James Pennebaker – Be Your Own Therapist With WORDS

James Pennebaker
Professor James Pennebaker tells us how we can use words to better understand ourselves and others. He shares how expressive writing can be a tool to understand trauma. Hosted by Duff Watkins

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About James Pennebaker

Professor James Pennebaker is an internationally recognized social psychologist who’s endlessly curious about human nature.

His earlier work found that keeping secrets can make people sick. This work led to his discovery that people could improve their physical and mental health by writing about their deepest secrets, which is now widely known as expressive writing. Most recently, he’s become intrigued by how people reveal themselves in their everyday spoken and written language.

Author of the popular books, Opening Up Writing it down: Expressive Writing: Words that heal; The Secret Life of Pronouns and more. Pennebaker is Regents Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers and a consultant to businesses, medical schools, and various federal agencies that address corporate and national security issues. Pennebaker is the author or editor of 10 books and almost 300 scientific articles and he ranks among the most cited researchers in psychology, psychiatry, and the social sciences.

Episode Notes

02:26 Pronouns

07:29 Stealth Words

14:13 Expressive Writing

29:14 Nature of Narratives

35:22 Healthy Secrets

35:34 The I Word

James_Pennebaker-10Lessons50Years

James Pennebaker: [00:00:00] One thing I think we sometimes fail to appreciate is that a traumatic experience touches every part of our lives. Someone close to you suddenly dies or you’re fired from a job or who the hell knows it touches your relationship with others. It affects your financial situation, you’re sleeping, you’re eating habits, what you talk about your daily patterns.

Absolutely. Everything. And if you think a trauma is just getting fired, you’re missing that this is not just a getting fired trauma. This is an everything trauma.

Duff Watkins: [00:00:35] Hello. Welcome to the podcast. 10 lessons took me 50 years to learn, where we talked with sages and gurus leaders and luminaries from all around the world about things, they’ve learned in life that just might help you in yours.

I’m your host Duff Watkins and our guest today is Dr. James Pennebaker professor at the university of Texas. Dr. Pennebaker is one of America’s foremost social psychologist. He’s also one of America’s foremost teachers and he has the awards to prove it. He is author of 12 books and as the recipient of mini grants and many awards.

Welcome James, welcome to the show.

James Pennebaker: [00:01:08] It’s good to be here.

Duff Watkins: [00:01:09] As we were discussing off air, you teach across a lot of areas. Your work covers a lot of disciplines. So, what do you actually teach the university of Texas?

James Pennebaker: [00:01:17] Well, I teach several things. Currently focusing a lot on language and I teach a graduate and undergraduate course on how to analyze language using social media and text analysis programs that are computer-based well, okay.

Duff Watkins: [00:01:32] Next question. When I was doing my research on you, what is natural language? It seems to come up a lot.

James Pennebaker: [00:01:38] by Detrol language. I mean just everyday language. So, what we’re doing now is we are using natural language. I distinguish that, but differently from. Researchers who we’ll have people come into a laboratory and they will say X stirred his coffee with a blank, and then using various methods, looking at how language is used in that highly contrived setting.

So, my approach distinguishes language research from highly controlled kinds of analysis. Mine is just, how do you study the way people talk the way they write, how they way they just naturally think about and use light.

Duff Watkins: [00:02:16] And, and, and the way they really talk. I think my first introduction to your work was your book.

The secret life of pronouns. Pronouns had a secret life! Who knew?

 Pronouns [00:02:26]

 James Pennebaker: [00:02:26] exactly. Yeah. So, my earlier research dealt with how people cope with traumatic experiences. And I had discovered that if I asked people to write about upsetting experiences in their lives, It often had a profound effect on them. And so, we would do these.

have a large group of people that we’d have half of the right about experiences in their lives. And the other half we’d ask them to write about superficial topics. And we had them write maybe three or four times, 15 minutes a day, and then we would get their permission to track their physician visits.

We found that people who wrote about traumatic experiences ended up going to the doctor at about half the rate as people in our control conditions. And I became fascinated by what they were writing about and was it possible to go in and analyze their language, to see why they were, why their health was changing?

And it turns out to be a harder question that I could have ever imagined. And so, I got a clinical psychologist to read the essays and to evaluate them and they couldn’t agree on whatever dimensions, right. Driving this. So, I thought a computer might be helpful. So, I started looking for a computer program that could analyze language.

And this was in the early 1990s. And I couldn’t find one. So, working with one of my graduate students, Martha Francis, we wrote a computer program that would allow us to go in and calculate the percentage of words in any given text that were say, positive emotion, words, or negative emotion words, or.

words that suggested causal thinking or various cognitive dimensions. And that was the beginning of all this. And what we found was that language didn’t work the way that I thought it did. You know, I was expecting to see big differences in that in the way people use words like death or achievement or physical things.

But in fact, it’s not what people. Talk about this that’s important. It’s the way they talk. They talk is revealed through the use of these little, tiny words that we all ignore include nouns and prepositions and articles and conjunctions, and these sorts of little, tiny words that are so forgettable. So that’s what we mean by the secret life of pronouns.

That the way that we use these small words, tell us how we’re thinking. So, if I, for a good example would be if. How it up, let’s say we’ve got a group of a thousand listeners to this program and analyze their emails. Some people would use third person pronouns. He, she, they had very high rates and other people would use those same pronouns at very low rates.

And you’re asking, well, why would anybody ever want to do that? And I’ll tell you the reason is because they, people who use those kinds of pronouns at high rates are really different types of people that people who use them at low rates, because if you’re making references to, He she and they at high rates you think about

and care about other people. And if you don’t use those words at all, you just don’t care about other people as much. And, and so it’s an interesting, almost unobtrusive. Get at a feature personality. How, how much are you oriented to interested in other people,

Duff Watkins: [00:05:39] So we have two things going on there, one, the languages, there is some sort of relationship or interface with one’s health and also the usage of ones.

pronouns. He, she, they indicates, well, really reveals a lot about us and how we see experience other people is that right?

James Pennebaker: [00:05:57] Right. That’s right. And that’s what frankly blew me away. The fact that there was so much information in the way we speak all the time that none of us pay attention to none of us really consciously here.

But it is telling us about people. The one word that we found has the biggest punch in terms of, of a psychological effect is the use of the word I, or first person either. I, me and my, you know, I assumed when I started this, that people who use I a lot were. You know, blowhard, self-important kind of obnoxious, man.

And it turns out that blowhard obnoxious man doesn’t use I words very much. In fact, I words are used more by women and also Pete, anybody who is feeling. Self-reflective or even self-conscious so that whenever we use, I, we are briefly paying attention to ourselves. So, if you’re physically sick, you use, I words more because your attention is being drawn to your body.

If you are depressed, or if you feel self-conscious in a crowd, you use, I words more. But also, if you’re just standing back and trying to understand your emotions and understand who you are, you’ll use, I words more. So, I. Don’t reflect arrogance, they reflect self-reflection. So, it’s a really, a very different way of thinking.

Duff Watkins: [00:07:17] I read your research on that? It surprised me as well, but I was also very relieved to learn that people used the word higher, not the blue hearts than I imagined them to be. Are these the stealth words?

 Stealth Words [00:07:29]

 James Pennebaker: [00:07:29] that you write about? So stealth word, I was just groping for the right way to call these words, but these are words it’s very interesting.

These pronouns, prepositions articles and other similar words are called function words, and they. As opposed to content words and content words are nouns and regular verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs. But these, these function words, they’re not that many in English. There’s only maybe 180 really common one, but they account for, you know, probably 60% of all the words we say we hear and read.

What’s interesting about it is we can’t hear them. So here I’ve been speaking for the last eight minutes or so, and I’m guessing that nobody can really say, have I been using R a and D at high rates or low rates? Well, I don’t know. And I’ve been using them, and I don’t know how many. My pronouns are high or low and humans can’t hear them.

And even if I say, okay, for the next 15 minutes, I want you to figure out how frequently am I using preposition? You can’t do it and you’ll sit there, and you might be able to pay attention from who knows? Maybe a minute or two, and then your brain will just. We’ll just go numb because it’s incredibly taxing and it’s, you can’t do it.

It’s just too complex.

Duff Watkins: [00:08:56] You do is you have this program. I believe it’s called Luke and it stands for, well, you could probably tell me rather than, okay.

James Pennebaker: [00:09:04] I can, I can tell you, please. Don’t look at it up. It’s linguistic inquiry and word count. L I W C.

Duff Watkins: [00:09:12] Pronounced Luke. And what does that do?

James Pennebaker: [00:09:14] Well, it’s just a dumb program.

it just counts words. The smart part of it is we have lists of words that it should be looking for. So, if it’s looking for first person singular pronouns, it has a sub dictionary. That includes words, like words, such as that me, my, myself, mine, and those would all be in this first dealer dictionary.

