Looking through photographs of myself through the years has always been fun. Bad haircuts. Embarrassing outfits. Teenage romances. You know the drill.
But last year, I found looking at those same images difficult. Who was I? Why didn’t I allow myself to unfurl naturally instead of pretending to be someone else to fit it?
Photographs of my married life were particularly triggering, because since coming out as a lesbian in January 2022, the woman who appears in those images isn’t just alien to me, she’s someone I’d come to detest.
Anger plays a role in everyone’s life, but I don’t think it’s uncommon for the majority of that anger to be directed at yourself. We all have regrets, but how do you let them go? How do you acknowledge that you did the best you could at the time, and so your past self-compassion for all that she’s been through?
These are the questions that came to a head last year as I went through the process of editing and rewriting my first book (Work it Out: Finding Connection in the Digital Age without Falling Apart) and although I haven’t fully let the anger towards my younger self go, I’m getting closer to that place. Therapeutic writing (and building a regular writing habit) has helped immensely, and my aim isn’t to shut out the past versions of me but to integrate them into my current self, to let their multitudes exist in my head and come and go as they need to.
What is therapeutic writing?
Different from psychotherapy, this is a form of writing that has therapeutic benefits. In the same way that yoga can relax your mind or painting on a canvas can express difficult emotions, therapeutic writing serves as a way to improve your well-being without (or supplementary to) expert medical support. It is not a substitute for mental health support, and I am by no means a therapist, but I have been writing for well-being for a decade and recently completed a 6-week course on the topic.
Here are a few of the writing techniques that have helped me recently.
1. Stepping stones
In the same way that you use stepping stones to cross a stream, it can be helpful to bullet point moments in your life that have brought you to where you are today. This technique can be used to frame your whole life or a shorter period of time such as a year or a decade.
Decide on the time frame you want to cover and write down 10-12 stepping-stone moments that have played a pivotal role in that period. Don’t allow self-doubt to creep in and don’t write anything more that a few words for each bullet point. The trick here is to write quickly to tap into your subconscious so don’t second guess anything that you’re writing, just get it on the page. It should only take a few minutes.
Now go back to the list and expand on 2-3 of the stepping stones by writing a paragraph about the person you were at that time.
- What struggles were you facing?
- What habits (good or bad) were you practising?
- How did you present yourself to the world?
- What was going on in your work and personal life?
- How was your physical and mental health?
Take a break and come back to what you’ve written. Reflect on whether there is any link between these snapshots if there are any recurring themes, and what you would like to say to that version of you now that they have lived through it. What would you say to that person if they were a close friend? Would you praise them for their resilience? Ask them if they are OK? Show as much compassion as you can at this point, but be honest if there are still feelings of resentment. Releasing all feelings on the page is better than keeping them locked inside.
Over time, feel free to go back to each stepping stone and repeat the exercise. To broaden your scope of what you have lived through and how each version of you has been an essential part of getting you to where you are today.
2. Shift perspectives
Looking back on things you’ve done is all well and good, but we forget that the person we are today has so much more wisdom that the younger versions of ourselves. Think of a version of you that you are struggling to align with. It might be the past self who drank too much and made bad decisions or the past self who spent her money on handbags instead of saving for a house deposit, or anything else that makes you feel sad, angry or regretful. Now set a timer for 10 minutes and write freely about that time in your life, from their perspective at that time.
So for example, I often think about how my teenage self kissed girls and brushed it off as ‘experimenting’ in her head. My journal entry for this exercise starts something like this:
I am 16, it’s 2002 and I don’t know a single lesbian in real life. Lesbian is a slur used to make fun of other people. Yeah, I like kissing girls but I know that having a boyfriend is what I’m supposed to have (that’s what all the love songs and TV shows tell me) so obviously that’s what I want. I feel sad and disconnected from the world and I assume that being open about how I feel about girls would only make that worse. I’d rather have a boyfriend and fit in. I feel unattractive and boys don’t pay me much attention, which makes me feel like an outcast.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get into the mindset of your past self and remember all the environmental, physical and social factors that contributed to the decisions they made at the time. It’s humbling actually, to step into their shoes and remember how hard things have been and how much you’ve experienced.
3. Gratitude list
Gratitude journaling is the perfect way to round off doing one or both of these exercises, especially because they can feel mentally taxing and dredge up some painful topics. Pick a past version of yourself or an experience that you’ve lived through and write at least 10 things that you’re grateful for in relation to them.
For example, my gratitude list for my teenage repressed lesbian self is:
- I’m grateful that you had even just a few positive experiences with women at that age
- I’m grateful you wanted to keep yourself safe and therefore didn’t open up about it.
- I’m grateful you chose to be sociable and fun even when you felt you didn’t fit in.
- I’m grateful you chose to save some friendships instead of making them complicated.
…. and so on.
To finish your journaling session, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Imagine you’re outside under a sky full of stars, sitting around a roaring campfire with a group of women who are all celebrating, laughing and joking together. Some of them are hugging or holding hands. When you look closer, you see that these are all past versions of yourself and they are welcoming you in. Do this visualisation regularly to integrate the past version of yourself with love and peace.