Writing about your emotional pain could make you feel worse, unless you do it with “self-compassion”

By guest blogger Temma Ehrenfeld

Some of us tend to brood over painful experiences. Others distract themselves, taking on more work, for example, or watching videos. In my experience, brooders think distractors are uninsightful people avoiding their problems (read “more troubled than I am”) and distractors think brooders are wallowing, tiresome, and way more troubled. Still worse, brooding is thought to be a female failing and distraction male (some research backs this up). The judgments fly.
Natasha Odou, at Australian National University in Canberra, and Jay Brinker, now in Hawthorn, at the Swinburne University of Technology, have set out to show empirically that there is a third, better way: introspection with “self-compassion,” which includes “self-kindness, a sense of common humanity and mindfulness.”
Their careful research found that distraction reduces negative emotions without creating positive ones. On the other hand, dwelling on an episode can send some of us deeper into a funk—unless we concentrate on self-compassion.
To explore how compassion could protect us against the bad effects of brooding, Odou and Brinker tested the effect of a 10-minute writing exercise about a painful event ( “in which you experienced failure, humiliation, rejection, embarrassment or reacted with self-criticism…”). To establish a lower-than-usual baseline for mood, everyone first listened to Prokofiev’s “Under the Mongolian Yoke” at half-speed and read 24 depressing statements in a slide-show.
Half of the 187 undergraduate participants (133 of whom were women) received instructions to be self-compassionate in their writing, which included taking an objective, non-judgmental stance, considering how others have had similar experiences, and ways to be kind to themselves*. The other half were invited to dive deeply into all their thoughts and emotions around the event, but were given no self-compassion instructions**.

All the participants had completed a “Self-Compassion Scale,” and a “Ruminative Thought” Scale. The thesis was that highly self-compassionate people would get a boost in mood from either writing exercise while those who scored high on the “Ruminative Thought” scale—“rumination” is close to what we non-technically call brooding—would be more downbeat.

As predicted, the compassionate writing exercise improved mood for most people (though only in one of two measures used). That’s a great result for a ten-minute exercise. Also as expected, people who had shown themselves to be ruminators didn’t do as well—but some benefited.
What happened to ruminators who didn’t get instructions to be compassionate? The writing exercise made them feel worse. That may not seem surprising—after all, they had just explored a bad experience—but they’d also been told that “writing about negative events can have psychological and physical benefits.” Simply reading the statement could have supplied a little buzz of hope, which means the negative outcome included overcoming any such lift.
How does self-compassionate introspection fare against simple distraction? In a second study, 152 undergraduates (107 female) took the compassion and rumination tests and endured the “negative mood induction” of Prokofiev and terrible slides.  After a five-minute breather “to let your mind wander,” half did the self-compassionate writing exercise and half watched letters appear on a computer screen and responded when they saw “X”— this was the “distraction”.
In the mood-measurements, the participants in both groups experienced a similar reduction in “negative affect” post-exercise, so this was a tie. If you tend to think distraction is worthless, take note. However, distraction didn’t increase “positive affect” whereas self-compassion did, so it can be said to have won the contest. There’s also hope for brooders/ruminators. They had more “negative affect” hanging over from the Prokofiev, but they also experienced more change.
Clinicians might learn from these results that introspective approaches are dangerous for ruminators without a lot of stress on compassion. The risk is significant, since rumination is linked to depression and significant procrastination. Pouring out painful feelings could turn into a binge-and-purge experience, which leaves you in a bad way and becomes a habit.  
Ruminators, many say, need better forms of distraction. But the research literature on distraction is murky, the authors note, with many studies lumping all kinds of distraction together. They’d like to see research comparing a variety of distraction tasks with emotion-regulation tasks like the self-compassion exercise. I’ll confess I’ve tried writing out my painful feelings and have innocently passed on that advice to others, without any instructions about compassion, since I didn’t get any. I’m grateful to have read this research and next time, will pass it on instead.


  ResearchBlogging.orgOdou, N., & Brinker, J. (2014). Self-compassion, a better alternative to rumination than distraction as a response to negative mood The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-11 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.967800

Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking Rumination Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (5), 400-424 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00088.x

*The full instructions: “Please spend the next 8-10 minutes writing about the event in a self-compassionate way. Studies have shown that writing about negative events can have psychological and physical benefits. Please address the following in your writing: Describe your feelings and thoughts about the event that you had during the event and that you have now about the event) in an objective and non-judgmental way. Think of and write down ways in which other people also experience the event or similar events which indicate you are not the only one who experiences evens like this.  Write about how you might express understanding, kindness and concern to yourself (in the same way you might express concern to a friend who had undergone the experience).”

**The instructions: “Studies have shown that writing about negative events can have psychological and physical benefits. For the next 10 minutes, please write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the event that you have described.  In your writing you might tie your topic to your relationship 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 become, or who you are now.  The important thing is that you dig down to your very deepest emotions and thoughts and explore them in your writing.”

Post written by Temma Ehrenfeld for the BPS Research Digest. Ehrenfeld is a New York-based editor and writer, a blogger for Psychology Today, and former assistant editor at Newsweek. She is currently ghostwriting a memoir for a neurosurgeon.

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