And then it goes into any given text that we point the program to. And it’ll go through and calculate the percentage of I words that are used as if, relative to all the words in that text. So, in this way, you know, the average person will use between six and 8% of their words will be first person, singular pronouns will be I words.

And in, in more informal writing, it’ll be lower. It’ll be maybe 2% of the words. So, it does vary a lot, depending on the context, depending on the person and so forth.

Duff Watkins: [00:10:11] Well, and you use that and other things to track the speech of public figures, not just track, but I think analyze now, why do you do that?

And what you learned from that?

James Pennebaker: [00:10:22] Well, what’s really lovely about it is first of all, the reason we do so much with politicians is because they have so many words that are publicly available. You know, if I could do this for everybody, I do that. But politicians are a particularly good second. What politicians say, turn out to be really important.

They help shape our lives in terms of policy, in terms of our going to war or our, you know, dealing with it. International health crisis. And by analyzing their language, you get a good sense of who these people are even before they become president.

Duff Watkins: [00:11:07] So, you look at George Bush or Obama or Trump with all these people, you get a sense of who they are by the way that they’re using words, even with all the spin and the manufacturing and the massaging and the staying on point and the discipline and the rehearsal, the personality still leaks out?

James Pennebaker: [00:11:18] It does. And I should say I don’t like to look at speeches very much. I much prefer when they’re being interviewed or in a debate, a press conference, any place where they’re speaking more off the cuff.

But, you know, it turns out that most leaders, their speeches are either written by them or a certainly edited by them. So, you still see, see parts of them through their speech.

Duff Watkins: [00:11:43]. Let’s go to the dark side. Now I’m very interested in this. You, your work wins a lot of grants now, listeners, what that means.

Somebody out there thinks sufficiently highly of James Pennebaker work that they say here, here’s a heap of money to research, whatever you’re doing. Now you get grants from the FBI, the department of defense, national security organizations. What are you doing that interests them?

James Pennebaker: [00:12:08] them? So, I should tell you, I do not have a security clearance means I’m not going in and actually trying to identify.

Terrorists or people that a government likes or doesn’t like in addition. And I should also point out while I have been funded by all of those groups. I’m also funded by the national science foundation, national institutes of health and the John Templeton foundation. What all of these people, all, all of these groups are interested in is what can we learn about people by the way they use words.

This is a really, a really critical question. Think of almost any company, if I am trying to sell soap, if I’m trying to sell that. So, it would be smart for me to be able to have a message that is understandable to people who are, are paying attention. If I am a doctor, and I’m trying to understand you in terms of your health, it might be good for me to understand how you were thinking and ways that I can connect with you better.

In other words, this whole idea of understanding language, underlies everything, business government. Religion. This is, this is central to human communication. So, I think that’s one reason they’re interested in the work I’m doing.

Duff Watkins: [00:13:27] My first contact with you, I think, was with the secret life of pronouns, but, or perhaps before or after that, I came across something known as expressive writing.

In fact, this is the takeaway. This is the punchline that I, that I want all the listeners to take home because this is the most important thing. It’s something that I do regularly. Got my little book right here. I do it daily. I recommend it to people, executives that I work with. And here’s why my background in my previous career, I was a group psychotherapist working in Sydney, psychiatric hospitals, working with some of the sickest of the sick, but through expressive writing, I can be my own therapist.

So, can you tell us a bit more about expressive writing?

 Expressive Writing [00:14:13]

 James Pennebaker: [00:14:13] Went to graduate school. And I’ve always had a pretty broad group of interests among other things. I was quite interested in physical health who gets sick and why. And I was doing this work. I came across a finding that just bugged me, I’d done a survey.

And I asked people prior to the age of 17, did you have a traumatic sexual experience? Yes or no. Now I did this survey. The late 1970s at a time when nobody ever asked a question like that and much to my shock college students, I passed it out to women only. And 15% of them said that they had had a traumatic sexual experience prior to the age of 17.

And those who endorse that item had gone to the student health center at much, much higher rates than people who had not endorsed the item. They had more physical symptoms. They were in much worse hell. And about this time, I worked with an editor at psychology. It was even back then, which was a really big deal.

And they were going to be doing a survey based on my work on symptoms. And they asked that I’d like to add, I said, yeah, let’s put on this traumatic sexual experience question. The questionnaire was filled out by about 24,000 of their readers and both men and women average age was 38 years old. And what was interesting was those who endorsed the items, and they were 22% of women and 11% of males.

About the traumatic sexual experience, they were twice as likely to have been hospitalized for any reason. In the previous year, they’re more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer, high blood pressure. They’re more likely to have had ulcers colds, flus, anything you can imagine. In other words, having to experience was really a health risk.

And what was interesting was almost everybody that I talked to said that they had not spoken to other people about it or. Constantly, we’re trying to keep it secret. And about this time, I did some more surveys and found that people who we asked people about various types of traumas. And what we discover was that sexual traumas were the ones most likely to be kept secret, but any major traumatic experience that people kept secret was associated with higher illness rates.

In the years afterwards, in other words, keeping a big secret is indeed a health risk. And that’s what got me to this next question was what if we brought people to the laboratory and had them write about major upheavals that they hadn’t spoken to other people. So that that really was the birth of this idea of expressive writing.

So, working with a new graduate student at the time Sandy Beall, she and I did a study whereby a flip the coin, people were asked to either write about the most traumatic experience of their lives. Ideally one that they had not talked to other people about, or to write about superficial topics. And they wrote in the laboratory once a day for four consecutive days for 20 minutes or 15 minutes, depending on the study.

Well, we found was that effect that this expressive writing had a profound effect, first of all, their physical health, but also their mental health. And I can’t, it’s hard to convey how powerful that first study was, you know, anytime you have a, you know, you stumble across something that changes your life, you it’s just burned into your mind.

I had in in the months afterward, I would walk around on campus and sometimes a student would come up to me and they say, Dr. Pennebaker, I just wanted to thank you for letting me be in your study. I guarantee you in my career, no one ever had come up to me and months later, say, thanks for allowing me to be in your experience and the way people would talk about it, write about it.

And then just seeing these health changes. Was, it was profound. And then in the years afterwards, that first study was published in 1986. So, this is a long time ago. There have now been thousands of expressive writing studies. It’s a kind of a, almost a standard technique that’s used for people when they’re getting a master’s degree.

Sometimes it’s been used in every conceivable setting. You can imagine, and looking at everything from people coping with major illness to creativity to seeing if it improves whether or not people sleep better, it does. Or if they do better on their SATs or, or stressful exams, it does that is associated with better college and on and on and on.

And what’s interesting is the effects of it. I mean, these are not, I can’t, I’m not a huckster. I’m not going to tell you change. It may change. It may not, but it’s sure cheap and it’s sure easy to do. And across all of these studies, if there is a consistent, modest effect, and my recommendation to people is if you feel that you’re thinking about something too much, you’re worried about it, you’re dreaming about it, and you feel so you can’t talk to other people.

Sit down and just write about it. Just set aside three or four days. No, 10, 15 minutes a day is probably all you need and just promise yourself; you’ll write about it. And in your writing, just explore it. Why do I feel this way? What is it about it, that is bothering me so much? How is this related to other things in my life?

And the only rule I would, I typically tell people is sit down write. And just start writing. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you’ve already written, but just write the entire and do it again the next day. And after days, if you feel as though this hasn’t done you any good. Can stop writing.

I mean, it’s that easy and if you feel that it has done you some good, great. I recommend writing only four times, but if you want to write more, you can do it. And if you want to write with your right hand or your left hand, I don’t care. Do it any way you want. If you want to type it or write it. I don’t care.

A study showed that they both work. If you want, just write it within your finger in the air. We find that that works as well. In other words, there’s no absolute true way of doing it. The art is turning that emotional experience into words into language. It seems to be a really important feature of this expressive writing.

So that’s kind of a very brief.

Duff Watkins: [00:20:33] overview. Well, and that’s all you need. So just to reiterate, get a journal, get a pin four days in a row. Right. I recommend 20 minutes, but I tell people if that’s too hard, 15 don’t tell me, don’t show me. Don’t tell anybody. Don’t show anybody. You just do it for don’t edit it.

Don’t review it. Don’t we read it. Just write 20 minutes. Keep the pen moving and you get stuck just as you said, rewrite, just, just write anything. Write your name, just keep moving for 20 minutes. I use a timer on my watch, so I have a beginning and an end and will magic occur. Well, What you’re saying is that it has for other people in my experience, what happens is that when you are stuck on something, because you’re processing over and over writing it helps you become unstuck.

And, well, I don’t know what happens in here, but all of a sudden, you just making progress. You feel better as a result. So, it really is.

James Pennebaker: [00:21:29] just that simple. Looser than you are on this. And mine is, has actually been spending, writing as few as two minutes can be beneficial. Or, and, you know, I know for me, I don’t, I don’t write that often.

