5 Ways to Write Through Tough Emotions—Because 'To All the Boys I've Loved Before' Got It Right
In the Internet’s new favorite movie, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, teen protagonist Lara Jean Covey lives out every diary-writer’s worst fear: Letters to each of the boys she’s crushed on over the years—written in secret and never intended for reading—get delivered to their subjects. Hilarity, emotion, awkward John Corbett cameos, and (spoiler alert!) romance ensue, but let’s back up for a minute.
Is Lara Jean onto something when it comes to writing down her feelings?
“I write a letter when I have a crush so intense that I don't know what else to do,” she explains at the start of the movie. “Rereading my letters reminds me how powerful my emotions can be—how all-consuming."
While Lara Jean’s experience takes a bit of a turn, she’s spot-on when it comes to the benefits of writing out her intense emotions. Research shows that expressing your emotions through writing—a practice called “expressive writing”—can lead to emotional and even physical relief in the long run.
Need proof? Look to research done by James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D. He had subjects spend 20 minutes writing down their deepest emotions about challenging times in their lives, for four consecutive days. When compared with a sample group that wrote about superficial topics, the hardcore diarists reported more happiness three months after the writing sessions, visited their doctors less often, and showed signs of stronger immune systems.
And you don’t have to spend a solid 20 to see the benefits. Another study found that writing for just two minutes, two days in a row, about either an intensely positive experience or a negative one has emotional and physical benefits.
Got some emotions to process? Of course you do—you’re human. Here are 5 expressive writing exercises you can try.
1. Grab a Pen and Write a Letter
Pull a true Lara Jean and write a letter to someone—one you’ll never send. "It wasn't like I was going to send the letter or anything—it was just for me, to understand how I was feeling,” her character explains in the movie.
Mad at someone? Tell them why. Madly in love with someone? Tell them why. Like Lara Jean, try putting your exact emotions into words, as if you were talking to the person with no filter. If you find yourself backtracking—like thinking, “well, maybe that’s overstating it”—don’t worry. If you feel it, write it down.
Pen-and-paper letter feel too formal? Write an unaddressed email, or fake DM in the notes on your phone. Just don’t put a send address, lest it end up in your subject’s mailbox.
Chances are, you’ll feel a sense of relief after writing the never-to-send note. And, like Lara Jean, you can reread your letter whenever you need a reminder of how far you’ve come, or how easily you can get caught up in your own narrative. It might even help you find the right words when you do talk to that person (oh hey, Peter Kavinsky) IRL.
2. Describe Your Feelings
Writing how you feel—I’m so happy! I’m so sad!—is journaling 101. But have you ever tried to describe what those feelings look like, or sound like, or taste like?
Clinical psychologist Beth Jacobs, Ph.D., explains on PsychCentral that it’s helpful to describe your emotions as if they were a tangible thing. The next time you feel anger brewing, or overwhelming worry, try answering the following:
If this feeling was a color, it would be... If this feeling was weather, it would be... If this feeling was a landscape, it would be... If this feeling was music, it would sound like... If this feeling was an object, it would be...
Getting a better grasp on what you’re feeling can help you decide how to react—and better understand your emotions in the future.
3. Pick a Different Perspective
Start by thinking of three specific people: A close friend, a less-close friend, and someone who maybe intimidates you. Then, describe your sticky situation from each person’s perspective. How might they see your predicament? How would they describe your emotions, or the decision you have to make?
This, Jacobs says, can help you remember that “your feelings are only one possible reaction to a situation and not the only ‘right’ reaction.” And knowing that can help you feel a bit calmer and more in control when it comes to acting on your feelings.
4. Write to a Timer
We often journal until we run out of things to say, or until we feel better about a situation. But what would happen if you forced yourself (nicely, of course) to write for a certain amount of time?
The next time you sit down with your notebook, set a timer for 20 minutes (or, if you don’t have 20, even for five minutes). Then, get deep. Write down your deepest emotions, and explore why you’re thinking about it.
If you feel done before the timer goes off, ask yourself if there’s anything you’ve left out. Is there anything you’re avoiding? Any topics that feel untouchable, or unworthy of the space? Write about those. Write about why you’re not writing about them. Write about how writing about them makes you feel.
Just write something until that timer dings. Repeat for three more days—that’s the amount of time Pennebaker found effective in his research.
5. Try Word Association
Not a fan of writing full-on sentences? No sweat. At the top of a sheet of paper, write how you’re feeling in one word. For example: “stress.” Then, write down anything that comes to mind when you think of stress. That can include other words (like “anger,” or “tension”), sentences, names, places—whatever crosses your mind. Then, write down whatever those new words and ideas bring to mind.
By the end of your journal session, you’ll have a little more insight into how you relate to stress and all the ways it manifests.
This works for other words, too—try it for sadness, frustration, or, like Lara Jean, “that romance novel type of love.”
Just remember: Keep all personal writings locked away from your little sister. You never know when she’ll pick them up and send them to your crushes.
Read next: Here's How to Actually Make Journaling a Habit)
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