Therapy As Writing
March 19, 2019 § 12 Comments
“I just wrote it down, sent it out, and now I feel so much better. It was totally like therapy.”
I get why people say that. In my personal essays, I write narratives that thread through my life, and sometimes that feels really cathartic and revelatory and all of the wonderful things we associate with therapy.
I still need therapy. I believe that everyone deserves to have the opportunity to unpack their experiences with the guidance of an empathetic professional. Not just because it has made me a happier, more well-adjusted person—it has also made me a better writer.
My therapist H. is a psychiatrist and I’ve been working with him for about a year. His office is in Brookline, MA—if you live in Boston, you’re probably nodding because everyone’s therapist is in Brookline. H. is compassionate and thoughtful and incisive, but none of that really matters for my purposes as a writer. What is special about H. is that he practices Internal Family Systems (IFS), which has been incredibly effective for me, especially as a nonfiction writer.
IFS is a therapeutic technique that posits that inside all of us are distinct parts that serve important purposes. As we move through life, our experiences give birth to different elements of our personality, elements that protect and advocate for our central self, sometimes together and sometimes in conflict with one another.
In my case, there’s a big cast of characters. The queen bee is my intellectual part, who steps in to analyze whenever I become remotely uncomfortable. “I see you’re feeling overwhelmingly sad as you talk about the sudden death of your father,” she likes to say, leaning back in her leather armchair, “Let’s redirect—mention an article about grief you once read in The Atlantic!”
My quietly building part tries to keep me on track with long-term good-for-me goals, but she is often neglected: “You have a shelf of books you haven’t read—why are you watching Gossip Girl again?” Then there’s my people pleasing part. She works overtime at cocktail parties and in job interviews, but she’s at her loudest when my mouse hovers over the “submit” button: “You can’t send that essay out, what if it makes people mad?”
If it sounds a little awkward, that’s because it is. Actually, it’s almost unbearably awkward, at least at first. But it’s worked—over the past year or so, I’ve gotten better at understanding the different components of my personality, developing compassion for myself, and gently shifting all the parts of me to work together with something approaching harmony so that I can live the life that I want to live.
It’s no coincidence that my year in therapy has been very fruitful creatively. Once a week, I talk to an audience who expects me not only to tell a story, but to be really clear on who my narrator is. H. will often gently press me—“Kat, I get the sense that another part just jumped in. Is that accurate?” And I have to take a beat and assess: now, who was that speaking? Was it my intellectual part, swept up in analysis and losing the emotional thread? Was it the part of me so desperate to connect with others, she never says anything controversial? Was it my inner warrior, who wants to defend me, even when I have behaved badly? I have to understand, because H. is sitting right there, in the chair across from me, and he wants to understand.
I have started to bring those kinds of questions with me when I sit down to write. As a nonfiction writer, it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking of my narrator as me, with baggage I know by heart. But someone reading my work doesn’t know all the parts of me. As an essay writer, I have to introduce myself to my reader over and over again, clearly and concisely, in a way that allows me to get to the truth of what I want to say in a given piece. IFS has forced me to think about which parts of me are driven to write an essay so that I can allow those parts to step forward and be in the spotlight. It’s helped in the crafting of essays, too; I know not to let my intellectual part lean too hard on research, and I dial down my inner warrior so my narrator doesn’t come off as defensive.
It’s easiest to speak the truth when I am really clear on who is speaking.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering: this essay was written by my intellectual part, and my people-pleasing part really hopes you liked it.)
Kat Read owns way too many cookbooks and is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program. Find her online at www.kataread.com.