I write maybe two or three times a year, you know, when something is really bugging me, and I’ll get up. And I, sometimes I, you know, I’ll write for five minutes. Sometimes I’ll write for 20 minutes, but rarely longer than that. And usually. I feel much better. And if it’s in the middle of the night, I go back to sleep almost immediately, but sometimes it doesn’t work, but you know, that’s just life in the fast lane.

Doesn’t work. Maybe it’ll work tomorrow, or maybe I should just go out and exercise even more, faster paced tomorrow instead. So, you have to be your own judge, your own scientists, figure out what works best for you. And I do have one admonition many times. People listen to this, and they all say, oh, well, that sounds like a great idea.

And I can just see in their eyes, they’re also thinking I’m not going to ever do it. And then you ask him, and he’ll say, I don’t want to write for the rest of my life. Well guess what neither do I, my attitude is this is something to go with. Try to fix something it’s there and then just move on. And I think many people are intimidated by the thought of, oh God, I’m going to have to run a journal or a diary the rest of my life.

And I don’t want to do that. No, that’s not what I’m recommending. You’ve got a problem. Now use this to try to fix it and then move on

Duff Watkins: [00:23:05] See that’s why you’re on the show. Jamie, you just say be 18 minutes a day. I was doing 20 minutes. Now I can do two minutes. You see that’s what, but, but actually what I want to tell people is two to 20 minutes, no more than 20, because if you give them a limit, all of a sudden, they want to do 24.

Right. So, it’s well, okay. And it’s been proven, it works with a variety of things. It reminds me of something I read many years ago. Treating military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and they would get them into vividly. We enact or describe to them the therapist, the trauma that they had endured.

And it was very taxing for the veteran, of course, but it worked. And the theory was that I forget the parts of the brain, the cerebellum, basically it processes trauma. Trauma is big, so it processes it by chunks. So, it takes a chunk processes that that’s one day takes another chunk and bit by bit, the overload is dissipated through discipline processing and that’s.

Expressive writing. Remind me of somehow it helps get it out of here and get it.

James Pennebaker: [00:24:11] flowing again. So, I’m always very, if any single study has been done in terms of how this is working in the brain, turns out the brain is so complicated, but in terms of how it’s working, it turns out again, it has to be in the brain.

So., I tend to agree that what a lot of it is, is one thing I think we sometimes fail to appreciate is that a traumatic experience touches every part of our lives. Someone close to you suddenly dies or you’re fired from a job or who the hell knows it touches your relationship with others. It affects your financial situation, your sleeping, you’re eating habits, what you talk about your daily patterns.

Absolutely. Everything. And if you think a trauma is just getting fired, you’re missing that this is not just a getting fired trauma. This is an everything trauma. And so that’s why writing or putting things into words. If nothing else, it begins to organize it and simplify it and how it works. I don’t really know, but we do know that this disability to organize, simplify and, and almost summarize it in some ways.

And we’re doing that with words is a really, really efficient way to do it.

Duff Watkins: [00:25:30] What are we talking about? Writing? What about

James Pennebaker: [00:25:33] speaking? So, you know, it’s interesting the first in fact, when I started this, I, my original idea was, well, we’ll bring people in the laboratory, we’ll have them talk to somebody about this traumatic experience.

But boy, the killer problem there is how does the other person react? Because when I tell you a horrible experience of I, that I’ve endured, that can be really traumatic for you. And then it’s almost as though I’m passing my trauma over to you. In fact, there’s a little bit of evidence to suggest that.

When people have had a horrible experience and they tell their friends, they get better, but their friends get worse. And there’s a, another issue is if I’m talking about it, upsetting experience, the way you react to me will be huge on, on me. So, for example, we know when we were doing the work on sexual traumas, one of the stories that I got over and over again were, would be people who let’s say.

Molested by, you know, a family member, a stepfather who, who knows, and then the mother, or sometimes the father would say, that’s impossible. That didn’t happen. Or you shut your mouth. I didn’t want to hear that again. In other words, here, not only do they have the trauma of the experience, but they had the trauma of the family reaction to it.

So, talking to others, I think actually works really well. If the other person will accept you and not judge, you will love you as much or more as they did before. And sometimes you you’re lucky enough to have a friend or a family member who is like that, or a therapist or somebody, but that’s risk take.

We all, you know, most of us have a sense of how the other person is reacting. All of us have had this experience, right. Something upsetting occurs. It’s hard to tell a friend and you can see on your friend’s face, this look of horror, and you realize, oops, I should not be telling this story. And then you change it, change the, the story some so you can get out of it gracefully.

That’s why I like writing. You don’t have to deal with this major threat of how the other person’s going to react.

Duff Watkins: [00:27:55] Okay. How about speaking aloud to yourself as a simulation of writing? Not speaking to another person, just speaking aloud or talking

James Pennebaker: [00:28:05] to yourself in a mirror? I think that works I don’t know of any control studies on it.

I’ve done some studies where we had people talking to a tape recorder and we found that that was beneficial. And there’s been a couple of other studies looking at that. Of course, people knew that, that the recording would be analyzed, but I do think talking aloud can be quite, can be quite helpful.

And again, all of that is translating the experience into language,

Duff Watkins: [00:28:34] my own personal experiences that sometimes I’d be doing express, right. And you just get tired of writing. So, you just finish it verbally because, and I want to emphasize something you just said, this is not a death sentence, folks. You know, you do it four days max, and then see what happens, you know, and reassess from there.

Well, we’ve been talking about health. This salubrious effects of words. And there seems to be a, there are health benefits. To narrative that is to be creating a story, telling your story, writing your story, talking about the health benefits of narrative, meaning the health benefits of having a story, writing a story.

 Nature Of Narratives [00:29:14]

James Pennebaker: [00:29:14]

We’ve actually been doing a ton of work on the nature of narratives and stories over the last year, or two. And we’re trying to understand what exactly. But what do we even mean by a story? And going back to Aristotle and others, a story generally, something where you’ve got a beginning, middle, and an end.

And one thing that’s nice about a story is that it it’s a way to encapsulate an experience. Typically, if a person’s had a major trauma and you talk to them in the first day, About it, what they say often is jumbled. There’s not a clear beginning, middle and end. They often are, are repeating themselves, rehashing the details of it over and over again.

And I think that’s really normal and probably healthy in the first days afterwards. But the problem is very often, if the person stays in that state, they are telling the same bunch of facts and emotions over and over again. It’s like ruminating is almost the definition of somebody who’s depressed. And one, one thing that when writing’s beneficial is that people are now starting to bring things together and make it a more organized story.

Does have a beginning, some kind of background that sets up the stage. So, you know, if you’re a listener, you know, where it is, what the characters are, what the mindset of the person is, and then this horrible experience. And then that is now set up in a way. That we see the tension of it. And then you see the person now.

The way with some kind of something that they’ve learned from the experience when we’ve done studies, where we say, okay, make this into a story. I think that’s too, that’s too hard to do, but we find the people who do make it into a story, tend to benefit more than those who have trouble doing that.

Duff Watkins: [00:31:05] because they’re.

Reconstructing or recasting their experience in a way that makes sense to them, which is really all that matters.

James Pennebaker: [00:31:13] That’s exactly right. No, it’s been very interesting when I started this, I thought that if people just wrote a really emotional description of an experience that they would benefit, and what we found was very often when a person came in and had this really.

vivid horrible description. And they did it day after day after day. Those people hardly ever showed any improvement. The people who improved their story, their description changed from the first day to the second to the third day of writing. In other words, there was growth. There was movement in the way they were telling the story.

So, if you find yourself writing today and then. Tomorrow the day afterwards. And what you write is pretty much identical from day to day. You’re probably not going to benefit as much as if on the second day, you now rethink what you wrote on the first day. And now try to maybe put things together in a different way, trying to change perspective.

Duff Watkins: [00:32:13] These are like doing different drafts of a story. As they say in Hollywood, nothing is written everything’s rewritten before it gets to the screen.

James Pennebaker: [00:32:23] Yeah, that’s a, that’s a good way of putting it.

Duff Watkins: [00:32:25] What I’m wondering, the trouble that I see with people is the stories they make up. A couple of things come out.

One, they’re almost always the hero and that gets rather tedious. Secondly, it’s always basically an elaborate defense of their behavior or their feelings of justification. And, and I understand that, I have a doctorate in psychotherapy. I understand that stuff. The trouble is, it seems to me, it almost prevents them from learning any damn thing or progressing.

So, I’m, I’m curious to how, how writing that narrative writing that story is actually beneficial for people, because I am convinced that one can be one’s own therapists to express writing, expressive, speaking, all the things and to use your phrase, be your own scientist. I often say to people it’s an adventure, you know, you’re on this path.

Find out what works for you. And actually, I’ll quote Buddha. He said, if you, if you followed him mindlessly, you were a fool. Unless you tested everything, he said to your own experience, to your own satisfaction, to see if it worked for you. And of course, that’s why he’s the Buddha. And we’re not, I guess.

