Can a Writing Assignment Make You Happier, Healthier and Less Stressed?
In the second and third parts, I took a personality quiz and wrote about my virtues and faults (the faults inventory, you're warned, should be done while you're in a good mood). Next, I was instructed to devise a narrative of my life in three to five years—a realistic best-case scenario of what could happen if I were to give full rein to all my positive traits and intentions.
Then it was time to flip the Tarot cards and detail what might happen if my worst impulses took over. What emerged was a tragic tale: drifting apart from my husband ("letting imagined slights snowball into festering resentments"); ruining my daughter ("transferring my anxiety to her"); professional foundering ("ending up a bitter has-been"). My emotions flared as I wrote the nightmarish what-ifs, and I was tempted to delete the whole thing. But I let it stand as a reminder of what I had to lose.
Finally, I translated my ideal life into seven goals. Detailing the ways that distractions hurt me—both in my work and in my parenting—gave me a reason to stick with a nightly meditation practice (not perfectly, but for longer than usual). Pouring out thousands of words extolling my marriage as the core of my happiness put more oomph behind my resolve to set aside special time for my husband.
But the greatest payoff was my realization, with the forehead-smack insight of a good therapy session, that my disquiet with the life of a working mother wasn't a matter of day-to-day stress. It was connected to a buried trauma I hadn't fully explored until I wrote about my early life.
I was 4 years old when my brother died just hours after he was born. For years my mother battled the grief, spending afternoons napping in her bedroom, shades drawn. She became wrapped up in the loss of my brother and irrationally afraid of losing me, too. From that young age, I equated having a child with fear and anguish. When I had trouble conceiving, going through two years of fertility treatments, my fears intensified. But now that I had set forth—in black and white—my best understanding of how the death of my brother contributed to my feelings today, the emotions of my 4-year-old self lost some of their power. I began to approach my roles as both mother and daughter with more compassion and less anxiety.
A few weeks after I finished Self Authoring, my 92-year-old grandfather, weakened by dementia, had his final health crisis. I flew to North Carolina to be with my mother at his deathbed. I held their hands and sang "Amazing Grace" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," the songs my mother once sang to me. "You let me cry, honey," my mom said as I sang. "I haven't been able to cry yet." I felt no fear or hesitation, just deep gratitude—and an eagerness to write the next chapter.
Anya Kamenetz writes about education for The Hechinger Report.
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