anger I can choose a course of action from this new place of awareness. And taking action from this place is going to make it much easier for me to talk with my housemate in a neutral way about how I’m feeling, instead of blaming her for my angry feelings and creating a conflict between us.

And if I dived a little deeper by asking some more questions I might find the underlying belief I hold is: “When someone is angry I feel like it’s my fault.” And that’s a huge thing to know.

Being aware of this belief is going to help me understand my reactions every time I’m around someone who’s upset, and allow me to re-assure myself that actually, I haven’t done anything wrong.

Over time our emotional reactions become weaker as we bring more and more awareness to our underlying beliefs. Some of my biggest emotional reactions have completely faded and now cease to exist. Simply by becoming aware of how my beliefs formed in the first place and being aware of the actuality of the present situation I’m in.

It Takes Time to Become Aware of Our Underlying Beliefs

We can’t expect to discover the root cause of what we’re feeling every time we write. It took me more than a handful of writing sessions to uncover everything I included in the above example with my housemate.

Every time we write we are travelling further into our sub-conscious and shining the light of our awareness onto all the different pieces of what we’re experiencing.

The goal here is not to discover all our troublesome underlying beliefs, but to look at everything we discover inside ourselves with compassion and acceptance.

Writing for Awareness: Frequently Asked Questions, Difficulties and Recommendations

I Don’t Know Where to Start!

If you haven’t previously written your thoughts and feelings down before, it can feel difficult knowing where to start. This is a natural part of the process. Allow yourself the space to move through this stage, knowing that every time you begin writing it becomes more familiar and you’ll find it easier to begin exploring in your next writing session.

We Can Use Any Point of Awareness to Write From

Usually, we’re more aware of our emotions than our thoughts or beliefs, but sometimes we are aware of a troublesome pattern of thought or a belief. We can begin with whatever we are aware of and begin writing it all down on the page.

There’s Too Much Going on to Write It All Down!

When we’re overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions it can feel difficult to write even a single word on the page. In this case I’ve found it helpful to just start writing and whatever words come to me will be written down. Often this comes out as single words and short sentences: “Sad. Overwhelmed. Don’t know what to do. Lost. Car stolen.”

After writing a bunch of stuff down, my inner-environment will begin to slow and I’ll be writing at a more relaxed pace where I feel I can keep up. The important thing is just to write and get it all out so we can bring awareness to what is actually going on inside us.

There Is No Right or Wrong Way to Write

There is no special writing technique which is more or less effective for developing our awareness. The most important thing is to begin writing. The focus isn’t on writing a beautiful piece of prose, or maintaining great sentence structure or grammar – we are simply using writing as a tool to translate our inner-experience onto the page. Whatever form that takes is up to us and the flow of the moment we find ourselves in.

Having a Dedicated Place to Write Simplifies Things

I’ve found that having only one or two places where I write really helps to streamline the writing process for me when I want to start writing, as I don’t have to think about which book or computer app to write in, I just grab a pen or open my favourite writing app and go.

I’ve explored a bunch of different writing apps for Mac, and currently use nvALT. But I can also recommend OmmWriter for a very focused writing experience which works on both Mac and Windows.

I also enjoy writing by hand sometimes. I have a dedicated notebook for this where I’m only writing to explore my feelings or doing some freewriting. I can recommend this option if you spend a lot of time on the computer during the day and feel like taking a break from the screen while you explore your inner-environment.

As I don’t always have my computer with me it’s felt natural to have a space on my phone that I use just for writing. There are heaps of writing apps out there for this, but I would recommend looking for an app that syncs between your phone and your computer so you don’t have an additional place to think about when you want to start writing.

If you are concerned about privacy look for an app with encryption. Simplenote is recommended by many people and made by the same company who are behind WordPress.

These are just some of my recommendation based on what I’ve found helpful. Use whatever combination of mediums you feel works the best for you.

In Closing

Writing is a gentle yet powerful tool which we can use to explore our emotions, thoughts and beliefs with more focus and clarity, and ultimately bringing our compassionate awareness to the underlying beliefs which are coming between us and our authentic connection with ourselves and those around us.