James Pennebaker: [00:33:29]

And, and I, I would agree with that. I, you know, it’s interesting. I don’t see. This a hero phenomenon, much in expressive writing for people who we asked to do this. And you know, I’ve looked at thousands of these essays over the years. Maybe it’s the instructions we give. So, the instructions we give is for the next three days, I want you to write.

Some experience that you find that you’re having trouble with, that you are living with here that is weighing upon you. I want you to really let go and explore your very deepest thoughts and feelings about it. And in your writing, you might tie this to other issues in your life, your relationship with your family, your relationship with others may be your career.

Maybe who you’ve been in the past or who you want to be in the future, who you are now, but whatever you choose? I want you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. This writing is for you and nobody else. I want you to be brutally honest with yourself with those general instructions.

Generally, people are. I mean, you know, I’m trying to put them on that path of analyzing themselves and you can’t analyze yourself and come away with saying, I am so great that that’s the way you’re writing. Don’t waste your time because the reason you’re writing is you’re not so great. None of us are so great.

Duff Watkins: [00:34:58] Yes, it can be well, and I suppose that’s the thing when you’re writing and you’re writing about the things that you are supposed secrets, which you find out is that just because you manifest it on paper or speak it aloud, the world doesn’t stop turning really things don’t change that much, which leads me to ask.

We were talking about secrets earlier, are secrets inherently unhealthy?

 Healthy Secrets [00:35:22]

James Pennebaker: [00:35:22] No, I think secrets are inherently healthy often because when we keep secrets, we’re often keeping them for some pretty good reasons. And some of those reasons might be, if I let this secret out, I’ll lose my job. I’ll lose my spouse.

I’ll lose my respect. You know, we all screw up at some time. Now I should also point out what we have found over and over again is when people are asked to write about these traumatic experiences, they’ve kept secret that afterwards, a high number of people tell me that they ended up going and talking to people about.

And they realized that it wasn’t as dark and horrible secret as they thought it was three or four years ago. So, you know, part of it is when you’ve kept something secret, you’ve been so focused on not hurting other people or whatever that you lose sight of. What’s important and what’s not important. And by writing it down, it really does give you a better perspective of thing.

Something else I wanted to

Duff Watkins: [00:36:24] ask you about is why does a truth teller use the pronoun? I more frequently than a liar does. 

The I Word [00:36:34]

James Pennebaker: [00:36:34] Think what I words are I words are they reflect; the person is looking inward. If you are talking about issues that are central to you, you have to use I. And if you are trying to hide yourself, you’re trying to hide the eye.

You will not use I; you are psychologically distancing yourself from what you are talking about. And it’s a really interesting marker. And by the way, we tend to trust other people who use I words more than people who don’t. And I’ve always been fascinated by that. And when we hear most people when they use, I, especially in a self-reflective way, we innately know that we, we don’t know if they’re using, I words of high rates or not.

We can’t tell, but that is a marker. If a person uses, I words, we tend to think of them as being more authentic. And usually they are,

Duff Watkins: [00:37:29] you’ve been teaching at the university of Texas for a long time. Yes, I have. Have you noticed a change in the generation of students over the years? I mean, you hear so much about GenY millennials and gen Z and whatever, whatever, whatever the modern current phrases,

James Pennebaker: [00:37:47] you know, it’s so funny.

I, if you go back to Shakespeare, Everybody complains about the next generation. And I basically see these students as virtually identical to the ones I’ve seen before. You know, they are smart, they’re stupid. They are secure, they’re insecure. They are all over the map, but they are really good. Interesting kids.

I’ve been, I am always impressed and intrigued by them and they’re experimenting and they’re doing stupid things. They always do interesting and stupid things, and they always have, and that’s what being young is. They are different, you know, they’re growing up in a digital age where they are glued to their I-phones.

Frankly like we are. And I think that is changing the nature of communication and relationship. Some COVID has been a jeez if we don’t know what the effects of COVID are going to be on this generation or, or our generation. So, but I come away with a real sense of optimism. I think today’s kids who are in college.

They’re a really interesting hard worker. Good group of kids and, and there there’s a wide mix of them as well, but I’ve always seen that ever since I started teaching in the 1970s.

Duff Watkins: [00:39:03] professor from Yale, say let’s say the very same thing, which caused me to reflect about my undergraduate days. I can’t imagine an undergrad today doing anything goofier than I did back in the back in the seventies.

It just does. What is your next book or your next big project that you’re working on?

James Pennebaker: [00:39:20] on now, I’m working. So many things through my interest in language, I’ve started to get involved in a lot of big data projects, which has been so exciting in the sense of being able to, to look at how, not just individuals, but entire groups of individuals and entire cultures.

Think and change and how they’re influenced by people such as COVID or a war or whatever. So that’s one thing that I’m interested in and become really intrigued with how we communicate with people. If you look at the history of psychology, I’m a social psychologist by training. In theory, my profession should be looking at how people connect with each other.

And the ways that we’ve done it is we’ve given. We have. Talk, and then we haven’t fill out questionnaires and questionnaires are, have been the kind of the main currency of social science. We it’s time for us to move beyond that, that we’re able to analyze stations. And so, for example, this is a zoom call when we’re finished, you’ll be able to download the actual transcript of our interaction.

And I now am able to interact to analyze. And analyze your role in my role and how the two of us are connecting. And what this means is we’re now on this edge of a new world, to be able to start to really understand social dynamics in conversation and interactions. It is such an exciting time. I have no idea what we’re going to find.

My research team has been involved with this in a million different ways. And I’ve worked with people in computer science, trying some new methods. I’m working with a wonderful group of university of Michigan Radha meal, chia. And in her students developing ways of making an expressive writing device, if you like, that will encourage you to write, but the computer will analyze what you’re saying.

As you are saying it, and then ask a question that’s relevant to the, the words that you’re talking about it. So, it’s not so much a therapist as what we’re calling an expressive interviewer using this, to see if we could. It, it can be used in, in education. It could be used in therapy. It could be used in medicine, but you just starting to say what this world of artificial intelligence is capable of.

And it’s we’re moving into a very exciting and sometimes creepy.

Duff Watkins: [00:41:52] often the two come together, unfortunately. Well, let me ask you one final question. Jamie, what have you unlearned lately? And by that, I mean, something you absolutely positively knew to be true Recently, but now it’s not the case at all.

James Pennebaker: [00:42:07] So I’m 71 years old. I mean, good health. But you know, looking at the obituaries every day, I’ve come to unlearn that I’ll live forever.

Now. I always kind of knew. But it’s become quite clear that there is a horizon to this, to, to this life. And part of this unlearning is assessing what exactly do I want to be doing during these last X number of years? And, and it’s a, it’s a, it’s interesting because on one level, I always knew it conceptually, but now I’m at this point in life that it’s no longer conceptual, it’s actually real.

So, I guess that would be the one thing that I’m learning every day and now trying to figure out, well, what’s the best strategy to really optimize this last chapter.

Duff Watkins: [00:43:04] Yes. There is a point and I’m with you there. You realize, Hey, you look at the clock and you realize, Hey, we’re in the fourth quarter.

And the clock is ticking down, and it always ends on triple zeros. And you say, well, how am I going to play out this last quarter? I got to get some points on the board or do I, you know, you start asking yourself on this question as well. That’s a very good question to think about. Is there anything you would like to leave our listeners and viewers?

James Pennebaker: [00:43:29] No. I think the primary issue, at least that my work would suggest is you know, Take care of yourself. And if you find yourself distressed, you know, you might need to go see a therapist. You might see, need to go see a doctor, but one thing you can do before you do that, just sit down and write. And do a little bit of a self-reflection

Duff Watkins: [00:43:50] and we’ll finish on that note.

You’ve been listening to the podcast. 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been Professor Jamie Pennebaker of the university of Texas social psychologists talking about the virtues of expressive writing you’ve been listening to us. And we would like to hear from you, you can contact us.

You can email us at podcast. 10 lessons learned.com that’s podcast@10lessonslearned.com. This episode is produced by Robert Hossary and is sponsored as always by professional development forum. PDF provides webinars, seminars, podcast, parties, anything you want and everything you need. All online it’s professionaldevelopmentforum.org.

And it’s all for free. And remember, you’ve been listening to the podcast that makes the world wiser and lessen by lesson. Thanks for listening. See you next episode.

 This episode is produced by Robert Hossary. Sponsored as always by Professional Development Forum, which office insights, community or discussions, podcasts, parties, anything you want here, but they’re unique and it’s all free online. You can find the www.professionaldevelopmentforum.org you’ve heard from us we’d like to hear from you. Email us it’s podcast@10lessonslearned.com. Remember, this is the podcast the only podcast. That’s makes the world wiser lesson by lesson.

 
James Pennebaker

James Pennebaker – Be Your Own Therapist With WORDS

Professor James Pennebaker tells us how we can use words to better understand ourselves and others. He shares how expressive writing can be a tool to understand trauma. Hosted by Duff Watkins

About James Pennebaker

Professor James Pennebaker is an internationally recognized social psychologist who’s endlessly curious about human nature.

His earlier work found that keeping secrets can make people sick. This work led to his discovery that people could improve their physical and mental health by writing about their deepest secrets, which is now widely known as expressive writing. Most recently, he’s become intrigued by how people reveal themselves in their everyday spoken and written language.

Author of the popular books, Opening Up Writing it down: Expressive Writing: Words that heal; The Secret Life of Pronouns and more. Pennebaker is Regents Centennial Liberal Arts Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers and a consultant to businesses, medical schools, and various federal agencies that address corporate and national security issues. Pennebaker is the author or editor of 10 books and almost 300 scientific articles and he ranks among the most cited researchers in psychology, psychiatry, and the social sciences.

Episode Notes

02:26 Pronouns

07:29 Stealth Words

14:13 Expressive Writing

29:14 Nature of Narratives

35:22 Healthy Secrets

35:34 The I Word

James_Pennebaker-10Lessons50Years

James Pennebaker: [00:00:00] One thing I think we sometimes fail to appreciate is that a traumatic experience touches every part of our lives. Someone close to you suddenly dies or you’re fired from a job or who the hell knows it touches your relationship with others. It affects your financial situation, you’re sleeping, you’re eating habits, what you talk about your daily patterns.

Absolutely. Everything. And if you think a trauma is just getting fired, you’re missing that this is not just a getting fired trauma. This is an everything trauma.

Duff Watkins: [00:00:35] Hello. Welcome to the podcast. 10 lessons took me 50 years to learn, where we talked with sages and gurus leaders and luminaries from all around the world about things, they’ve learned in life that just might help you in yours.

I’m your host Duff Watkins and our guest today is Dr. James Pennebaker professor at the university of Texas. Dr. Pennebaker is one of America’s foremost social psychologist. He’s also one of America’s foremost teachers and he has the awards to prove it. He is author of 12 books and as the recipient of mini grants and many awards.

Welcome James, welcome to the show.

James Pennebaker: [00:01:08] It’s good to be here.

Duff Watkins: [00:01:09] As we were discussing off air, you teach across a lot of areas. Your work covers a lot of disciplines. So, what do you actually teach the university of Texas?

James Pennebaker: [00:01:17] Well, I teach several things. Currently focusing a lot on language and I teach a graduate and undergraduate course on how to analyze language using social media and text analysis programs that are computer-based well, okay.

Duff Watkins: [00:01:32] Next question. When I was doing my research on you, what is natural language? It seems to come up a lot.

James Pennebaker: [00:01:38] by Detrol language. I mean just everyday language. So, what we’re doing now is we are using natural language. I distinguish that, but differently from. Researchers who we’ll have people come into a laboratory and they will say X stirred his coffee with a blank, and then using various methods, looking at how language is used in that highly contrived setting.

So, my approach distinguishes language research from highly controlled kinds of analysis. Mine is just, how do you study the way people talk the way they write, how they way they just naturally think about and use light.

Duff Watkins: [00:02:16] And, and, and the way they really talk. I think my first introduction to your work was your book.

The secret life of pronouns. Pronouns had a secret life! Who knew?

 Pronouns [00:02:26]

 James Pennebaker: [00:02:26] exactly. Yeah. So, my earlier research dealt with how people cope with traumatic experiences. And I had discovered that if I asked people to write about upsetting experiences in their lives, It often had a profound effect on them. And so, we would do these.

have a large group of people that we’d have half of the right about experiences in their lives. And the other half we’d ask them to write about superficial topics. And we had them write maybe three or four times, 15 minutes a day, and then we would get their permission to track their physician visits.

We found that people who wrote about traumatic experiences ended up going to the doctor at about half the rate as people in our control conditions. And I became fascinated by what they were writing about and was it possible to go in and analyze their language, to see why they were, why their health was changing?

And it turns out to be a harder question that I could have ever imagined. And so, I got a clinical psychologist to read the essays and to evaluate them and they couldn’t agree on whatever dimensions, right. Driving this. So, I thought a computer might be helpful. So, I started looking for a computer program that could analyze language.

And this was in the early 1990s. And I couldn’t find one. So, working with one of my graduate students, Martha Francis, we wrote a computer program that would allow us to go in and calculate the percentage of words in any given text that were say, positive emotion, words, or negative emotion words, or.

words that suggested causal thinking or various cognitive dimensions. And that was the beginning of all this. And what we found was that language didn’t work the way that I thought it did. You know, I was expecting to see big differences in that in the way people use words like death or achievement or physical things.

But in fact, it’s not what people. Talk about this that’s important. It’s the way they talk. They talk is revealed through the use of these little, tiny words that we all ignore include nouns and prepositions and articles and conjunctions, and these sorts of little, tiny words that are so forgettable. So that’s what we mean by the secret life of pronouns.

That the way that we use these small words, tell us how we’re thinking. So, if I, for a good example would be if. How it up, let’s say we’ve got a group of a thousand listeners to this program and analyze their emails. Some people would use third person pronouns. He, she, they had very high rates and other people would use those same pronouns at very low rates.

And you’re asking, well, why would anybody ever want to do that? And I’ll tell you the reason is because they, people who use those kinds of pronouns at high rates are really different types of people that people who use them at low rates, because if you’re making references to, He she and they at high rates you think about

and care about other people. And if you don’t use those words at all, you just don’t care about other people as much. And, and so it’s an interesting, almost unobtrusive. Get at a feature personality. How, how much are you oriented to interested in other people,

Duff Watkins: [00:05:39] So we have two things going on there, one, the languages, there is some sort of relationship or interface with one’s health and also the usage of ones.

pronouns. He, she, they indicates, well, really reveals a lot about us and how we see experience other people is that right?

James Pennebaker: [00:05:57] Right. That’s right. And that’s what frankly blew me away. The fact that there was so much information in the way we speak all the time that none of us pay attention to none of us really consciously here.

But it is telling us about people. The one word that we found has the biggest punch in terms of, of a psychological effect is the use of the word I, or first person either. I, me and my, you know, I assumed when I started this, that people who use I a lot were. You know, blowhard, self-important kind of obnoxious, man.

And it turns out that blowhard obnoxious man doesn’t use I words very much. In fact, I words are used more by women and also Pete, anybody who is feeling. Self-reflective or even self-conscious so that whenever we use, I, we are briefly paying attention to ourselves. So, if you’re physically sick, you use, I words more because your attention is being drawn to your body.

If you are depressed, or if you feel self-conscious in a crowd, you use, I words more. But also, if you’re just standing back and trying to understand your emotions and understand who you are, you’ll use, I words more. So, I. Don’t reflect arrogance, they reflect self-reflection. So, it’s a really, a very different way of thinking.

Duff Watkins: [00:07:17] I read your research on that? It surprised me as well, but I was also very relieved to learn that people used the word higher, not the blue hearts than I imagined them to be. Are these the stealth words?

 Stealth Words [00:07:29]

 James Pennebaker: [00:07:29] that you write about? So stealth word, I was just groping for the right way to call these words, but these are words it’s very interesting.

These pronouns, prepositions articles and other similar words are called function words, and they. As opposed to content words and content words are nouns and regular verbs, adjectives, and most adverbs. But these, these function words, they’re not that many in English. There’s only maybe 180 really common one, but they account for, you know, probably 60% of all the words we say we hear and read.

What’s interesting about it is we can’t hear them. So here I’ve been speaking for the last eight minutes or so, and I’m guessing that nobody can really say, have I been using R a and D at high rates or low rates? Well, I don’t know. And I’ve been using them, and I don’t know how many. My pronouns are high or low and humans can’t hear them.

And even if I say, okay, for the next 15 minutes, I want you to figure out how frequently am I using preposition? You can’t do it and you’ll sit there, and you might be able to pay attention from who knows? Maybe a minute or two, and then your brain will just. We’ll just go numb because it’s incredibly taxing and it’s, you can’t do it.

It’s just too complex.

Duff Watkins: [00:08:56] You do is you have this program. I believe it’s called Luke and it stands for, well, you could probably tell me rather than, okay.

James Pennebaker: [00:09:04] I can, I can tell you, please. Don’t look at it up. It’s linguistic inquiry and word count. L I W C.

Duff Watkins: [00:09:12] Pronounced Luke. And what does that do?

James Pennebaker: [00:09:14] Well, it’s just a dumb program.

it just counts words. The smart part of it is we have lists of words that it should be looking for. So, if it’s looking for first person singular pronouns, it has a sub dictionary. That includes words, like words, such as that me, my, myself, mine, and those would all be in this first dealer dictionary.

And then it goes into any given text that we point the program to. And it’ll go through and calculate the percentage of I words that are used as if, relative to all the words in that text. So, in this way, you know, the average person will use between six and 8% of their words will be first person, singular pronouns will be I words.

And in, in more informal writing, it’ll be lower. It’ll be maybe 2% of the words. So, it does vary a lot, depending on the context, depending on the person and so forth.

Duff Watkins: [00:10:11] Well, and you use that and other things to track the speech of public figures, not just track, but I think analyze now, why do you do that?

And what you learned from that?

James Pennebaker: [00:10:22] Well, what’s really lovely about it is first of all, the reason we do so much with politicians is because they have so many words that are publicly available. You know, if I could do this for everybody, I do that. But politicians are a particularly good second. What politicians say, turn out to be really important.

They help shape our lives in terms of policy, in terms of our going to war or our, you know, dealing with it. International health crisis. And by analyzing their language, you get a good sense of who these people are even before they become president.

Duff Watkins: [00:11:07] So, you look at George Bush or Obama or Trump with all these people, you get a sense of who they are by the way that they’re using words, even with all the spin and the manufacturing and the massaging and the staying on point and the discipline and the rehearsal, the personality still leaks out?

James Pennebaker: [00:11:18] It does. And I should say I don’t like to look at speeches very much. I much prefer when they’re being interviewed or in a debate, a press conference, any place where they’re speaking more off the cuff.

But, you know, it turns out that most leaders, their speeches are either written by them or a certainly edited by them. So, you still see, see parts of them through their speech.

Duff Watkins: [00:11:43]. Let’s go to the dark side. Now I’m very interested in this. You, your work wins a lot of grants now, listeners, what that means.

Somebody out there thinks sufficiently highly of James Pennebaker work that they say here, here’s a heap of money to research, whatever you’re doing. Now you get grants from the FBI, the department of defense, national security organizations. What are you doing that interests them?

James Pennebaker: [00:12:08] them? So, I should tell you, I do not have a security clearance means I’m not going in and actually trying to identify.

Terrorists or people that a government likes or doesn’t like in addition. And I should also point out while I have been funded by all of those groups. I’m also funded by the national science foundation, national institutes of health and the John Templeton foundation. What all of these people, all, all of these groups are interested in is what can we learn about people by the way they use words.

This is a really, a really critical question. Think of almost any company, if I am trying to sell soap, if I’m trying to sell that. So, it would be smart for me to be able to have a message that is understandable to people who are, are paying attention. If I am a doctor, and I’m trying to understand you in terms of your health, it might be good for me to understand how you were thinking and ways that I can connect with you better.

In other words, this whole idea of understanding language, underlies everything, business government. Religion. This is, this is central to human communication. So, I think that’s one reason they’re interested in the work I’m doing.

Duff Watkins: [00:13:27] My first contact with you, I think, was with the secret life of pronouns, but, or perhaps before or after that, I came across something known as expressive writing.

In fact, this is the takeaway. This is the punchline that I, that I want all the listeners to take home because this is the most important thing. It’s something that I do regularly. Got my little book right here. I do it daily. I recommend it to people, executives that I work with. And here’s why my background in my previous career, I was a group psychotherapist working in Sydney, psychiatric hospitals, working with some of the sickest of the sick, but through expressive writing, I can be my own therapist.

So, can you tell us a bit more about expressive writing?

 Expressive Writing [00:14:13]

 James Pennebaker: [00:14:13] Went to graduate school. And I’ve always had a pretty broad group of interests among other things. I was quite interested in physical health who gets sick and why. And I was doing this work. I came across a finding that just bugged me, I’d done a survey.

And I asked people prior to the age of 17, did you have a traumatic sexual experience? Yes or no. Now I did this survey. The late 1970s at a time when nobody ever asked a question like that and much to my shock college students, I passed it out to women only. And 15% of them said that they had had a traumatic sexual experience prior to the age of 17.

And those who endorse that item had gone to the student health center at much, much higher rates than people who had not endorsed the item. They had more physical symptoms. They were in much worse hell. And about this time, I worked with an editor at psychology. It was even back then, which was a really big deal.

And they were going to be doing a survey based on my work on symptoms. And they asked that I’d like to add, I said, yeah, let’s put on this traumatic sexual experience question. The questionnaire was filled out by about 24,000 of their readers and both men and women average age was 38 years old. And what was interesting was those who endorsed the items, and they were 22% of women and 11% of males.

About the traumatic sexual experience, they were twice as likely to have been hospitalized for any reason. In the previous year, they’re more likely to have been diagnosed with cancer, high blood pressure. They’re more likely to have had ulcers colds, flus, anything you can imagine. In other words, having to experience was really a health risk.

And what was interesting was almost everybody that I talked to said that they had not spoken to other people about it or. Constantly, we’re trying to keep it secret. And about this time, I did some more surveys and found that people who we asked people about various types of traumas. And what we discover was that sexual traumas were the ones most likely to be kept secret, but any major traumatic experience that people kept secret was associated with higher illness rates.

In the years afterwards, in other words, keeping a big secret is indeed a health risk. And that’s what got me to this next question was what if we brought people to the laboratory and had them write about major upheavals that they hadn’t spoken to other people. So that that really was the birth of this idea of expressive writing.

So, working with a new graduate student at the time Sandy Beall, she and I did a study whereby a flip the coin, people were asked to either write about the most traumatic experience of their lives. Ideally one that they had not talked to other people about, or to write about superficial topics. And they wrote in the laboratory once a day for four consecutive days for 20 minutes or 15 minutes, depending on the study.

Well, we found was that effect that this expressive writing had a profound effect, first of all, their physical health, but also their mental health. And I can’t, it’s hard to convey how powerful that first study was, you know, anytime you have a, you know, you stumble across something that changes your life, you it’s just burned into your mind.

I had in in the months afterward, I would walk around on campus and sometimes a student would come up to me and they say, Dr. Pennebaker, I just wanted to thank you for letting me be in your study. I guarantee you in my career, no one ever had come up to me and months later, say, thanks for allowing me to be in your experience and the way people would talk about it, write about it.

And then just seeing these health changes. Was, it was profound. And then in the years afterwards, that first study was published in 1986. So, this is a long time ago. There have now been thousands of expressive writing studies. It’s a kind of a, almost a standard technique that’s used for people when they’re getting a master’s degree.

Sometimes it’s been used in every conceivable setting. You can imagine, and looking at everything from people coping with major illness to creativity to seeing if it improves whether or not people sleep better, it does. Or if they do better on their SATs or, or stressful exams, it does that is associated with better college and on and on and on.

And what’s interesting is the effects of it. I mean, these are not, I can’t, I’m not a huckster. I’m not going to tell you change. It may change. It may not, but it’s sure cheap and it’s sure easy to do. And across all of these studies, if there is a consistent, modest effect, and my recommendation to people is if you feel that you’re thinking about something too much, you’re worried about it, you’re dreaming about it, and you feel so you can’t talk to other people.

Sit down and just write about it. Just set aside three or four days. No, 10, 15 minutes a day is probably all you need and just promise yourself; you’ll write about it. And in your writing, just explore it. Why do I feel this way? What is it about it, that is bothering me so much? How is this related to other things in my life?

And the only rule I would, I typically tell people is sit down write. And just start writing. If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you’ve already written, but just write the entire and do it again the next day. And after days, if you feel as though this hasn’t done you any good. Can stop writing.

I mean, it’s that easy and if you feel that it has done you some good, great. I recommend writing only four times, but if you want to write more, you can do it. And if you want to write with your right hand or your left hand, I don’t care. Do it any way you want. If you want to type it or write it. I don’t care.

A study showed that they both work. If you want, just write it within your finger in the air. We find that that works as well. In other words, there’s no absolute true way of doing it. The art is turning that emotional experience into words into language. It seems to be a really important feature of this expressive writing.

So that’s kind of a very brief.

Duff Watkins: [00:20:33] overview. Well, and that’s all you need. So just to reiterate, get a journal, get a pin four days in a row. Right. I recommend 20 minutes, but I tell people if that’s too hard, 15 don’t tell me, don’t show me. Don’t tell anybody. Don’t show anybody. You just do it for don’t edit it.

Don’t review it. Don’t we read it. Just write 20 minutes. Keep the pen moving and you get stuck just as you said, rewrite, just, just write anything. Write your name, just keep moving for 20 minutes. I use a timer on my watch, so I have a beginning and an end and will magic occur. Well, What you’re saying is that it has for other people in my experience, what happens is that when you are stuck on something, because you’re processing over and over writing it helps you become unstuck.

And, well, I don’t know what happens in here, but all of a sudden, you just making progress. You feel better as a result. So, it really is.

James Pennebaker: [00:21:29] just that simple. Looser than you are on this. And mine is, has actually been spending, writing as few as two minutes can be beneficial. Or, and, you know, I know for me, I don’t, I don’t write that often.

I write maybe two or three times a year, you know, when something is really bugging me, and I’ll get up. And I, sometimes I, you know, I’ll write for five minutes. Sometimes I’ll write for 20 minutes, but rarely longer than that. And usually. I feel much better. And if it’s in the middle of the night, I go back to sleep almost immediately, but sometimes it doesn’t work, but you know, that’s just life in the fast lane.

Doesn’t work. Maybe it’ll work tomorrow, or maybe I should just go out and exercise even more, faster paced tomorrow instead. So, you have to be your own judge, your own scientists, figure out what works best for you. And I do have one admonition many times. People listen to this, and they all say, oh, well, that sounds like a great idea.

And I can just see in their eyes, they’re also thinking I’m not going to ever do it. And then you ask him, and he’ll say, I don’t want to write for the rest of my life. Well guess what neither do I, my attitude is this is something to go with. Try to fix something it’s there and then just move on. And I think many people are intimidated by the thought of, oh God, I’m going to have to run a journal or a diary the rest of my life.

And I don’t want to do that. No, that’s not what I’m recommending. You’ve got a problem. Now use this to try to fix it and then move on

Duff Watkins: [00:23:05] See that’s why you’re on the show. Jamie, you just say be 18 minutes a day. I was doing 20 minutes. Now I can do two minutes. You see that’s what, but, but actually what I want to tell people is two to 20 minutes, no more than 20, because if you give them a limit, all of a sudden, they want to do 24.

Right. So, it’s well, okay. And it’s been proven, it works with a variety of things. It reminds me of something I read many years ago. Treating military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and they would get them into vividly. We enact or describe to them the therapist, the trauma that they had endured.

And it was very taxing for the veteran, of course, but it worked. And the theory was that I forget the parts of the brain, the cerebellum, basically it processes trauma. Trauma is big, so it processes it by chunks. So, it takes a chunk processes that that’s one day takes another chunk and bit by bit, the overload is dissipated through discipline processing and that’s.

Expressive writing. Remind me of somehow it helps get it out of here and get it.

James Pennebaker: [00:24:11] flowing again. So, I’m always very, if any single study has been done in terms of how this is working in the brain, turns out the brain is so complicated, but in terms of how it’s working, it turns out again, it has to be in the brain.

So., I tend to agree that what a lot of it is, is one thing I think we sometimes fail to appreciate is that a traumatic experience touches every part of our lives. Someone close to you suddenly dies or you’re fired from a job or who the hell knows it touches your relationship with others. It affects your financial situation, your sleeping, you’re eating habits, what you talk about your daily patterns.

Absolutely. Everything. And if you think a trauma is just getting fired, you’re missing that this is not just a getting fired trauma. This is an everything trauma. And so that’s why writing or putting things into words. If nothing else, it begins to organize it and simplify it and how it works. I don’t really know, but we do know that this disability to organize, simplify and, and almost summarize it in some ways.

And we’re doing that with words is a really, really efficient way to do it.

Duff Watkins: [00:25:30] What are we talking about? Writing? What about

James Pennebaker: [00:25:33] speaking? So, you know, it’s interesting the first in fact, when I started this, I, my original idea was, well, we’ll bring people in the laboratory, we’ll have them talk to somebody about this traumatic experience.

But boy, the killer problem there is how does the other person react? Because when I tell you a horrible experience of I, that I’ve endured, that can be really traumatic for you. And then it’s almost as though I’m passing my trauma over to you. In fact, there’s a little bit of evidence to suggest that.

When people have had a horrible experience and they tell their friends, they get better, but their friends get worse. And there’s a, another issue is if I’m talking about it, upsetting experience, the way you react to me will be huge on, on me. So, for example, we know when we were doing the work on sexual traumas, one of the stories that I got over and over again were, would be people who let’s say.

Molested by, you know, a family member, a stepfather who, who knows, and then the mother, or sometimes the father would say, that’s impossible. That didn’t happen. Or you shut your mouth. I didn’t want to hear that again. In other words, here, not only do they have the trauma of the experience, but they had the trauma of the family reaction to it.

So, talking to others, I think actually works really well. If the other person will accept you and not judge, you will love you as much or more as they did before. And sometimes you you’re lucky enough to have a friend or a family member who is like that, or a therapist or somebody, but that’s risk take.

We all, you know, most of us have a sense of how the other person is reacting. All of us have had this experience, right. Something upsetting occurs. It’s hard to tell a friend and you can see on your friend’s face, this look of horror, and you realize, oops, I should not be telling this story. And then you change it, change the, the story some so you can get out of it gracefully.

That’s why I like writing. You don’t have to deal with this major threat of how the other person’s going to react.

Duff Watkins: [00:27:55] Okay. How about speaking aloud to yourself as a simulation of writing? Not speaking to another person, just speaking aloud or talking

James Pennebaker: [00:28:05] to yourself in a mirror? I think that works I don’t know of any control studies on it.

I’ve done some studies where we had people talking to a tape recorder and we found that that was beneficial. And there’s been a couple of other studies looking at that. Of course, people knew that, that the recording would be analyzed, but I do think talking aloud can be quite, can be quite helpful.

And again, all of that is translating the experience into language,

Duff Watkins: [00:28:34] my own personal experiences that sometimes I’d be doing express, right. And you just get tired of writing. So, you just finish it verbally because, and I want to emphasize something you just said, this is not a death sentence, folks. You know, you do it four days max, and then see what happens, you know, and reassess from there.

Well, we’ve been talking about health. This salubrious effects of words. And there seems to be a, there are health benefits. To narrative that is to be creating a story, telling your story, writing your story, talking about the health benefits of narrative, meaning the health benefits of having a story, writing a story.

 Nature Of Narratives [00:29:14]

James Pennebaker: [00:29:14]

We’ve actually been doing a ton of work on the nature of narratives and stories over the last year, or two. And we’re trying to understand what exactly. But what do we even mean by a story? And going back to Aristotle and others, a story generally, something where you’ve got a beginning, middle, and an end.

And one thing that’s nice about a story is that it it’s a way to encapsulate an experience. Typically, if a person’s had a major trauma and you talk to them in the first day, About it, what they say often is jumbled. There’s not a clear beginning, middle and end. They often are, are repeating themselves, rehashing the details of it over and over again.

And I think that’s really normal and probably healthy in the first days afterwards. But the problem is very often, if the person stays in that state, they are telling the same bunch of facts and emotions over and over again. It’s like ruminating is almost the definition of somebody who’s depressed. And one, one thing that when writing’s beneficial is that people are now starting to bring things together and make it a more organized story.

Does have a beginning, some kind of background that sets up the stage. So, you know, if you’re a listener, you know, where it is, what the characters are, what the mindset of the person is, and then this horrible experience. And then that is now set up in a way. That we see the tension of it. And then you see the person now.

The way with some kind of something that they’ve learned from the experience when we’ve done studies, where we say, okay, make this into a story. I think that’s too, that’s too hard to do, but we find the people who do make it into a story, tend to benefit more than those who have trouble doing that.

Duff Watkins: [00:31:05] because they’re.

Reconstructing or recasting their experience in a way that makes sense to them, which is really all that matters.

James Pennebaker: [00:31:13] That’s exactly right. No, it’s been very interesting when I started this, I thought that if people just wrote a really emotional description of an experience that they would benefit, and what we found was very often when a person came in and had this really.

vivid horrible description. And they did it day after day after day. Those people hardly ever showed any improvement. The people who improved their story, their description changed from the first day to the second to the third day of writing. In other words, there was growth. There was movement in the way they were telling the story.

So, if you find yourself writing today and then. Tomorrow the day afterwards. And what you write is pretty much identical from day to day. You’re probably not going to benefit as much as if on the second day, you now rethink what you wrote on the first day. And now try to maybe put things together in a different way, trying to change perspective.

Duff Watkins: [00:32:13] These are like doing different drafts of a story. As they say in Hollywood, nothing is written everything’s rewritten before it gets to the screen.

James Pennebaker: [00:32:23] Yeah, that’s a, that’s a good way of putting it.

Duff Watkins: [00:32:25] What I’m wondering, the trouble that I see with people is the stories they make up. A couple of things come out.

One, they’re almost always the hero and that gets rather tedious. Secondly, it’s always basically an elaborate defense of their behavior or their feelings of justification. And, and I understand that, I have a doctorate in psychotherapy. I understand that stuff. The trouble is, it seems to me, it almost prevents them from learning any damn thing or progressing.

So, I’m, I’m curious to how, how writing that narrative writing that story is actually beneficial for people, because I am convinced that one can be one’s own therapists to express writing, expressive, speaking, all the things and to use your phrase, be your own scientist. I often say to people it’s an adventure, you know, you’re on this path.

Find out what works for you. And actually, I’ll quote Buddha. He said, if you, if you followed him mindlessly, you were a fool. Unless you tested everything, he said to your own experience, to your own satisfaction, to see if it worked for you. And of course, that’s why he’s the Buddha. And we’re not, I guess.

James Pennebaker: [00:33:29]

And, and I, I would agree with that. I, you know, it’s interesting. I don’t see. This a hero phenomenon, much in expressive writing for people who we asked to do this. And you know, I’ve looked at thousands of these essays over the years. Maybe it’s the instructions we give. So, the instructions we give is for the next three days, I want you to write.

Some experience that you find that you’re having trouble with, that you are living with here that is weighing upon you. I want you to really let go and explore your very deepest thoughts and feelings about it. And in your writing, you might tie this to other issues in your life, your relationship with your family, your relationship with others may be your career.

Maybe who you’ve been in the past or who you want to be in the future, who you are now, but whatever you choose? I want you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. This writing is for you and nobody else. I want you to be brutally honest with yourself with those general instructions.

Generally, people are. I mean, you know, I’m trying to put them on that path of analyzing themselves and you can’t analyze yourself and come away with saying, I am so great that that’s the way you’re writing. Don’t waste your time because the reason you’re writing is you’re not so great. None of us are so great.

Duff Watkins: [00:34:58] Yes, it can be well, and I suppose that’s the thing when you’re writing and you’re writing about the things that you are supposed secrets, which you find out is that just because you manifest it on paper or speak it aloud, the world doesn’t stop turning really things don’t change that much, which leads me to ask.

We were talking about secrets earlier, are secrets inherently unhealthy?

 Healthy Secrets [00:35:22]

James Pennebaker: [00:35:22] No, I think secrets are inherently healthy often because when we keep secrets, we’re often keeping them for some pretty good reasons. And some of those reasons might be, if I let this secret out, I’ll lose my job. I’ll lose my spouse.

I’ll lose my respect. You know, we all screw up at some time. Now I should also point out what we have found over and over again is when people are asked to write about these traumatic experiences, they’ve kept secret that afterwards, a high number of people tell me that they ended up going and talking to people about.

And they realized that it wasn’t as dark and horrible secret as they thought it was three or four years ago. So, you know, part of it is when you’ve kept something secret, you’ve been so focused on not hurting other people or whatever that you lose sight of. What’s important and what’s not important. And by writing it down, it really does give you a better perspective of thing.

Something else I wanted to

Duff Watkins: [00:36:24] ask you about is why does a truth teller use the pronoun? I more frequently than a liar does. 

The I Word [00:36:34]

James Pennebaker: [00:36:34] Think what I words are I words are they reflect; the person is looking inward. If you are talking about issues that are central to you, you have to use I. And if you are trying to hide yourself, you’re trying to hide the eye.

You will not use I; you are psychologically distancing yourself from what you are talking about. And it’s a really interesting marker. And by the way, we tend to trust other people who use I words more than people who don’t. And I’ve always been fascinated by that. And when we hear most people when they use, I, especially in a self-reflective way, we innately know that we, we don’t know if they’re using, I words of high rates or not.

We can’t tell, but that is a marker. If a person uses, I words, we tend to think of them as being more authentic. And usually they are,

Duff Watkins: [00:37:29] you’ve been teaching at the university of Texas for a long time. Yes, I have. Have you noticed a change in the generation of students over the years? I mean, you hear so much about GenY millennials and gen Z and whatever, whatever, whatever the modern current phrases,

James Pennebaker: [00:37:47] you know, it’s so funny.

I, if you go back to Shakespeare, Everybody complains about the next generation. And I basically see these students as virtually identical to the ones I’ve seen before. You know, they are smart, they’re stupid. They are secure, they’re insecure. They are all over the map, but they are really good. Interesting kids.

I’ve been, I am always impressed and intrigued by them and they’re experimenting and they’re doing stupid things. They always do interesting and stupid things, and they always have, and that’s what being young is. They are different, you know, they’re growing up in a digital age where they are glued to their I-phones.

Frankly like we are. And I think that is changing the nature of communication and relationship. Some COVID has been a jeez if we don’t know what the effects of COVID are going to be on this generation or, or our generation. So, but I come away with a real sense of optimism. I think today’s kids who are in college.

They’re a really interesting hard worker. Good group of kids and, and there there’s a wide mix of them as well, but I’ve always seen that ever since I started teaching in the 1970s.

Duff Watkins: [00:39:03] professor from Yale, say let’s say the very same thing, which caused me to reflect about my undergraduate days. I can’t imagine an undergrad today doing anything goofier than I did back in the back in the seventies.

It just does. What is your next book or your next big project that you’re working on?

James Pennebaker: [00:39:20] on now, I’m working. So many things through my interest in language, I’ve started to get involved in a lot of big data projects, which has been so exciting in the sense of being able to, to look at how, not just individuals, but entire groups of individuals and entire cultures.

Think and change and how they’re influenced by people such as COVID or a war or whatever. So that’s one thing that I’m interested in and become really intrigued with how we communicate with people. If you look at the history of psychology, I’m a social psychologist by training. In theory, my profession should be looking at how people connect with each other.

And the ways that we’ve done it is we’ve given. We have. Talk, and then we haven’t fill out questionnaires and questionnaires are, have been the kind of the main currency of social science. We it’s time for us to move beyond that, that we’re able to analyze stations. And so, for example, this is a zoom call when we’re finished, you’ll be able to download the actual transcript of our interaction.

And I now am able to interact to analyze. And analyze your role in my role and how the two of us are connecting. And what this means is we’re now on this edge of a new world, to be able to start to really understand social dynamics in conversation and interactions. It is such an exciting time. I have no idea what we’re going to find.

My research team has been involved with this in a million different ways. And I’ve worked with people in computer science, trying some new methods. I’m working with a wonderful group of university of Michigan Radha meal, chia. And in her students developing ways of making an expressive writing device, if you like, that will encourage you to write, but the computer will analyze what you’re saying.

As you are saying it, and then ask a question that’s relevant to the, the words that you’re talking about it. So, it’s not so much a therapist as what we’re calling an expressive interviewer using this, to see if we could. It, it can be used in, in education. It could be used in therapy. It could be used in medicine, but you just starting to say what this world of artificial intelligence is capable of.

And it’s we’re moving into a very exciting and sometimes creepy.

Duff Watkins: [00:41:52] often the two come together, unfortunately. Well, let me ask you one final question. Jamie, what have you unlearned lately? And by that, I mean, something you absolutely positively knew to be true Recently, but now it’s not the case at all.

James Pennebaker: [00:42:07] So I’m 71 years old. I mean, good health. But you know, looking at the obituaries every day, I’ve come to unlearn that I’ll live forever.

Now. I always kind of knew. But it’s become quite clear that there is a horizon to this, to, to this life. And part of this unlearning is assessing what exactly do I want to be doing during these last X number of years? And, and it’s a, it’s a, it’s interesting because on one level, I always knew it conceptually, but now I’m at this point in life that it’s no longer conceptual, it’s actually real.

So, I guess that would be the one thing that I’m learning every day and now trying to figure out, well, what’s the best strategy to really optimize this last chapter.

Duff Watkins: [00:43:04] Yes. There is a point and I’m with you there. You realize, Hey, you look at the clock and you realize, Hey, we’re in the fourth quarter.

And the clock is ticking down, and it always ends on triple zeros. And you say, well, how am I going to play out this last quarter? I got to get some points on the board or do I, you know, you start asking yourself on this question as well. That’s a very good question to think about. Is there anything you would like to leave our listeners and viewers?

James Pennebaker: [00:43:29] No. I think the primary issue, at least that my work would suggest is you know, Take care of yourself. And if you find yourself distressed, you know, you might need to go see a therapist. You might see, need to go see a doctor, but one thing you can do before you do that, just sit down and write. And do a little bit of a self-reflection

Duff Watkins: [00:43:50] and we’ll finish on that note.

You’ve been listening to the podcast. 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been Professor Jamie Pennebaker of the university of Texas social psychologists talking about the virtues of expressive writing you’ve been listening to us. And we would like to hear from you, you can contact us.

You can email us at podcast. 10 lessons learned.com that’s podcast@10lessonslearned.com. This episode is produced by Robert Hossary and is sponsored as always by professional development forum. PDF provides webinars, seminars, podcast, parties, anything you want and everything you need. All online it’s professionaldevelopmentforum.org.

And it’s all for free. And remember, you’ve been listening to the podcast that makes the world wiser and lessen by lesson. Thanks for listening. See you next episode.

 This episode is produced by Robert Hossary. Sponsored as always by Professional Development Forum, which office insights, community or discussions, podcasts, parties, anything you want here, but they’re unique and it’s all free online. You can find the www.professionaldevelopmentforum.org you’ve heard from us we’d like to hear from you. Email us it’s podcast@10lessonslearned.com. Remember, this is the podcast the only podcast. That’s makes the world wiser lesson by lesson.

 

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